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Why the Venus-Serena sibling rivalry is different now

NEW YORK -- Those of us fortunate enough to have been covering tennis when Venus and Serena Williams first joined the tour knew immediately that theirs would be a rich, complex story. When a story promised to be a long one with many dimensions, we said it had "legs."

However, none of us back then saw far enough ahead to understand that perhaps the most complex and dynamic of all those themes would be sibling rivalry. Or, if we thought that, we tended to frame it in the inviting terms that had been laid out by the sisters' father, Richard Williams -- it was Venus and Serena against the world.

Well, the master plan backfired. It backfired on all of us, Richard, Venus and Serena included.

As thrilling as it was to think that this pair of sibling savants could dominate the game, the reality is, they could not really dominate it together. In every big singles match, in every big tournament, there is one winner and one loser. There's a terrible finality to losing. There's no escaping it.

And a loser who was beaten by her sister in a Grand Slam final? We had gone there just twice before in tennis history, and never in the professional era.

It should come as no surprise that the sisters wasted no time getting there. Fittingly, their first WTA clash was at a Grand Slam, the 1998 Australian Open (Serena was just 16; Venus, a year older, won the fourth-round match, 7-6 [4], 6-1). They quickly took it to the next level in the 2000 Wimbledon semifinals, also won by Venus, 6-2, 7-6 (3).

Before that match, Richard Williams told reporters that if he were a betting man, he'd put 50 pounds on each of them. Eighteen-year-old Serena made light of the situation, telling reporters, "I know I would be heartbroken if my little Jackie had to play my Star ...," joking about her dogs. "Maybe it's too much pressure on him [Richard]. It's probably the same reason I wouldn't watch my dogs."

I laughed at that along with everyone else. How easy, how comfortable it all seemed then. After that match, Venus went on to win her first Grand Slam title to match Serena. The next time they met, in 2001, Venus snatched the US Open title from Serena's hands in a 6-2, 6-4 blowout. At that point, Serena still had just one major; Venus had four.

And that was when Serena went ka-boom!

A switch flipped inside Serena. She stopped being the good little sister trailing in Venus' footsteps. And then, two things happened: the first "Serena Slam" and the advent of the period when an awkward, muted atmosphere began to envelope meetings between Venus and Serena. The reason was simple: There was a tacit agreement in place to suspend a family tie that could not be suspended. The deadlock shaped their emotions, actions and even their on-court effectiveness.

At the time, Venus' big-sister gene kicked in. She often expressed her protective instincts and made it clear that she had Serena's back. In that long, middle period of their rivalry -- which ended as Venus became less of a force near the top of the rankings -- I often wondered why, if the sisters were so close, they couldn't just go out there, play their hearts out, then fall into each other's arms and have a good laugh about it when one or the other won. It shouldn't have been that hard if your relationship is that solid in all other ways, right?

I didn't factor a few things into my thinking. There is a big difference between competing with a sibling indirectly -- say, by earning a better grade in math, or getting more attention from a parent, or even by winning tennis titles -- and facing off, across the net, in a one-on-one struggle that produces a clear result.

Many of us in the business looked forward to the day when the Williams sisters rivalry wouldn't raise so many thorny psychological issues, but it was a false hope. Or was it?

After her last win here at the US Open on Sunday, Serena said of their upcoming quarterfinal match: "I think it's more fun than it used to be. We really relish the opportunity. We're happy to still be involved in getting so far, and it's still super intense. She's [Venus] doing well, and she wants to win this. So do I. It's not going to be easy."

While it's not likely to be easy on the court, it probably won't be uncomfortable for the sisters or as baffling and hard to read as some of their matches in the middle period of their careers were for spectators. The simple explanation might be the best, if not the most exciting. They're older now (Venus is 35, Serena 33). They are siblings, they love each other. But they don't need to go around telling or showing it any more than long-married couples do. Neither of them is going to become a very different person, win or lose, no matter how Grand it might be for Serena to Slam.

I always believed Serena stole Venus' thunder, and that Venus' protective, big-sisterly attitude seemed partly to be a defense mechanism; Serena, after all, was a little sister who didn't need a whole lot of protecting. It was understandable. Venus was in a difficult position. Now, she has a chance to steal some of that thunder back, in a big way. This story hasn't exhausted its legs yet.