The Venus Trap

Venus Williams always wanted the best for her little sister. Now that Serena has become the best women's player in the world, does Venus have the nerve to fight back? By BRUCE SCHOENFELD.

A STADIUM full of fans sat spellbound in the Florida sunshine this March, watching Serena Williams overwhelm Jennifer Capriati in the final of the Nasdaq-100 Open with a furious barrage of winners. But Williams' most ardent fan was conspicuous by her absence. Venus Williams spent the match within easy driving distance of Key Biscayne, about a hundred miles north on I-95-holed up, in all likelihood, behind the porticoed fa�ade of the office centre in Palm Beach County that houses her V Starr Interiors decorating firm.

Venus had no reason to see Serena win another tournament. Over the past 12 months, she'd watched from the other side of the net as her little sister took her place as the best woman player in the world. Venus had lost to Serena in the final of four consecutive majors, as well as the Nasdaq-100 a year ago, so she could envision well enough what this one might look like. It wasn't as if Serena, who hadn't lost a match in the first three months of 2003, needed her moral support.

It hadn't been a good week for Venus in any sense. Upset by No. 22-ranked Meghann Shaughnessy in the quarterfinals in Key Biscayne, where she usually plays well, she knew that her world ranking was set to drop at No. 3, behind Serena and Kim Clijsters. Still, almost everyone believes that Venus, 23, remains the second-best player in the world, with a curious asterisk: She's also the second-best player in the palm Beach Gardens house she shares with Serena, who's 15 months younger.

Seventeen months earlier, Venus had made her debut atop the WTA rankings. She'd already won and then defended the two grandest titles in the Slam, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. She'd signed a reported $40 million multiyear contract with Reebok, the largest endorsement deal in women's sports history. Her face graced billboards and magazine covers. Though she'd been upset in the Roland Garros final by Serena, she was favoured to win a third straight Wimbledon.

If Venus can be said to have a proprietary interest in any tournament, it's Wimbledon. As a child she fantasised about winning it. When she did win, in 2000, it was her first major. The quiet dignity of the event fits her measured personality, just as the frenzied atmosphere of the U.S. Open in New York suits Serena's appetite for attention. The Wimbledon women's champion's plate is even named the Venus Rosewater Dish.

Yet on the Monday after last year's tournament ended, much of that no longer mattered. Serena had swept through the draw and lifted Venus' title in a one-sided final. By holding the Venus Rosewater high over her own head, Serena also had fulfilled her father's prediction that she would be the better player. When that week's WTA rankings were released, Serena held the top spot. She remains there, and has already spent more time at No. 1 than Venus.

Venus won three tour events in the months that followed, yet many feel she hasn't been the same player. Jelena Dokic, after watching Williams lose to Shaughnessy at the Nasdaq-100, said, "I think Venus has gone down. She hasn't won a major title in a year and I think we can see a little bit of a lapse in her game. I don't think she is as solid as she was before."

Even apart from the V Starr Interiors office, with its oil paintings by Russian modernists, Venus surely occupies the strangest place in tennis, caught between affection for her sister and her own ambition. By any measure, she's still a formidable player: As of this spring, she'd played in the finals of eight of the last 11 majors, while finishing each of the past four years no lower than No. 3.

Yet these days, she's easier to spot at the Publix supermarket near her home than on the court. Rarely in tennis history has a standout player seemed so elusive. She skipped Scottsdale, boycotted Indian Wells because of the uproar two years ago after she defaulted to her sister, passed on Amelia Island and Sarasota, and wouldn't think of intruding on Serena's title defence in Charleston. At the same time, her interior decorating business is taking off. Earlier this year, The New York Times Magazine published an article on her decorating ambitions, publicity that would be all but impossible to buy at any price. She's studying for an interior-design degree through Rhodec International, a London-based correspondence school.

When Venus was a child, her parents cautioned her to maintain a balanced life, at one point halting her tennis instruction because she seemed too obsessed with the game. She got the message. This January, while her rivals were playing video games at the Australian Open, she was pushing through a textbook called Economics Explained. It's a wise choice for the budding entrepreneur, but those who have watched her over the last few months can't help but ask questions about her commitment to tennis. As Venus herself writes in the brochure for V Starr Interiors, "In today's world, balance is not easily attained."

Until last year, Venus had always assumed the leadership role among the five Williams sisters, though she's the second youngest, behind Yetunde, 30, Isha, 29 and Lyndrea, 24. Serena in particular was drawn by Venus' gravitational pull. As Serena admitted on Oprah, "There were two Venus Williams in the Williams family."

