Serena and Venus Williams, Wimbledon 2000

Extract from Tennis’s strangest matches by Peter Seddon:

Despite overcast skies on most days, Wimbledon’s Millenium Championships proved the brightest for some time as story after story made the headlines.
None was more hype than the semifinal between sisters Venus and Serena Williams, the first ever occasion on which sisters had met for a place in the Wimbledon final.

But unusual as the statistic is, it isn’t that which qualifies the match for ‘strange’ status. Nor is it the girls’ unusual route to stardom. Growing up far from privilege in the Compton ghetto district of south central Los Angeles, they were taught the game by their father Richard, who schooled himself in the rudiments by buying a ‘how to do it’ book and video when he decided that tennis was the route to riches for his girls. Way before they reached their teens he was declaring both would be champions. Richard Williams was a man with a mission.

Younger sister Serena won the US Open in 1999. As their semifinal showdown loomed, 20-year-old Venus had yet to land a Grand Slam title.
Most experts tipped Serena to win on form alone but even before the match some respected observers in the know, including players, were already imbuing the contest with its status as an oddity in tennis history.
The result, they said, would be contrived. Dad would give Serena ‘orders’ to lose. It was, quite simply, Venus‘s turn.
Even though Serena had been hitting even hotter than Venus in the run-up, veiled predictions were rife. Reigning champion Lindsay Davenport felt Venus would win ‘for outside reasons’. The 1961 runner-up Christine Janes, British to the core and naturally opposed to skulduggery of any kind, puzzled her fellow Radio 5 Live commentators with the mysterious assertion that the match, which promised to be an all-time classic, would be ‘flat’.
She was spot on. On Thursday 6 July Venus duly romped to victory 6-2 7-6.

Some of the papers were quick to say Serena ‘lost’ it. The Daily Mail pulled few punches: ‘The Williams sisters upset the formbook and sparked a conspiracy theory to rival the assassination of JFK yesterday as hot favorite Serena blundered her way to semifinal defeat,’ it said.

That sort of talk sparked much debate. Camps became split. The match was dissected.
Eighteen-year-old Serena had bludgeoned her way to the semis by dropping only 13 games in five matches en route. Against big sister the unforced errors came thick and fast as she lost another 13 games in this one match. The first set sailed by but, when Venus served two double faults in the first game of the second, a real contest looked on.
Both sisters hit flat out as Serena eased ahead 4-2 and the expectant crowd anticipated a deciding set. Was that the point at which ‘Dad’s orders’ kicked in? Serena promptly lost 11 points in a row, including 5 unforced errors. She trailed 5-4.
Games went to 6-all and a tie-break. Serena led 3-2 before losing the final five points and finishing on a limp double fault.
It was all over. Venus walked sadly to the net, looking rather bemused and concerned and without a flicker of her famous winning smile. Serena fought back tears.

Naturally enough the media asked all the right questions: ‘Was it a family carve up? Had Father issued orders?’ it probed. ‘Not as far as I’m aware,’ replied Venus, with what seemed like a genuine response. Serena somewhat guiltily cast down her eyes and simply said, ‘I can’t answer that question for my family.’

The tennis psychologists drew their own conclusions. Little sister had gone the way of younger siblings the world over, reluctantly accepting to the point of tears that ‘father knows best’.
The headline writers punned themselves silly: ‘THE SISTERS PLAY UGLY AND SAD SERENA MISSES THE BALL,’ barked the Daily Mail.

Only Serena will ever know whether the unforced errors were genuine. What does remain certain is that two days later, Venus beat Lindsay Davenport and lifted her first Grand Slam trophy with such an unbridled display of spontaneous joy that the tennis world was uplifted.
Two days later again the sister act once more hit Centre Court and Serena was back to form as the Williams pairing bounded unfettered to the ladies’ doubles title.
Richard Williams was already on his way home. Both his girls were champions. Mission accomplished.