PARIS — Only the most optimistic soul would have shown up at Roland Garros expecting a classic French Open final between sisters Venus and Serena Williams. One could always hope, or is that dream?
A decent match would have been fine, under the blanket of lowered expectations, but that remained an elusive commodity Saturday, when Serena beat her older sister for the first time in a Grand Slam event, 7-5, 6-3, in 1 hour 32 minutes.
Serena, who became the first African American woman to win here since Althea Gibson in 1956, rallied from a 5-3 first-set deficit and fought off two break points in the 12th game to prevent a tiebreaker.
The sisters combined for 101 unforced errors and 13 service breaks. Venus, seeded second, double-faulted nine times and had one forehand winner and no backhand winners. In this case, statistics do tell the story: The best server in the women's game, Venus, held serve twice in the first set and only once in the second.
They've played compelling matches against other players, and lousy ones. Against each other, they don't seem to flow or strike an even rhythm. They are like two award-winning actors who simply can't function decently on the same stage, stepping all over each other's lines and missing cues.
Give Serena the necessary credit. She has become her own person, not just Venus' younger sister, and crowded her older sister off the stage, right off the court with her powerful strokes.
For Serena, seeded third here, it was her first Grand Slam title since winning the 1999 U.S. Open at 17.
"Obviously, I'm very, very happy, especially to win another Grand Slam because I was really fighting so long," she said. "At one point, I wouldn't get past the quarters, then I got to the final, maybe a semi. But it was kind of discouraging. I didn't want to be a one-hit wonder."
She desperately wanted to add another Slam to her resume. After all, Venus had the big Grand Slam lead in the family: four to one.
"My legs today were getting tired," Serena said. "I had to keep thinking, 'OK, Serena, five and one? Or four and two? Which do you want?' That got me motivated just to keep running and to keep fighting."
The reaction of Venus on Saturday in Paris--compared to that of 1999 at the U.S. Open--spoke volumes about her maturity.
When Serena won in New York, the first Grand Slam title for either sister, Venus sat in the stands, glumly, barely visible under a hood, and clapped faintly. Since then, Venus, 21, has won four Slam titles, most recently at the U.S. Open in September against Serena in the final.
During the awards ceremony when Serena was receiving the Suzanne Lenglen Cup from Olympic skiing legend Jean-Claude Killy of France, Venus went to a back corner of the court, got a camera from her mother and joined the pack of news photographers taking pictures of Serena.
Serena, spotting Venus in the scrum, laughed and shook her head. "It was very funny when she was doing that," Serena said. "Hey, none of us have won the French Open yet, so we had to get that first moment."
The point that earned Serena the title was one of the better ones. At the end of a long baseline rally, Serena hit a hard cross-court backhand and Venus hit a backhand in the net. Serena tossed her racket in joy and leaned over for a moment. Their mother and coach, Oracene, threw back her head and laughed at the joyful reaction.
Later, in the players' lounge, she provided some insight into Serena's learning curve since her U.S. Open victory in 1999. After that win, tennis seemed to take a reduced role in Serena's life, but her outlook changed last summer.
"She stopped playing and started practicing," Oracene said. "She left some of those extracurricular activities. She was really having a good time. But she stopped that and she started practicing more. I don't think it [Venus' success] bothered her as much because she was doing her own thing for a while, for a few months. She was just having fun, being who she was. I thought it would play its course out."
Oracene knew something was different on the plane ride to Europe. Serena told her that she planned on staying in Paris for two weeks, meaning she would win the French Open, or at least reach the final.
This was the first time a younger sister has defeated an older sister in a Grand Slam event. Venus and Serena have played eight times; Venus leads, 5-3, and 3-1 in Grand Slams. But they are 1-1 in Grand Slam finals, and, quite conceivably, they could meet in another final in another country in about four weeks, at Wimbledon. Williams vs. Williams could be on the horizon for years to come.
That immediate possibility is even stronger because they will be in opposite halves of the draw at the All England Club. Venus and Serena will be No. 1 and No. 2 when the WTA rankings are released Monday, both passing Jennifer Capriati. It is the first time siblings have held the top two spots in tennis.