Rivalry easier on Williams sisters than family, fans

NEW YORK -- Oracene Price shaded herself under a tree in the players garden of the National Tennis Center and ticked off all the things she might do Tuesday night.

"Probably stick around the house ... go shopping or whatever," she said to a group of three reporters.

She won't be taking in a play. "Nah, Broadway's not good anymore," she said with a laugh.

And she won't be doing one other thing. "I won't be watching the match," she said with a raised eyebrow, "if that's what you're asking."

Her daughters Venus and Serena are actually beyond the awkwardness. The general discomfort. The dread.

That's reserved for the Williams sisters' family. Most, if not all, join their mother in staying away from the US Open quarterfinal. It is also for those of us who can imagine how difficult it would be to compete against a sibling on a professional level before thousands of people.

And for the rest of us who can't imagine it at all.

"I hope I don't have to call the match," groaned ESPN analyst Chris Evert, only half-kidding after Serena secured the sisters' 27th meeting with her fourth-round victory over Madison Keys and drew to within three wins from completing the first calendar-year Grand Slam in 27 years and only the fourth in the Open era.

"Under these conditions," said Evert, "it's tough for anyone to commentate or to watch."

Anyone, perhaps, but Serena and Venus, the most famous sibling duo in sports, still duking it out at 33 and 35 at a level and with a mindset that could produce one of their best contests in the 17-year pro rivalry.

"I think it's more fun than it used to be," Serena said Sunday. "We really relish the opportunity. We're both happy to still be involved in getting so far. And it's still super intense. She's doing well and she wants to win this. So do I. ..."

They're in a great place. Serena, obviously, having won the past four Grand Slam singles titles, 32 matches straight on four distinctly different surfaces and conditions. But also because she's rounding into finals form over her last two matches after briefly losing rhythm with one of the best serves in all of tennis.

And Venus, active on court and loose in news conferences this past week, is playing her best tennis of the tournament over her last two victories, and some of her best tennis in years with a serve and groundstrokes as dangerous as anyone's in the game.

"She's fast; I'm fast. She hits hard; I hit hard. She serves big; I serve big," Serena said. "We have a very similar game. We had the same coach for a long time. It's like playing a mirror. I have to be really ready."

Their rivalry has been filled with as much fabulous tennis as uptight tennis, with glorious Serena wins (seven in Grand Slam finals), Venus highlights (the 2001 US Open final, the 2008 Wimbledon final and last year's three-set semifinal victory in in Montreal) and 10 three-setters in all, as well as some duds.

But it was the match in Canada last year, interestingly enough, that Serena's coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, called his "one mistake."

"I did the talk before the match, but I didn't really want to go into it because they were playing each other, and [then Serena] lost that match," he said.

"First of all, nobody knows Venus more than Serena. And second, I didn't want to be too pushy because she's playing her sister. And after the match, I said to myself, 'That's the last time I do that, because she lost.' I was too soft compared to what I should have said."

It always comes back to that. How emotionally equipped are they to play each another? How hard is it for both to play their best tennis? And how hard is it for those around them?

Their sister Isha Price, who said Sunday she was undecided on whether she would attend her sisters' quarterfinal, is still amazed at the thought of her sisters' four Grand Slam finals meetings in a row in 2002 and '03, a streak that ended with the '03 French, then picked up again with the '03 Wimbledon final -- all Serena victories.

"Four times in a row, and to think it could happen again potentially if the draw were the right way," she said. "This meeting could potentially be a final again. But [it's just] the fact that they're both still here ..."

The longevity, she said, has taken them through life experiences that have altered their perception toward the game and toward their rivalry.

"People talk about their age and all this other stuff, but they're happy," Isha said. "They have a joy on the court. Obviously, I think it's born from the situations they've been through -- Venus and her Sjogren's [the autoimmune disorder with which she was diagnosed in 2011] and Serena and her near-death experience [due to a pulmonary embolism the same year]. It puts things in perspective.

"They've had a rare opportunity to look through the lens a different way, and it obviously made a difference, but it's also helping to know what's most important. And so the joy they have in playing is amazing. And it makes them more relaxed and it makes them better competitors."

