Wednesday, November 26
A curious day for the Williamses

ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- Even as a depleted Venus Williams was gamely attempting her 360-degree victory twirl after defeating Kim Clijsters in Thursday's semifinals, there were growing fears about her abdominal injury. Would it lead to an all-Williams Wimbledon final that was even less compelling than usual -- which is saying something?

Venus Williams said she felt she had to play today.

And then, when Venus walked onto Centre Court Saturday afternoon with a heavily taped left thigh -- for a hip strain -- prospects for an interesting match seemed to evaporate.

Not to worry.

The Williams sisters, as usual, did not disappoint. While the tennis was hardly top-notch, the fifth all-Williams Grand Slam final in 13 months and sixth in the last eight was oddly fascinating -- like a slow-evolving multi-car crash on the highway.

Serena, the defending champion, prevailed in a match that, after the first set, became increasingly inevitable, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.

"I think the way I played today and the way Venus was playing," Serena said, "I think definitely she would have been the Wimbledon champion this year."

Afterward, Venus seemed happier than Serena. She smiled as she snapped pictures of Serena holding the All England Club sterling plate. Considering her injuries, she was happy to have survived the three-set final intact.

If it wasn't the Wimbledon final, Venus said, she might not have played. There was another reason, too. Because of all the speculation and intrigue surrounding the sisters' matches over the years -- were they preordained by father Richard and why did they seem so disjointed? -- Venus said she felt pressure to play.

"Serena and I have taken a lot of slack, so I felt I had to take one for the team," Venus said, perhaps meaning flak. "It hasn't been easy. Serena and I, we've been blamed for a lot of things that never even happened. I felt today I had to play.

"I think everyone's quite familiar with the history. So today was a good effort. I had to at least show up and go out on the court. It's tough enough to go into the Wimbledon final because you know you have to play your best tennis to win. It's a little tougher also, not really sure how much you can do, how far I could go."

Serena, still the No. 1 player in the world, won the sixth Grand Slam of her career and the fifth of the past six contested. Serena has now won 40 of her last 41 Grand Slam matches.

It was the fourth straight Wimbledon title for a Williams; Venus, 23, won in 2000 and 2001 and Serena, only 21, has now won the last two.

Venus, who left the court in the third set for medical treatment, clearly was hampered by her stomach and hip injuries. Perhaps as a result, Serena did not play anywhere near the level of her two previous matches here.

Did Venus' injury contribute to her slow start?

"No," Serena said. "Her groundstrokes were just really kickin'. She was just running me back and forth, hitting winners. I was making a few too many errors. If you were out there, Venus played really well."

The match left the BBC commentators bewildered. John McEnroe used the words inexplicable and crazy. Tracy Austin called it weird. At one point in the quirky first set, John Barrett, the British version of Dick Enberg, said caustically, "curiouser and curiouser." It was an apt reference to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland books.

Indeed, 'twas a strange, strange day passing through the looking glass.

For the first time in 12 matches between them, the winner of the first set did not win the match.

After her victory over Clijsters, Venus didn't sound overwhelmingly confident.

"It doesn't stop me from running," she said. "I can still hit groundstrokes pretty fairly well. This is the Wimbledon final. If I'm lame and injured, that's not (Serena's) problem."

Although she said Thursday she would practice Friday -- and described in detail the precautions she would take -- Venus never made it to the practice court, opting instead for time in the trainer's room.

Venus booked Court 9 three hours before the final, but hit for only 15 minutes. And there was a new development: her upper left thigh was heavily wrapped. According to the trainer's report, Venus was "probable," some 75 percent fit.

It's tough enough playing your sister in the Wimbledon final, but how do you react when she's injured? How do you bear in for that championship kill?

As they waited in the staging area, behind the white windowed doors that lead into Centre Court, you could almost see the tension and anxiety. For several minutes they stood holding their flowers, Venus three feet behind Serena, never talking or even achieving eye contact.

For three games, Serena -- predictably -- played like she was feeling sorry for her older sister Venus, making uncharacteristic errors and aimlessly drifting around Centre Court.

It was Serena who had helped calm Venus down during a rain delay in her semifinal match with Kim Clijsters and told her that, despite an abdominal muscle tear, she was a champion. It was Serena who felt Venus' pain the following day because they are staying with their mother in the same rented home. And it was Serena, it appeared, who was feeling a little guilty at her advantage.

That all changed, suddenly, in the fourth game.

Facing a break point for 0-4, Serena rifled an ace down the middle. After the game's fifth deuce, she dumped a backhand in the net and threw her racket. On the next point, she carved out a drop shot -- the cruelest shot for an opponent whose mobility is limited -- and tracked down Venus' volley for a winner. Serena survived four break points and pulled out her first game.

Did Serena try to exploit her sister's injuries? There was a long pause before she answered.

"I just, when she came to the net, I did try and set up a passing shot," Serena said. "I know a couple of times I hit the lob."

Venus held to take a 5-4 lead and that was when things got funky.

Serena Williams has now won 40 of her last 41 Grand Slam matches.

With Serena serving at love-30, she double-faulted, giving Venus three set points. That was followed by a near-ace and, for the first time in the tournament, a foot fault.

Curious.

Then, with two opportunities to erase a second set point, Serena took her eye off the ball. She seemed to have a medium-depth slam lined up, but -- unable to make up her mind on just how to execute it -- popped back a bunny that Venus retrieved. A few shots later, a flustered Serena tried a drop shot that sailed two feet wide.

Curiouser.

The second set opened with three successive breaks of serve and saw Venus fall behind 1-5 before rallying to make it a more respectable 4-6.

With Venus' service game diminishing as time passed, she was broken in the first game of the third set. She immediately called for trainer Karen Davis, and appeared distraught before leaving the court to have the bandages around her stomach adjusted.

As the third set progressed, that initial break loomed larger and larger. Trailing 2-4, Venus finally cracked. Serena had just collected a second break point with a monstrous forehand winner and Venus hit her first serve into the tape. She paused, wearily, before dumping the second into the net.

And when Venus' halfhearted forehand service return blooped wide, she managed a weak smile as she hugged Serena at net. Serena? Her face was grim.

"I was a little tired," Serena said. "That was the longest match I played this fortnight."

Said Venus: "Once I started not using certain parts of my body, then other parts started to go down. So I started injuring more areas. Basically it was just a domino effect. I couldn't run too fast, I couldn't stretch out too much. I was hitting serves in the net because it's harder to reach up."

And the bottom line is this: Serena Williams is still, far and away, the best tennis player in the world. Afterward, she was asked if she was satisfied after collecting two of the season's first three Slams.

"I should have won the French," she said, smiling but definitely not joking. "I love playing here at Wimbledon. And I love being the champion again. I love walking off the court and seeing my name up there again."

Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.