All in the family

Sep 19, 2001 at 12:00 am

About halfway through the second set of the U.S. Open women's tennis final on Sept. 8, the prime-time audience saw Serena Williams run down a ball deep in the corner, turn on it, and rake a crosscourt forehand out of her older sister Venus' reach. It was a beautiful and ruthless thing to witness. Arthur Ashe Stadium rumbled, as much as a tennis stadium can ever be said to rumble.

"The crowd's getting what they're hoping for, a longer match," John McEnroe said, in the CBS broadcast booth.

Then, beside him, Mary Carillo opened her mouth. "But it seems like--doesn't it seem--this is why again, people have been suspicious of the matches between these two. It seems like Venus Williams has really dropped her form in the last couple of games."

As Carillo was speaking, Venus Williams stung a neat passing shot for a winner. Carillo kept pursuing her topic: "Serena's won 10 of the last 13 points, at a time when it seemed that Venus was taking a very straight, straight-sets path to the championship." Venus poked one into the corner, sending Serena scrambling after it; the little sister got her racquet on it for a return, but the big sister smashed it to put the point away.

Most announcers, confronted with a match as big as this one--the high-profile network time slot, the first Grand Slam final between sisters since the 19th century--would have been content to roll with the hype, whatever happened on the court. Carillo seemed caught by some opposite compulsion, bound to question the integrity of the match, whether the action looked fishy or not.

The Williams sisters have been accused before of rigging their matches against each other. A whispering campaign on the women's tour took off this past March, when The National Enquirer ran a piece--quoting a Williams cousin and an ex-girlfriend of their father, Richard--that accused Serena of throwing the Wimbledon semifinal between the sisters in 2000; Venus went on to win the tournament for her first Grand Slam title. The same week the Enquirer story came out, Venus bailed out of a match against Serena in California, claiming a sore knee minutes before they were supposed to start playing. Even Tank McNamara took a dig at the sisters last week, with a plot line wherein both bailed out of the U.S. Open rather than meeting in the final.

There is, if nothing else, a psychological reason for the tennis world's suspicions about the Williamses. They are bound together more tightly in the public mind than, say, John and Patrick McEnroe were. As Spike Lee put it to a New York Times reporter, the sisters have Negritude; the rest of tennis does not. This has made them, inescapably, a sort of a joint entry. If you beat Serena Williams in the quarterfinals and lose to Venus in the semis, you don't get credit for going 1-1 against two of the world's top players. The Williams sisters have beaten you.

But there's a difference between the sisters cooperating symbolically against the world and cooperating for real when they're supposed to be competing. The Enquirer's sources said Richard Williams claimed to have ordered Serena to lose at Wimbledon, to boost her older sister's career. This is not quite the same thing as a confession from one of the sisters. Richard Williams has said a lot of things through the years that have turned out not to be true--right through the U.S. Open final, when he told the press he was fleeing New York so as not to see his daughters facing off, then reportedly hung around the Flushing tennis complex watching the match on television.

The rest of the basis for the Wimbledon story was that Serena, after slaughtering all comers, had played a stinker of a match against her sister. It was too sloppy a performance to be believed. By that reasoning, Pete Sampras must be Lleyton Hewitt's big brother. Sampras, after all, played the best tennis in the Open men's draw, beating Patrick Rafter and Marat Safin and outlasting Andre Agassi in a duel of brutal precision. Then he came out and flailed through the final like he was wearing a bucket over his head.

The Williams sisters, on the other hand, played what looked like a decent tennis match. It wasn't the best match of the tournament, but when is the Super Bowl the best game of the NFL playoffs? Venus was covering the whole court, keeping things under control, forcing her sister to try harder and wider shots. Serena was not converting enough of those shots. It was a nice, normal match; between 2-2 and 3-3 in the second set, when Carillo was busy casting aspersions, the action was rising to thrilling levels.

It took Dick Enberg, waking from one of his on-air naps, to do justice to the match. Giving no sign that he'd even heard Carillo, Enberg simply, blandly noted, as Serena tossed the ball in the air, that the 1999 U.S. Open champion was serving to the 2000 Open champ. It may be that the sisters don't play their best tennis head-to-head; they're so familiar with each other, it's tough to see how they could. But they've played well enough against everyone else. And with five Grand Slam wins between them now, they hardly need to do each other any favors.

Click here to read a review of Venus Envy: A Sensational Season Inside the Women's Tennis Tour.

Tom Scocca writes for City Paper, where the original version of this feature appeared. Send comments to [email protected]