Seventeen years into their extraordinary parallel careers, the Williams sisters are still treated like exotic creatures that tennis followers don't know how to regard at times. The latest conspiracy theory swirling around them is whether Serena tanked a semifinal match in Dubai to help her sister win the title. It sprang up after they missed a chance to play their first all-sisters final since 2009, and is really just a new voicing of a lame, old suspicion.
A reader named Nick W. of Lexington, Ky., wrote to Jon Wertheim's tennis mailbag at SI.com: "All right, I'll bring it up: Do you think Serena Williams purposely lost that semifinal in Dubai in order to avoid having to play her sister Venus in the final? Not accusing, just asking." And Wertheim wrote back that he'd had at least a half-dozen similar emails.
A story that appeared in the Sydney Morning-Herald allowed that top-ranked Serena "had done enough to have beaten most other opponents" but also noted that she had "a fit of incongruous laughing" after her 6-4, 6-4 loss to then-26th-ranked Alize Cornet, claiming, ''I don't think I have made that many errors in a match in I think at least three years, maybe four years."
Reem Abulleil of Sport360.com, a United Arab Emirates news site, wrote that Serena (who lost only five matches in all of 2013) admitted she was "embarrassed" and tried to explain her "flat performance" with this "bizarre rationale:" "I started out extremely slow. I have been actually looking at a turtle every day. I think it's so cute. Maybe I was too influenced about by it. It's a really cute turtle in the hotel. I need to be able to play better than that if I want to be playing on this tour, on the professional tour. Maybe I can go to amateurs."
No other great tennis champions have had to deal with these dark insinuations when they might play, or actually do meet. And the Williamses are long past the point that they should have to deal with these slurs on their character.
It's also ironic the sniping would be revived now, on the eve of the Indian Wells tournament that they haven't returned to since 2001 because they considered their treatment there racist after Venus pulled out of a semifinal showdown against her sister 10 minutes before the match, blaming tendinitis in her knee.
Fans were livid. And showed it. The sisters have always been frank that they've disliked playing each other, especially then. Writers pointed out Venus was healthy enough to have easily beaten a top-10 player in the Indian Wells quarterfinals, and a doctor who examined her afterward never suspected she'd withdraw from the tournament.
All of it should be deader than dead by now. It started when the National Enquirer -- that esteemed tabloid -- quoted family members who alleged the fix was in when Venus beat Serena in a lackluster Wimbledon semifinal the year before the Indian Wells debacle, earning the chance to avenge her 1999 finals loss to Lindsay Davenport. Which Venus did.
Even by 2002, their father, Richard, was still accused of literally dictating which daughter should win which event. It was as if he were the sport's bogeyman, so omnipotent he could say anything and his daughters would devotedly follow him as if brainwashed.
The buzz that Richard was dictating results even at the Slams became so commonplace, then-New York Times columnist Selena Roberts called Richard back in Florida to comment before his daughters played in the Wimbledon final that year (which Serena won). Roberts asked others for their reaction to the suspicions, too.
"I just absolutely don't believe it," Martina Navratilova told Roberts.
Venus shot back, ''All I can say is, it's not true. And I'm insulted that anyone would make that suggestion.''
Richard quipped, "Maybe I'll have to train two more players to beat them."
At the time, Venus had won five majors. Serena had only one Grand Slam win, at the U.S. Open. Going just by those results, people believed that big sister was the better player -- everyone except Richard. Then 2002 came, and Serena was on her way to winning four majors in a row. The gap between them has widened significantly since.
Serena, true to the prophecy Richard made when she was still a girl, won more than her older sister before Venus revealed in 2011 that she had been diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes fatigue and joint pain. Serena now has 58 career singles titles to Venus' 45. Serena has 17 Slam singles titles, while Venus has been stalled at seven since she won Wimbledon in 2008.
Serena begins this year stalking Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert's mark of 18 career Grand Slam singles titles, and at 32 she has a good shot to pass Steffi Graf's total of 22, the last statistical bridges she needs to cross to defuse any argument that she's the best female player ever.
Venus, now 33, is still battling Sjogren's, but nevertheless shows glimmers of her old brilliance even though she's in the gloaming of her career.
At this stage, Venus seems to be playing more to exhaust her love of the sport even if it means absorbing losses to inferiors whom she used to blast off the court. It's a show of humility that should be understood as proof of just how huge her love of the sport is. Instead, nonsense keeps floating up that her integrity is wanting.
The tanking/fixing charges never totally go away. And it's wrong.
Another reason the conspiracy theories are an insult is that Venus has evolved into the most conscientious stateswoman in her sport. Quite often, she speaks up alone, same as her mentor Billie Jean King. Venus has thrown her significant influence behind issues such as pay equity in tennis, and has spoken out against discrimination on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity.
Serena is the one who has behaved more questionably at times. (Though her worst moment, threatening to cram a ball down the throat of a lineswoman over a foot fault in her 2009 U.S. Open semifinal, wasn't that far in spirit from the profane outbursts John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase or Jimmy Connors had in their time -- and still lucratively dine out on today. Connors would sometimes even mock masturbation with his racket handle.)
But the behavior of McEnroe, Nastase and Connors is still explained away as a sign of how much they cared and were driven to win. Some folks called for Serena to be suspended for months or even banned from a few Slams because ... well, why? Some folks were shocked to see such behavior by someone wearing a skirt?
The truth is, Serena's fire is one of the most riveting things about her.
Even in that Dubai match she supposedly tanked, she saved four match points in the next-to-last game against Cornet to force the 24-year-old Frenchwoman to at least have to serve out the match herself.
Venus did trounce Cornet in the final 6-3, 6-0 for her first singles title in 18 months. But before that, Venus had run former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki off the court, too, in the semis. Wozniacki had given Venus her props, saying, "I didn't really feel like I could go out and play what I wanted to play."
Maybe Serena, had she advanced, would've found herself in the same, uh ... fix.
Everyone should've had the grace to recognize it -- and leave it at that.