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Monday, March 26, 2007
Williams sisters rivalry fading

It seems like just yesterday that potential match-ups between Venus and Serena Williams were the ultimate nightmare scenario for just about all involved: The sisters had to be dragged on court like stubborn mules to play each other, and the fans didn't get a great deal either. Their matches against each other were curiously muted affairs, devoid of drama and competitive abandon. The only balm was that we spectators and pundits got to watch two stars of iconic status, writing another chapter (no good story is all sweetness and glory) in what probably is the most improbable and remarkable athletic story of the era.

Well, it looks like that particular problem has been solved. It appears the spectre of the girls meeting in semifinal or final after final has been vaporized for good. A lot of this has to do with the degree to which Venus's game has slipped; while both women have suffered injuries and lapses in motivation, only Serena has been able to keep her game from rusting out. In fact, the way each of the sisters has reacted to the challenge of playing in fits and starts has been telling.

At the Australian Open, Serena played Marie Antoinette and slipped the guillotine each time. The last woman she took out, in the title match, was Maria Sharapova -- the top seed and World No. 1-- and Serena, to use her own analogy, "beat her like she stole something."

Sharapova exacted as much revenge as she could realistically expect by taking the whipping out on Venus the other day at the Sony Ericsson Open, winning a downright ugly battle 2-6, 6-2, 7-5. It was a hair-pulling, eye-gouging affair that left skin under both players' nails as they littered the court with 91 unforced errors (including 25 double faults). That is, unlike Serena in Melbourne, Venus demonstrated the damage a series of layoffs can do to a player's game and confidence. Note that the serve, over which a player has complete control, is the stroking lexicon's version of a litmus test.

Serena floated the idea the other day that she might appoint Venus her on-court coach for the match with Sharapova. This would be a tantalizing ploy on a number of levels, including a symbolic one. As Venus said last week of Serena's performance Down Under: "It was so exciting … I lived and died with every match, every point, and set my alarm clock so I could get up at 3:00 to see the match and record it for her and all those kind of things. I'm definitely her biggest fan. I'm her stalker fan."

Back when the sisters could be characterized as rivals for the biggest prizes, Venus took Serena's dazzling trajectory in stride, repeatedly implying or saying that Serena, the kid sister, had a deeper need for success. I don't know if she's a good coach, but she's a heckuva sports psychologist.