The Williams Sisters Not Quite Ready for Prime Time

Serena and Venus Williams met up with each other at yet another slam but this time it wasn’t a US Open final on Saturday night prime time TV, it was a quarterfinal match on a cable channel.

(By the way, hang in there with us. Our write Lexa Lee is holed up in her partially damaged house without power in New Orleans so we’re trying to cover and bring you as much tennis as we can.)

As soon as Serena Williams had beaten her sister Venus to move into the semifinals at the US Open on Wednesday evening, the questions started:

…do you think the two best players on the women’s side were identified in this match tonight?
After working that hard did you feel like your work here at the Open should be done?
Is it a little disappointing to have a match of this caliber not yield a trophy?

Those questions were asked at the post-match media session and no doubt Serena wouldn’t have heard them if this hadn’t been her home court slam, but the inquisitors had short memories. Neither Serena nor Venus has reached a final here since they met each other in the 2002 final which Serena won. And Venus is the seventh seed here while Serena is the fourth seed.

The USA Network broadcast yielded a similar thought:

To the public, this is the championship match.

It depends on which public you mean. If someone in, say, Russia or Serbia watched the match, I seriously doubt they’d agree with that statement. Elena Dementieva beat Serena in Beijing at the Olympics, Dinara Safina beat Serena in Berlin this year, and Jelena Jankovic beat Serena at the Australian open in January. And those three players are still around. We also wouldn’t have heard these comments if Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova were here, I’m just saying that it’s disrespectful to international competitors who are having excellent seasons and a very good tournament.

Having said that, we saw a fantastic match. Serena called it the sisters’ second best match after the 2003 Australian Open final which Serena also won.

Venus broke Serena early in the first set then tried to serve out at 5-4 and that’s when the fun began. Serena knew Venus would be nervous so she got her butt to the net on the very first point and put the ball away. Sometimes it helps to play your sister. You know her game, yes, but you definitely read her emotions much better than any other player on tour.

And Serena’s intensity was just that much greater. She was doing that thing she does: she gets to the ball with plenty of time then completely unloads on it. Serena creeped in and creamed a second serve on break point and now she was even with Venus at 5-5. She just took it to Venus in that game.

In the tiebreaker, Serena put two balls into the net and Venus hit a good running passing shot to go up 5-3. I’m tellin’ ya, Venus was outplaying Serena. Serena faced two set points at 6-4 and this is where she summoned up her bad loser and this is the difference between the sisters. Venus has the better game and if they both played their best level, Venus wins. She has a bigger serve and better footwork. But Serena is meaner. She talked about it after the match:

Venus is a great sport. I think the best sport in all of tennis. I’m probably one of the worst sports, so she always has a great attitude. …like I’m not a good loser. I mean, I like to win and not just in tennis, just in life.

When faced with set points, as Serena said, “at that point you have to focus or you have to go home, so…” So, you find a way to win.

Venus slipped on the first set point – for some reason, if she slipped, I can picture Serena taking a whack at the ball and putting it away even if she had to stand on her head to do it – and Serena hit an ace on the second. One more good point by Serena and an error by Venus at the first set was over.

Venus broke Serena again in the second set and tried to serve it out at 5-3. She was up 40-0 with three set points when the comparison kicked in again. Venus coughed up one of the set points with an error but Serena saved the other two by forcing Venus into errors. Venus added two more errors and she’d given away her set.

Venus got another set point with Serena serving at 5-6 and I cringed at the thought of what could possibly happen this time and there it was again, another Venus error and you could see Serena pumping herself up. I don’t think Serena minds beating her sister anywhere near as much as Venus does and you could see it in her play. A few points later Venus smacked a ball to the corner then followed it to the net and smacked it to the other corner. Serena hit the second ball at Venus’ belly button and into the net the ball went.

After five deuces, Serena finally sent the match into a second set tiebreaker but it wasn’t over yet. They were both just hammering the ball and, again, Venus was doing most of the hammering. Serena was down 2-4 in tiebreaker when Venus ran her wide and got to the net. It took Venus an overhead and three volleys – all to opposite corners – to put Serena away and it deservedly ended with a standing ovation from the adoring crowd and by now, that included me.

One point later, Venus had three more set points. She hit two backhands late – and I couldn’t believe it –she missed an overhead. By this time we were all feeling for Venus. She got her eighth break point on a challenge then Serena made like John McEnroe with a volley and now I had to agree with everyone – this was the match of the tournament for the women’s side.

One more Venus error and Serena had match point and I was pretty sure she wasn’t going to waste it and she didn’t. Venus hit the ball long and the two sisters met at the net. With a match that was this hard, there was no hug at the net, just a lot of heartbreak on one side of the net and exhausted relief mixed in with some sympathy on the other.

Even though I’m part of the adoring crowd, I’ve watched many a magnificent quarterfinal match and never once thought it should have been the final. I just appreciate the match. And that includes this one.