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In every match between Venus and Serena Williams, there is a grassy-knoll moment when the conspiracy seems shockingly clear. Before that, every errant shot, every hesitation, every facial expression from the tennis world's dominant sisters is grist for speculation. Is Serena trying to win, to lose, to carry her sister to the finish? Is Venus? Why the smile, the grunt, the grimace? What did that forehand mean, anyway? Then comes the moment that seems to confirm all suspicions, like the one that occurred last Saturday in the women's final of the 2003 Wimbledon championships.
With defending champion Serena down 4-5, double break point in the opening set, the sisters engaged in a 17-stroke rally devoid of intensity and marked by a bizarre patty-cake overhead by Serena and, finally, Serena's wounded-duck drop shot from the baseline, which flew three feet wide. A gasp ran through the crowd packed around Centre Court, and TV commentators John McEnroe ("I don't get that") and Tracy Austin ("a shocking point") were left sputtering. The BBC highlights host later prodded anyone he could ask about a supposed family "arrangement."
So the fix was in again, some wanted to believe, except that in the end, Serena won her second Grand Slam final this year over her sister and her fifth in two years. Their wrenching three-set showdown in London lacked everything a great match requires—except conclusiveness. If anything, Serena's dominance should forever put to rest any notion that the Williams family is cooking the results like so many English breakfasts.
Instead, what's playing out before a bewildered tennis public is a sibling drama so psychologically complex that it would take Tolstoy to sort it out. "It's not easy to play someone I care so much about," Serena said the day before the final, but no one paid much attention. Place every puffball and double fault into that context, however—and add a serious injury to Venus—and they make perfect sense. Blame family-induced nerves for Serena's terrible footwork on that clumsy overhead and for her foolhardy choice of a drop shot (the worst shot in her arsenal) with the first set on the line. Ultimately those mistakes didn't matter. Serena's victory reduced any speculation about match-fixing to cynicism run amok.
Venus has lost the last six finals she has played against her housemate, practice partner and best friend, and she hasn't won a major title in nearly two years. She needed this one far more than Serena did, and she showed that need like never before. Her sudden snap to form dominated the fortnight. She cut down rivals old and new. Head high, clad in a ballet-style one-piece dress, Venus cruised into her semifinal match against Kim Clijsters looking as if she'd stepped out of a Degas painting. But then, serving in the third game, Venus aggravated a pulled abdominal muscle she'd suffered in early May, and everything went Picasso. Her eyes bulged. Her arms and legs contorted at weird angles. Sweat poured down her face. She lost the first set—and was saved only when play was stopped because of rain.
Normally cool, Venus went into the locker room overcome by panic. "I couldn't calm myself down," she said later. "I didn't want to accept that I was going to have to play with pain."
Serena rushed in from the players' box, tried to calm Venus and reminded her that she was a champion. Then the two went outside and spoke with their mom, Oracene Price, and sisters, Isha, Yetunde and Lyndrea. They all told Venus that she had nothing to prove. Oracene said no win was worth Venus's health. She also told her daughter that if she was going to play, she should play all out. Venus listened to all of it and said, "I'm going to fight. I think I can win this."
Then she revealed a steel that no one—not even Serena—knew existed. "She's tougher than I ever thought she was," Serena said before the final. "She's on a different level." Doubled over in pain time and again, wincing on each serve, Venus came from behind in a performance that was as close to heroic as tennis gets. She finished off a cowed Clijsters 4-6, 6-3, 6-1, and then, as Centre Court rattled with applause and cheering, she bent over her racket bag for 10 seconds, too exhausted to straighten up. Finally she tried hoisting the bag to her shoulder, buckled once, steadied herself and walked slowly off the grass.
Two days later, torn between her mother's and older sisters' urgings to withdraw and the knowledge that this would only spark more suspicion, Venus took the court for the final. Her abdomen and upper left thigh were wrapped tightly. Her face was lined from fatigue. If ever there were a time for Serena to give one away, this was it. "They both had it pretty damn bad, but it might have been rougher on Serena," Isha said later. "Playing someone you love who is in pain and still having to play your hardest because you want the W is a very, very difficult thing."
After three straight service breaks to start the second set, Serena ignored Venus's discomfort and came up with an astonishing forehand crosscourt winner, snapped at the chair umpire about a missed line call, and finally took control of the match, 3-1, with an overhead smash. In her semifinal match two days earlier, Serena had avenged her controversial loss to Justine HeninHardenne in the French Open final—another match in which she botched ill-timed drop shots—by skunking the Belgian in straight sets. Now Serena wanted the W. Venus was pitiable, but Venus was in her way. "I was telling myself, This is Wimbledon," Serena said later. "God knows if I would get this opportunity again. If anything, I fought harder."