Nerves and Volleys Serena Williams won another ragged final against sister Venus to defend her Wimbledon title, and Roger Federer bagged his first major with flawless all-court tennis

July 14, 2003
July 14, 2003

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July 14, 2003

Sports Illustrated Bonus Section: Golf Plus

Nerves and Volleys Serena Williams won another ragged final against sister Venus to defend her Wimbledon title, and Roger Federer bagged his first major with flawless all-court tennis

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.

This is an article from the July 14, 2003 issue Original Layout

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

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
Henin-Hardenne 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."

When it was over, Serena celebrated by hanging her head and
pinching her nose with her fingers. At the net Venus met her
conqueror with a hug and a smile. While workers rushed on court
to set up the trophy presentation, Serena left her chair and sat
next to Venus; the two chatted like pals on a park bench. It was
lovely to see and, to anyone who has ever battled a sibling,
instantly understandable.

"It's O.K. with me," Serena says about the unavoidable
awkwardness of beating her sister in front of their parents and
the rest of the world. "This is my life." Some will never accept
such an ambiguous dynamic, but not accepting it is the easy way
out. It's harder, but far better, to embrace the weirdness, to
accept all the questionable strokes as the revitalized heartbeat
of what is both the most boring and the most riveting rivalry in
sports. "There's still a lot of drama to come," Serena said.

The men's draw, of course, has nothing nearly as rich to offer,
but then chaos and masterly play have their appeal, too. Not only
did the ATP kick off the proceedings by threatening boycotts of
the next five Grand Slam events in a demand for more prize money,
but any hope of on-court continuity vanished when defending champ
Lleyton Hewitt lost in the first round and longtime underachiever
Mark Philippoussis dumped world No. 1 Andre Agassi in the fourth
round. Suddenly, with all the players with Grand Slam pedigrees
wiped from the tournament before the quarterfinals, it became
clear that the game had hit a chronological seam, one of those
gaps between eras when everything is up for grabs.

Suddenly, the Nearly Men had a chance. They were led by Tim
Henman, whose annual quest for Britain's first male Wimbledon
crown since 1936 has evolved into an ever more agonizing
progression of English hope, fervor and self-loathing. This year
the British press skipped right to the self-loathing, asking
Henman, 28, about being a "nearly man." Why hadn't he ever won
his home Slam? "The bottom line is," he said a week before losing
to Sebastien Grosjean in a rain-soaked quarterfinal, "I haven't
been good enough."

Neither had Grosjean, Philippoussis or this year's other two
semifinalists, Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, both of whom have
what is considered limitless potential. The fifth-seeded Roddick
wasn't playing mind games when he described the fourth-seeded
Federer as "the best player not to win a Grand Slam"--no one in
his generation has been more tormented by high expectations than
the 21-year-old Swiss. Ever since 2001, when he ended Sampras's
31-match Wimbledon winning streak in the fourth round, the tennis
world has waited for Federer to break through.

Against Roddick in the semis, Federer's time came at last. He
wasn't the favorite: The 20-year-old Roddick, harnessed by new
coach Brad Gilbert, had loped into Friday's match with his serve
and his confidence at a supreme level. He had won the Queens
tune-up, beating Agassi for the first time, and hadn't lost in
more than a month. His backhand had finally become a weapon;
bookies picked him to win it all. The day before the semifinal
McEnroe, Boris Becker, Ilie Nastase and Martina Navratilova
signed an open letter to the president of the International
Tennis Federation bemoaning the death of serve-and-volley tennis,
labeling today's game "unbalanced and one-dimensional" and
calling for reduced racket width. Roddick wasn't mentioned, but
he was Exhibit A.

Federer crushed him. In a perfect rejoinder to the small-racket
crusaders, Federer handled Roddick 7-6, 6-3, 6-3, demonstrating
that even now a player with enough will and genius can bring
elegance and touch to a game that had seemingly lost it forever.
Against Roddick's clanky baseline attack, Federer flowed
effortlessly from defense to offense, absorbing Roddick's massive
serve, punishing him from the backcourt and cruising forward to
conjure up volley after breathtaking volley. By comparison,
Roddick rushing the net resembled a man tumbling down a flight of
stairs. "Maybe I can play like that sometime," Roddick said of
Federer's game.

He had nothing to be ashamed of. Philippoussis's serve is just as
dangerous as Roddick's, but on Sunday, Federer reduced the
Australian to irrelevance as well, stroke by exquisite stroke,
7-6, 6-2, 7-6. Federer had never advanced past the quarterfinals
in a Grand Slam event before, but the man who showed up at Centre
Court on Sunday wasn't the same one who lost in the first round
of Wimbledon a year ago. Last August, Federer's first coach,
Peter Carter, the man who shaped his technique from the age of
eight, died in a car crash in South Africa. His funeral was the
first Federer ever attended. After that, Federer said on Friday,
"I didn't have any fire anymore." He lost in the fourth round of
the Australian Open in January and in the first round at the
French Open in May. When he injured his lower back in last week's
fourth round against Feliciano Lopez, only the combination of
painkillers and a massage kept Federer in the draw.

"I thought I might have to throw in the white towel," he said on
Sunday. "But somehow my back got better, my game got better, and
here I am standing."

After pounding in his final winning serve and falling to his
knees, Federer sat in his chair and wept. "I think of him every
day," he said of Carter. "In these big matches, I thank him also
inside. It gives me strength somehow." And when, answering
questions on court, he tried to thank everyone who had helped
him, Federer's voice spiked and he sobbed again: "It's so great!"

He's right. Wimbledon's gift to the tennis world this year was a
much-needed dose of anticipation. Just a month after the new
generation's best clay-court player, Juan Carlos Ferrero, 23, won
the French Open, its finest talent won the most prestigious title
of all. Ferrero has the major he lacked, Federer has the
breakthrough he lacked, Roddick has the steadiness he lacked. The
22-year-old Hewitt, slipping, has something to prove.

The youngsters have come into focus. Pick your man. It's time to
care again.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY NO DOUBT ABOUT IT Serena's execution in the final was erratic, but her victory was definitive.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: SIMON BRUTY (2) PLAYING IN PAIN Straining for every ball, the injured Venus won the first set of the final but lost the match when Serena regained her focus.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS (LEFT) DANDY ANDY Roddick's baseline bashes turned heads in Week 1 (left), but Federer finally tripped him up.COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY [See caption above]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: SIMON BRUTY (2) LEAD 'EM AND WEEP Serving and volleying impeccably, Federer never trailed in a match--and he broke down only after the final.
It became clear that the men's game had hit a chronological seam,
one of those gaps in eras when EVERYTHING IS UP FOR GRABS.
"I thought I might have to throw in the white towel," Federer
said, "but my back got better, my game got better, and HERE I AM