July 5, 2008

Williams Sisters Deserve to Hold Court Rumours of a Fix Should Not Deflect From Excellence of Talented Siblings

By Stuart Bathgate

IT CAN be stated politely or bluntly, hinted at or blurted out. You can say: "It must be terribly hard for sisters to give their all against each other." You can call it "a family decision" and decline to say what you really mean by that phrase, or you can simply assert what so many people seem to believe, that matches between Venus and Serena Williams are fixed.

Like other allegations of match-rigging, the problem for the sisters is that they can never dispel the suspicion. There is no evidence that they, or their father Richard, their mother Oracene, or indeed anyone else, decides which of the two is to win one of their meetings, but that is not enough for the conspiracy theorists.

No evidence? Some will turn up in a while, they argue.

When a Williams family final is on the tame side, as it was here in 2002, the ranks of the suspicious swell. When it is a full- blooded, no-holds-barred affair, as the 2003 Wimbledon final was, there are those who claim it only looks like real competition, in the manner of choreographed sports such as wrestling.

So, while the Williams family can't lose on court, they can't win off it. Which seems more than a touch unfair.

What we think of them as characters, whether we find them refreshingly different from the rest of the WTA women's tour or irritatingly narcissistic, is irrelevant. No matter how annoying, smug or inane we find Richard Williams, that too is by the way.

They are in this final, as they have been in so many, because they are the best two players on the planet. They and their father, who coached them from infancy, should be congratulated rather than blamed for this.

It's not their fault that they are so talented they can come back from an extended leave spent designing dresses or monstrous handbags or whatever and get straight back to winning ways. It's not their fault if those seeded above them - there were five in this tournament - are so mentally or physically fragile that they are unable to maintain really high form for any length of time.

In fact, we should go further than merely absolving the American sisters of any blame for getting to the final or being better than the rest. We should respect them for keeping up the standards of women's tennis at a time when so many others are letting it down.

The retirement of Justine Henin earlier this year robbed the sport of the one other player who genuinely and consistently strove for excellence. Granted, the efforts of one or two such as Jelena Jankovic have been hamstrung by injury, but there are others who have reached a high ranking without ever coming close to achieving the strength and athleticism needed to challenge Venus and Serena.

Take Elena Dementieva, the woman who made those "family decision" remarks on Thursday after losing to Venus - seven years after using the same phrase to make the same accusation - then claimed under pressure from the WTA that she had been misunderstood because her English wasn't very good. The No 5 seed may be charming and personable and all the rest of it, but her service is so brittle that she cannot hope to defeat either Williams sister provided they are halfway fit.

Maria Sharapova, who in winning the 2004 final against Serena proved she is physically equipped to take on the Americans, lacks the toughness needed to make the most of her talent. She lost this year to a fellow-Russian who was motivated by a dislike of her tuxedo-with-shorts outfit.

No 1 seed Ana Ivanovic, meanwhile, apparently could not cope with the stress of being French Open champion - something which has never appeared to hinder Rafael Nadal here. Ivanovic was immensely fortunate to defeat Nathalie Dechy in the second round then lost to Zheng Jie in the third without ever displaying the all-round skill which has taken her to the top of the rankings.

Aesthetics are subjective, and those many tennis fans who find Dementieva, Sharapova and Ivanovic more attractive than the Williams sisters - physically, in terms of personality or both - are entitled to do so. But we should beware against allowing such preferences to blind ourselves to the superior sporting attributes that the siblings have had since the turn of the century.

They were on the same side of the court yesterday, winning through to the women's doubles final with a victory over Dechy and Casey Dellacqua. That degree of co-operation is another factor which causes suspicion in the minds of some, but Serena summed up the situation well when asked if playing major finals against one another - and this is their first in five years - had become any easier. "I think that the opponent hasn't got any easier, that's for sure," she replied. "So it's going to be a battle again. That's just how it is. We're going in there playing, for me, the best player, and I hope for her the best player. So it's going to be a tough match."

True to his word, Richard Williams flew home to Florida yesterday, knowing that his daughters would again be winner and runner-up, and believing, according to Serena, that there was no practical point in hanging around. "He said his job was done, so I guess he's feeling good. No matter what happens he's for sure going to be a winner."

Venus implied that their father had had a word with both before flying out of London. "He always tries to give us the best of advice, so I'm sure he said something to Serena."

The conspiracy theorists are probably also sure they know what Richard said to each of the sisters, but by this stage of the tournament, and of their careers, there must be little he can usefully say. The two are where he always wanted them to be, and all the envy in the world cannot alter the fact that they are there on merit.

borg predicts classic men's final, pages 4-5

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