Those days are long gone. Asserting her independence, Serena recently purchased a $1.4 million two-bedroom condominium of her own in Los Angeles, where she spends time when she isn't on tour or in Florida with Venus. After years of sublimating her personality, Serena has come into her own as the No. 1 player in the world in a way Venus never did.

Serena feels comfortable hopping from a car to sign autographs for a group of squealing preteens, as she did at Key Biscayne earlier this year, or having an impromptu chat about. American and French hostilities over the war in Iraq — complete with French accent. She poses in bright orange pants in Parade, talks up beauty accessories in Vogue, calls the editors of Sports Illustrated to volunteer for the swim-suit issue (they accepted). She's said to be working with an acting coach, but what more could she possibly have to learn?

Like her mother, Oracene Price, Venus is private, bordering on inscrutable, but Serena clearly has inherited father Richard's lust for the limelight. "Serena likes the attention," Venus says. "I didn't like it so much, but she's more of an outgoing person."

Her most dramatic statements of late have been made to Venus on the court. After losing in four of their first five meeting as pros, Serena had won five in a row entering the 2003 clay-court season. Once tentative, she now brings a special savagery to bear in matches with Venus, asserting herself with tomahawked winners and violent serves. The wild shrieks that accompany those shots sound like primal-scream therapy sessions — which, in a sense, they are.

"It's never been easy for me to play Venus," Serena admits. "Beating her was a bit of a mental block for me. To finally win a match against Venus in a big tournament was a pretty big confidence booster. I learned that it's OK to do well against your sister."

Venus hasn't worked through whatever conflicts she feels as neatly — or as profitably — as that. You can see it on the court, hear it in her voice. "I want to win," she says, "but I want her to win also, because ... basically I want the best for her."

The relationship with her sister that Venus is seeking to protect is one of uncanny closeness. "They really do get along, all the time," Isha says. "They live together, they hang out together. Very rarely will one of them do something the other isn't involved in." When they play doubles together, they spend changeovers hiding smiles behind their hands like conspiring schoolgirls. Away from each other, they talk by cellphone throughout the day. It must take an extraordinary act of will for Venus to put distance between her feelings for Serena and the rankings the WTA publishes each week.

"My goal has always been to be No. I in the world," Venus says. "But not to take the No. I ranking from my sister."

Yet if Venus is to get back to the top, that's exactly what she'll have to do. The family dynamics involved could fill an entire session at a psychologists' conference. "Here are these intensely competitive young women, and only one of them can be the best," says family psychologist Peter Goldenthal, Ph.D., the author of Beyond Sibling Rivalry (Owl Books) and a weekend tennis player and fan. "And yet, when Venus was No. I they had an excellent relationship, and now that Serena is No. I they still have an excellent relationship. This is not typical."

Venus insists she remains her sister's protector. "If Serena has a problem, I take care of it," she says. She can't help noticing how much Serena is enjoying her run as No. I, and she might be loath to spoil it. "My interpretation is not that Venus is letting her sister win," Goldenthal says. "Perhaps what she is saying with her actions is that she doesn't want her fierce on-court competitiveness to undermine her close relationship with Serena." As motivational problems go, this one is unique. It's safe to say Martina never anguished over the prospect of beating Chrissie.

On a crisp New York afternoon in September 1999, Serena became the first Williams to win a major title. As Venus watched her sister from the stands, the hood of a sweatshirt pulled tightly around her face as if to conceal her disappointment, she was a portrait of conflicting emotions. "I think Venus really grew up that day," says a family friend. "She realized that she looked bad reacting to Serena winning the way she did, so we haven't seen it since."

By the time Serena won her next major, at Roland Garros in 2002, Venus was ready. At the awards ceremony, she pulled out a camera and started snapping photos, surely a first for a vanquished finalist. But such breeziness doesn't mean she wasn't hurting inside. The conventional wisdom within the Williams family is that among all the sisters, the fiercest competititor is Venus. She isn't so much hard-wired to win as unsettled by losing. "It's a mentality and a way of life with her," Isha says. "She's that way about everything. She's a perfectionist."

Far more than Serena, Venus was stunned by the insinuation that some all-Williams finals might be scripted by Richard. In her mind, Venus would never abdicate her rights as a competitor. "It's insulting," she says.

So it's instructive to remember that Venus may be at her most dangerous after being written off. In March 2000, Richard Williams leaned against a balcony outside the players' lounge at Key Biscayne and suggested that Venus' career was finished. She was injured and distracted, he said, studying for her design degree, moving in so many different directions she barely had time to train.

