Venus vs. Serena Williams

Marc Sagal, Managing Partner of Winning Mind, LLC contributed to this story on the rivalry between the Williams sisters.

Williams vs. Williams, A No-Win Situation?

By Teresa Thompson

Dominating the tour with booming forehands, backhands, and serves, Venus and Serena Williams command respect. “The Williams sisters are tough because they have a powerful game and it’s not very common in women’s tennis,” says Ana Ivanovic, who has faced both. Enthusiasts not only enjoy – but expect – powerful performances from Venus and Serena. Winners and aces are not enough; fans say that they want theatrical grunts, jumps and fist pumps, too. Seldom do the sisters disappoint – except, some say, when they meet as opponents.

The Inevitable Encounter

When they’re healthy, happy and focused, Venus and Serena are hard to beat. So if they enter the same tournament there’s a good chance they’ll compete against each other, as they have 21 times between 1998 and 2009. The sisters have evolved into the tour’s only rivalry – that’s great for women’s tennis and American tennis, but some fans say their show is a disappointment. “They look really uncomfortable. Their energy level seems flat, they aren’t animated, and the crowd is even uncomfort-able with the match,” say Dan and Mary Murray of Millcreek, Washington, who watch all of the major tennis events. “They don’t usually bring their A games. Occasionally, they’re entertaining, but more often their matches are riddled

with errors and conservative play,” says fan Scott Kelley, Midlothian, Virginia.

“When the sisters play each other it’s a weird dynamic. Obviously, it’s tough to have the same competitive attitude against a sister you love and who is a good friend,” says fan Barbara Morris, Phoenix, Arizona. Sports psychology experts recognize that the tennis stars have a unique challenge on their hands.

“Each is talented enough to hold a top spot in the rankings. The ebb and flow of the typical tennis rivalry is complicated by the fact that here, one sister’s success means that something is taken away from the other.  Add to that their frequent collaboration as doubles partners, and it’s easy to imagine that each must struggle with a fractured combination of feelings, wishing for each other’s simultaneous success and failure,” says Marc Sagal, sports psychology consultant and Managing Partner at Winning Mind, LLC .

Julie Emmerman, Psy.D., adds, “The trick to competing against friends and relatives is learning how to compartmentalize and separate your personal feelings from the game, and then sustain that focus throughout. And it’s not as easy as it may sound.”

Sagal’s suggestions? “Ignore what other people want or expect and focus on playing their best tennis.”

The Favored Sister

The top-seeded duo last met in the semifinals of the 2009 Sony Ericsson Open, where Venus lost to Serena in three sets. The win secured Serena’s World No. 1 ranking. According to Billie Jean King, the better of the two won. “Serena is better by a slight margin. Venus needs to keep going to the net more with her long wing span.” From a psychological perspective, Serena is no longer intimidated by her older sister, says Jay Granat, Ph.D. “Serena is healthy now and appears to be mentally and physically stronger than Venus. Serena brings greater vision to the court.” While Serena is currently favored to win, some spectators argue that the sister-match is low-intensity and anti-climactic. “I think subconsciously they often play tight against each other, which is probably normal when playing a sibling and close friend under so much pressure,” says Kelley.

“I like to watch them compete against each other and try to figure out who will let who win. I think they predetermine the winner among the family. It’s always a three set match, it seems. If Serena were to be dethroned from her No. 1 ranking by losing, I think Venus probably would let her win,” says fan Tracy Mangione, Austin, Texas.

Sagal disagrees with Mangione. “As a former professional athlete with a brother who I would occasionally compete against, I can say quite confidently that we would play just as hard or harder against each other. I would be surprised if Venus and Serena allowed their sibling dynamics to negatively impact their effort or competitiveness.”

Playing to Win

Venus says every tournament she enters, she enters to win. Following her Key Biscayne loss, Venus said, “Even though she’s my sister I’m still here to win the matches. I did the best I could today.” Serena said it’s never easy to play her big sister. “I always say she’s the toughest player I think on the tour, besides me,

of course. Venus never gives up. She gets a lot of balls back and has a massive serve.” Venus’ fastest serve for the match was 117 miles per hour. Her world record speed is 130. She squeaked two aces by Serena, but recorded 8 and 11 in the two matches prior. She attributed her shortcomings to Serena’s talent. “It was a well-fought match,” said Venus. “I definitely would have liked to have gotten a few more points off my serve. You know, I think my serve wasn’t going as well as I wanted today. But she (Serena) brought a lot of balls back and played tough.” Granat and Emmerman say the sisters have a great respect for competition and would expect their performances to reflect their best. “Serena and Venus view their rivalry as just another tennis match. They are mature professionals who know how to depersonalize the match and focus on the task at hand,” says Granat. “At the elite level,” says Emmerman, “spectators have every reason to anticipate a hard-fought match where the competitors arrive fully prepared to perform at their best.”

Even fans Dan and Mary Murray say the Williams sisters are under a magnifying glass and in a no-win situation. “Venus and Serena are scrutinized so closely and have to defend themselves against a variety of allegations after every match: Is their father, Richard, controlling them? Are they throwing matches? I think they should categorically ignore the questions,” says Mary.

The Show Will Go On

The same tennis enthusiasts that want more energy and determination from the Williams vs Williams matches also say they wouldn’t miss watching their show: “If they meet in the quarters, semis, finals, or whenever, so be it – may the better Williams win,” says Kelley. A Williams match serves up drama, Granat summarizes. “The public enjoys the Williams’ rivalry because it reminds many people of their own contests with their brothers and sisters – it’s a compelling psychodrama for tennis fans and sports fans alike.”

Sagal believes spectators enjoy watching the Williams more than they may know.  “I think they are incredibly gifted athletes and while there may be those who may not care for them personally, at the end of the day, the desire to see great athletes wins out. I also suspect that the Williams sisters are more popular than they may get credit for,” says Sagal.

As the prevailing faces on the women’s tour, Venus, 29, and Serena, 27, are expected to entertain spectators for several years. And while a sister face-off isn’t ideal for some, fans like Mangione say they’ll get used to it: “There will be more sister and brother acts that follow.”

This article was originally published in the Summer 2009 issue of Tennis View Magazine.

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