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How do you beat her? For her opponents and their coaches, that is a riddle worthy of the Sphinx. The template for playing Williams is essentially tennis's version of rope-a-dope. That is, let her tee off in the early going, then disrupt her rhythm and induce errors by varying the spin on your ball as well as the destination, depth and even height of your shots. Problem is, like all game plans, it's a lot easier to draw up than to execute. Also, it's a strategy predicated not on beating Serena but on making her lose. As Martina Hingis, who still follows the sport closely in retirement, puts it, " Serena Williams's most dangerous challenger is... Serena Williams."
Indeed, in the face of Williams's supremacy, the rest of the field has beaten a hasty retreat. Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and Mauresmo, all charter members of the so-called Big Babe Brigade, are among the few players able to match Williams shot for shot. But they are a combined 1-11 against her over the past 18 months. Kim Clijsters beat Williams last November but then squandered a 5-1 third-set lead against her at the Australian Open in January, and now she appears completely cowed. Justine Henin-Hardenne, emboldened by her win over Williams in the final of the Family Circle Cup last month, has been talking tough—"I beat Serena, and I think you are going to see some changes," she crowed last week, which did not go over well in the Williams camp—but the diminutive Belgian rarely plays her best on the biggest stages.
Yet no player has been more profoundly affected by Serena's dominance than Venus has. Both sisters say adamantly that their reversal of tennis fortune hasn't affected their exceptional closeness. "It's not that we don't bring up tennis because it might cause tension," says Serena. "We don't mention it because it doesn't cross our minds." Still, when your, younger sister has beaten you in the finals of four straight majors, how can it not exact a price? It's clear that Venus comes to Paris nursing not only a strained abdominal muscle but a wounded spirit as well. Currently ranked No. 3, behind Clijsters, Venus could land in Serena's half of the French Open draw, thus preventing a fifth straight Williams-Williams Grand Slam final. "I won't lie," says Oracene, "I think this hasn't been easy for Venus."
Regardless of whether they've grown apart merely in the rankings or emotionally as well, the sisters are no longer conflated. Once there was Venus and Serena. Now there is Venus. And Serena. Separate women with separate identities. "I think it's been good for both of us," says Serena, "because our personalities are totally different."
To recap: Venus is the one who wears a visor that recalls a Grosse Pointe country club ladies' scramble; Serena is the one with the navel rings who posed for a certain magazine's annual swimsuit issue. Venus is the one who won't use language stronger than "Oh, dear"; Serena is the one who was fined for uttering an "audible obscenity" (hint: It began with the letter f) during a match earlier this year. Venus is the one who opened her own interior design business and is usually home for the evening by eight; Serena is the one who bought a condo in Los Angeles, talks gleefully of having just "scored a movie" and employs an acting coach. "I'm not that outgoing," says Serena, "but compared to Venus I'm way more outgoing."
Perhaps more telling is the fact that when Venus had to go through Serena to win her titles, she was visibly ambivalent. At Wimbledon in 2000 she defeated Serena in an awkward, emotionally freighted semifinal match and then draped an arm around her tearful little sister as they left the court, an enduring image of sibling solicitude. Is Serena ambivalent about her accomplishments, coming as they have at Venus's expense? "I don't think that takes away from it at all," says Williams the Younger. "At the end of the day, I won. At the end of the day, I have the trophies." (And to think that we scoffed when Williams p�re predicted that Serena would ultimately be the better player because she's "meaner.")
When you're 21 years old and you've won every big tournament there is to win, you've held the top ranking for nearly a year and Puma and Nike are vying for the right to pay you millions to wear their shoes, motivation can be hard to come by. Even Serena concedes, "I don't get excited about much. Very rarely, anyway. I guess I have become really jaded, unfortunately."
But the more she talks—about her disdain for losing, her appreciation for the charmed life she leads, her fondness for the perks of the job—the more convinced you are that the Serena Show will play on for a good long while. "What can I say? I like being me," she says between bites of a mozzarella ball. "I'm really at a good place right now. I don't want to give any of this up."
Relinquish her spot in tennis's aerie? That would mean that someone else would get to have all the fun.