What has never changed is the bond they have always shared, a relationship their family says has never been affected by their rivalry.

"They were taught early, and they know what love is, really know what love is ... And you don't let something like this get in the way," their mother said. "This stuff is here today and gone tomorrow."

It is what Serena alludes to after each match when she answers each question about the Grand Slam by saying that completing the "Serena Slam," [when she won Wimbledon, the fourth Slam title in a row] was the big thing for her and that this [is] just a bonus."

But beyond that, it is what all who have observed the Williams' sisters since they were little girls can plainly see.

"I feel like Venus and I have definitely proved that you can be enemies on the court, and you can be friends and sisters off the court," Serena said.

It may have taken a while, but they seem to have a firm handle on it now, something Mouratoglou is counting on to allow Serena to play her best.

Little sister has won seven of their last 10 matches, the last Venus win before Canada, a 6-1, 2-6, 7-6(3) victory in Dubai in 2009 that some point to as a highlight in the series along with the US Open quarters later that year that Serena won 7-6 (6), 7-6 (7).

The few lucky enough to witness it call the 2008 semifinals of a minor WTA event in Bangalore, India, their highest-quality match, with Venus breaking Serena at 5-4 in the third and Serena fighting off match points in the tiebreak.

Before the fourth-round match at Wimbledon that Serena won 6-4, 6-4 in July, the two had not met in a Grand Slam since the 2009 Wimbledon final, which Serena won, 7-6(3), 6-2.

In their early years, their father, Richard, would become incensed when the two were placed in the same half of the draw, thus ruling out a potential all-Williams final. Now, the two do not even try to pretend they don't peek ahead, and with Venus' ranking slipping (now 23rd), they never complain about how the draw shakes out.

"We're both prepared to play each other in case we both play well," Venus said after her fourth-round victory and before Serena secured her place in the quarters. "It doesn't always happen, but sometimes it does. Then we go. We go."

Mouratoglou said the sisters spent the evening together before their match at Wimbledon two months ago and that he would not even consider disrupting their routine should they do the same Monday night.

He wants Serena "comfortable" on the court for what is anticipated to be a close match. Mouratoglou said it will be interesting to see which Venus shows up.

It was "Good Venus" who began the year with a title in Auckland and quarterfinal finishes or better in four of her first five tournaments. But not-so-good Venus lost in the first round at the French Open to Sloane Stephens, and after getting to the Round of 16 at Wimbledon, won just one match in the next three tournaments before the US Open.

Last week, she lost second-set tiebreakers in consecutive matches and struggled with unforced errors. But against Belinda Bencic and qualifier Anett Kontaveit, Good Venus was back with crisp, aggressive groundstrokes, solid court movement and her vaunted serve, which reached speeds of 124 mph with a tournament-leading 33 aces.

"The good Venus is a top player," Mouratoglou said. "The thing is, we don't always see the good Venus. And actually this last year, I think she's more consistent, but still not as much as in the past.

"In the big matches, I have no doubt she will bring her best game. She's a champion. Like [Victoria] Azarenka, [when] she plays Serena, she brings her best game. But it's about Serena. She has to find a way to be above the best game of Venus."

And this time, he will give the pregame talk to coax it out of her.

"They both want to win," Mouratoglou said. "You can love the person who's on the other side of the court if you're a real competitor, and both are. But once you're on the tennis court, you forget and you play. They did well, there have been many good matches between them and they're used to it ... so I'm not worried about that at all.

"I think [Serena] would rather lose to Venus than anyone else. But she doesn't want to lose."

The two may look up to a near-empty player's box Tuesday night, but their family says they will understand. They know how tough it is for everyone else just as it becomes easier for them.

And afterward, no one should be surprised if the loser is happier than the winner.

"At the end of the day, this is all we know," Isha said. "It's sad that it's the anomaly in our society. For us, we grew up extremely close, we didn't have a lot of friends outside. There are five girls and two parents. That's a lot of people in the house. Two bedrooms. It was like, 'Get your life together.' There wasn't anything else. We were all that we had. ...

"And it wasn't until you grow up and get older that you see the world's not like that. That's sad for us. I think people find it hard to believe, but no matter what happens, it's going to be OK, you know? It's going to be OK."