Sisters in arms

Venus Williams... arguably the greatest grass-court player after Steffi Graf.-AP

The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, have the skill and self-belief to win on their own terms. They also have the discipline to train hard enough to win when it matters to them, writes Nandita Sridhar.

In an era of convenient stereotyping, a pair of sweating and toiling Williamses are barely saleable images when compared to that of the distracted, ultra gifted athletes who arrive at the nearest Slam unannounced, unprepared and occasionally overweight, yet managing to win it.

Venus and Serena are, in reality, a bit of both images. Events and circumstances throughout their respective careers have conspired towards building the Williams brand. The Williamses have the skill and self-belief to win on their own terms. They also have the discipline to train hard enough to win when it matters to them.

Serena showed a glimpse of the Williams fury in her fourth round Wimbledon match against Daniela Hantuchova. Saved by the rain break after suffering severe calf cramps, Serena faced a harmless Hantuchova drop-shot (Justine Henin or Maria Sharapova would have had her hobbling on one leg), which she claimed inspired her to win the match.

“I was going to die trying. I figured my heart wouldn’t give out, anyway. But I’ve never dealt with such pain, I can’t believe I won. I just kept thinking to myself — one more game, one more game, until finally there were no games left,” said Serena. When motivated enough and charged up, there’s no one quite like the Williams sisters.

Venus and Serena were never meant to toe the line or stick to norms. Richard Williams taught them the game from books and videos.

He refused to push them into junior tournaments after they were 10, fearing premature burnout. He even dropped them off at malls like other ‘normal’ people. Venus and Serena’s parents dreamt outrageous dreams, but kept the balance, unflinchingly believing that their daughters were talented and confident enough to make it.

“Just growing up, though, my parents, they always told us we’d be winning Wimbledon, be No. 1 in the world, that we’d be No. 1 and 2. It was really a positive environment that we grew up in. The way we worked was toward that. In my mind, I was always thinking that. So when it happened, it was like something I had been preparing for. I mean, I think they were genius to put that in our heads,” said Venus.

Their tennis is a skilful channelling of forcefulness, something that’s more subtle than merely bashing the ball. Venus is arguably the greatest grass-court player after Steffi Graf. On the court, she looks impassive, almost detached, but her every shot is a deadly mix of athleticism and accuracy.

Martina Navratilova put it best before the Wimbledon final. “I’m glad I never had to play Venus,” she said. “She’s just too long, too fast. She’s so imposing, you feel like you’ve got no place to go. She makes you feel you need to hit a better shot than you’re really capable of,” she said, describing Venus’ on-court omnipresence.

Serena, prone to facial contortions, and the more skilful and insatiably competitive of the two, had her fairytale moment in Australia this year; and with Venus winning Wimbledon, rumours are rife that fashion designing and interior decoration might take a backseat. But no one would dare hazard a guess on the longevity of their renewed interest in the game, or how much injury-free time they can spend on-court.

Venus’ bothersome wrist has marred her many performances right from 2000, while Serena sat out most of the tournaments after 2004 following a knee surgery. Serena played just four tournaments in 2006, while Venus took part in just six. Both entered 2007 with near-zilch match practice, which ended up scripting their comebacks. Their healthy confidence that sometimes borders on an even healthier arrogance makes every comeback a distinct possibility. It sets them apart from the rest.

What often conveniently goes unsaid and unwritten, thanks to their image trap, is the amount of work that goes into those comebacks. “There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes. I started preparing slowly but surely in January. You start getting back on the court and hitting balls. Finally, I got to play in February. It’s just been a process, a step by step of getting healthier and stronger, just being able to get physically back to where I was, just even my movement, the way I move. In the beginning of the year I wasn’t strong enough to do that yet. I had to build my strength. It was a lot of work. I began to realise like what level I was on. I started to realise how I was playing and like how much energy and strength it takes to even move that way, and how much harder I needed to work to get right back where I was. It was a process,” said Venus.

Converting comebacks into Slam-winning surprises is obviously easier for the Williamses than most others. Their unquestionable talent has bailed them out, as much as it has raised questions on their fidelity towards the sport. Constantly running into each other in Slam finals, having to invoke staged animosity to create competition between them, and finding no one a good enough challenge halted a potentially endless domination.

Possibly, if they’d played alongside a Navratilova, Graf or a Chris Evert, they might have had to test themselves and push themselves more. Theirs could have been a classic rivalry, only, they weren’t rivals.

Serena Williams with the Australian Open trophy.-AP

Barring Henin and occasionally Sharapova, the rest of the crop are under the threat of a fit and motivated Williams attack. Their brand of unadulterated assault takes a near-vehement form against the top-10 players, almost as if excruciatingly painful injuries and lack of match practice aren’t challenges enough. “I think Serena and I, we have a way of shutting the next player out. We get the first shot. We have the say. That’s how we play. As long as we’re fit we just have so much to give on the court,” said Venus.

Will these two Grand Slam wins spur them both towards reviving their dominance? Will their injury prone bodies survive the grind of the Tour? In all likelihood, the duo will continue picking and choosing tournaments they deem worthy enough to win, which means the US Open might be their next chosen stage.

Prior to Wimbledon, when Venus was told that she was placed only sixth in the list of favourites to win the title, she said, “that’s okay, because, if I would have listened to everyone else, then I would have never made it out of Compton, so I’m living in Palm Beach Gardens now — it’s pretty nice.” Part of their charm is their outrageous belief in their chosen path which few choose to take. Fourteen Grand Slams between them, and two in 2007 seal it for the moment.