Venus Williams, 20, was beating up on her little sister, which is what big sisters do. But Venus is, it should be noted, a sweeter big sister than most. As she administered the thrashing in broadly public view at Wimbledon, she was hardly merciless. She sat on her chair during changeovers and worried, "Does Serena have enough sports drink?"
Guess not. Serena, 18, sagged in the second-set tiebreaker and closed with a double fault. Final score: 6-2, 7-6 (3), in a fraught semifinal match marked by mediocre tennis, great theater and almost unbearable intensity. "It's really bitter," said Venus in the aftermath. "But someone had to move on." She did and, in the final, beat another big-hitting Californian, defending champ Lindsay Davenport, 6-3, 7-6 (3). And so now we know. Every important men's golf tournament for a while will be won by a guy named Woods, and every important women's tennis tournament will go to a gal named Williams. "The future is now," former player-turned-pundit Pam Shriver says. "They could be on top for 10 years."
They truly could be, because neither sister is as good as she's going to get. They've been coached by Dad since they could toddle, and their games are the least complete of any top players'. Take Venus. Aside from a few deft drop shots against Davenport, who stood a fortnight behind the baseline, Venus' usual strategy is to hit the thing hard, then harder. She can volley but won't come to net. Her second serve is pudding. She overhits setups and misses too many of them. "They both miss too much," says Martina Navratilova. "If they can just cut down on unforced errors, maybe not go for every shot..."
Navratilova leaves the thought unfinished, for that "if" is a scary prospect. What both sisters possess to a degree unapproachable by their colleagues is immense power and glorious athleticism. Davenport and Mary Pierce hit the ball hard but can't move like the Williamses. Martina Hingis hits the ball well but, despite a better effort in the gym, can't match punch for punch. Only yesterday it looked as if Hingis could be the next Steffi Graf, but she has been knocked out of the past four Grand Slam events by S. Williams, Davenport, Pierce and V. Williams. That averages out to an Amazon of 6 ft., 158 lbs., with the capacity to hit a serve, as Venus did against Serena, of 121 m.p.h. (Pete Sampras' heater goes about 125.) To any little girls inspired to take up the game by Venus' win: forget it. In the new millennium, big girls only need apply.
There's another advantage for the Williamses. Tennis is an individual game, and they come as a team. As Hingis lamented, she often gets softened up by one, finished off by the other. Furthermore, each Williams sister derives an inner strength from being a Williams sister. "Family, religion, education and tennis are the four spokes of this family," says Shriver, who has been Venus' mentor for three years. "Sometimes tennis is fourth on the totem pole, other times tennis moves up--but I think it's in that order."