Clash of sibling titans - minus the tennis thunderbolts

It was a stage set for greatness. The United States Open final. Twenty-three thousand fans. Prime time TV coverage. This was meant to be an exclamation mark, the coronation of women's tennis's decades-long struggle from sideshow to main event.

Instead, little more than an hour after it began, Saturday night's match between Venus and Serena Williams proved that the game's most intriguing storyline is, for now, also its Achilles heel: The two best players are sisters.

Tennis, more than any other sport, feasts on its individual rivalries - for only in tennis do the two competitors occupy the same court, alone, while smashing the ball at each other in a battle as instinctual as playground King of the Hill.

Yet, after this fortnight at Flushing Meadows, it is clear that women's tennis's new marquee matchup - Williams vs. Williams - is in danger of being a dud. The sisters simply don't like playing each other.

There are few precedents. Chris Evert's sister played for a while, and the three Maleeva sisters were on the tour for years - as were the Gullikson brothers. But Venus's and Serena's elevated status - and the closeness of their relationship - make their situation unique, showing how difficult it can be to compete when your success means a loved one's failure.

Childhood sibling rivalries aside, brothers and sisters almost universally agree that playing against a family member is one of the most discomforting sensations in sports - particularly in tennis, where the interaction among combatants is so direct.

Tennis legend Evert acknowledged in a TV interview that the worst she ever felt was during a match against her sister. "I just wanted to get off the court," she said.

For one thing, it happens so rarely. For another, it practically never happens when the stakes are high. Saturday's final was the first time two sisters had met in a Grand Slam final since Wimbledon in 1884.

Yet even back then, amid the bustles and long skirts of Victorian lawn tennis, Maud and Lilian Watson established a trend that continues to this day: Big sis almost always wins. Since 1968, in fact, the 10 sister vs. sister matchups in Grand Slam events have all been won by the elder sister.

Venus has played her part, topping Serena three times in Grand Slams, including this Saturday's US Open final. She now holds a 5-to-2 lead over her sister in all events. None of the contests, however, have recalled the legendary duels of Navratilova vs. Evert or Graf vs. Seles.

Indeed, for all their work - from hitting half-dead balls that father Richard Williams bought for 10 cents from country clubs to hours of drills in the south Florida sun - the thing that the Williams sisters have been prepared for least is playing each other.

Through their early teens, Richard kept them off the junior circuit, eliminating any chance for them to meet in competition. Then, when they were professionals, he often entered them in different tournaments so they wouldn't cross paths. But when both started going after major titles, their paths inevitably did cross, and the results were disastrous.

There was Serena's meltdown at Wimbledon last year. Then earlier this year, Venus forfeited a match a few minutes before it was set to begin, citing injury and arousing suspicion. The National Enquirer ran a story alleging that Richard was fixing matches.

That's nothing new. Magdalena Maleeva - one of three sisters all ranked in the top 10 at one point - said people charged her and her sisters with fixing matches. She went 0-for-6 against her older sisters, so she has sympathy for the Williamses.

"It's difficult to imagine a situation when you really want to beat your sister," she told The (Toronto) Globe and Mail. "We did try to win, but it was a tough match."

Clearly, Saturday was a tough match for Venus and Serena. Venus almost apologized for winning, embracing Serena at the net after match point and saying, "I love you."

After all, these two are practice partners, doubles partners, and practically bunkmates. At school, they sit next to each other. When they travel, they often share the same room. When they go home, they live together on a Florida estate they call La Maison des Soeurs (French for "The Sisters' House").

But if the US Open proved one thing with certainty, it's that these two women are the future of the sport, and they will be meeting more frequently. Even in their error-prone final, there were glimpses of what could be - moments when they seemed to forget they were on stadium court in a Grand Slam final, and were just two sisters slugging it out for bragging rights on some backyard court.

So far, the older sister is still ahead.

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