"I wouldn't be surprised," he said, "if she stopped playing tennis entirely by the summer." Instead, Venus swept through Wimbledon, staked her claim as the best player in the world, and confirmed it at the U.S. Open.

Having lost the No. 1 ranking, Venus insists now that she's working harder than ever at her tennis. She's convinced she can make room in the day for her diverse responsibilities. "I've gotten older, and I have other interests," she says. "I have to play tennis and do other things, too. So I practice in the morning, go to the office in the afternoon."

It seems reasonable that, as Venus asserts, having balls in the air other than the WTA's keeps her from getting bored with tennis. But at some point, the commitment required to excel at everything she does poses a threat to the time and energy she can devote to tennis. As Isha says, "She's only human."

Always the quick study in the family, Venus is also the most easily bored. She's a flitter, in contrast to Serena, who's a tenacious grinder. It's tough to tell if Richard Williams is praising or censuring Venus when he says, "If Venus decides to wake up and play tennis, no one can challenge her."

All the while, Serena keeps getting better. The family tends to dismiss the situation with a collective shrug. Serena's on a terrific run, any Williams will tell you, but Venus could turn the tables and produce a torrid streak of her own.

Most outside observers believe otherwise. "It's pretty clear there are things Venus has to work on to beat her sister," says Patrick McEnroe, tennis commentator and a former player who knows something about the shadow cast by a sibling. "So far, it doesn't seem like she's done any of them."

As pure talents, Serena and Venus are among the best ever. At net, Venus' slight edge is enhanced by her height and long arms. But that advantage is offset by the difference in the sisters' second serves. Serena's ranks as a weapon, while Venus' is an obvious flaw.

"The second serve is the weakest part of Venus' game by far," says Pam Shriver, the Hall-of-Famer who was Venus' WTA mentor from 1997 to 2000. "It's been a glaring issue for some time. What worries me is that she's young enough, and a good enough athlete, to improve it, but I haven't noticed any change in it at all."

Yet Venus' five-week vacation from play after Key Biscayne may actually help her at Wimbledon. She plays better when she plays less. In 2001, she missed virtually half the year before winning majors back-to-back. Even those who rate Serena the greater talent say that if Venus applies herself, she could overcome Serena.

Shriver notes that the outcome in the all-Williams final at the Australian Open hinged on just a handful of points. And if Serena, down 5-1 to Clijsters in their semifinal, hadn't pulled off an improbable comeback, she'd have been watching Venus play for the title. "I think it's very close to turning around," Shriver says, though she admits she's perplexed by Venus' inability to rouse herself to play her best tennis. "I would have thought that, sister or no sister, at some point a fire would be lit."

This leads Shriver to wonder if, after a decade of intense competition and scrutiny, Venus could already be nearing the end of the road. "There's an ebb and flow to how your tennis fits into your life, and how you grow as a person," Shriver says. "Venus has been in the game for the equivalent of an entire era, in tennis terms. It isn't easy to keep your focus for that long."

Indian Wells, where players dine beneath the shadows of rugged peaks rising from the desert, hosts one of tennis' premier events, the Pacific Life Open. But this March, the women's draw played out in a vacuum. Serena and Venus skipped the tournament yet still dominated it. "All my press conferences are about the Williams sisters these days," complained Clijsters, the winner.

And why not? Winning a tournament in which neither Williams sister is playing is a qualified achievement, while defeating both of them at a single event has become the most daunting challenge in tennis. Only a handful of players have completed the double; the last of them, Martina Hingis, who did it at the 2001 Australian Open, was so enervated by the task that she could offer only token opposition to Capriati in the final. "To win a Slam from now on, you're going to have to take out at least one Williams," Lindsay Davenport says, "and probably both of them."

By doing nothing more than playing their best, the Williams sisters run interference for each other, softening up opponents. Perhaps Venus is content to serve as the blocking back while her sister carries the ball. But one can't imagine her in that role for long. One of the least appreciated of Venus' qualities, family members agree, is her talent for sensing what she needs at any moment, then setting out to get it. Richard Williams says, "In that area, I used to be the most mentally strong person in the family. Now, it's Venus."

What happens during the upcoming fortnight may depend less on Serena — who surely will come prepared to defend her title — than on Venus' state of mind. If what she needs now is to reclaim her favourite championship, even Venus' affection for her sister may not be enough to deter her from doing exactly that.

From Tennis Magazine c 2003 By Miller Sports Group LLC. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International