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Williams sisters energize Open

September 04, 2008|Kurt Streeter

NEW YORK -- This felt different, felt special, felt more like opening night at a Broadway show than a pro tennis match.

As the Williams sisters took the court for their U.S. Open quarterfinal, inside the massive center court stadium the air cracked with excitement and electric energy.

Walking shoulder to shoulder among a throng that numbered more than 20,000, you could hear the fans talk. Much of it was a debate: Who would be the winner, who in the rest of the women's draw could deal a Williams sister trouble, whether Venus and Serena were divas or humble daughters or the greatest thing that had ever happened to tennis.

"Everybody's energy is way up," said Alicia Luna, a fan from New York, standing with three of her girlfriends. The women gushed about the Williams' duo and said that when they found out the sisters would be playing, it was a dead-bolt lock -- there was not a chance Luna and her friends would ever miss this match. Not a chance.

You don't hear this kind of excitement for many on the men's side of the draw. Maybe for Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer now, after their Wimbledon final. You certainly never hear excitement like this for anyone on the women's tour. The Williams sisters have transcended their sport. They are not tennis players anymore, they are simply stars.

And also human. Just before taking the court, the sisters were interviewed. They stood in the walkway below the stadium, but you could see and hear them on a giant video screen that hung above the court. Both wore a nervous, uneasy, unhappy look. Both spoke quietly into a microphone, so quietly you could barely make out their words.

It made you wonder about how hard this must be. How it must feel -- even after playing 17 times on tour, even after meeting at the Wimbledon final this summer -- to toe the baseline in front of thousands, preparing to serve against someone you love, someone you wish well for. Your flesh and blood.

Signs of this internal conflict showed in the opening moments. At first, the sisters played hesitantly and had trouble finding range. There were double faults and missed returns and poor approach shots. There was little rhythm. They both tend to hit the ball flat, tennis parlance for not imparting much spin. Add nerves to the mix and tennis balls struck hard and flat often sail well past the target. That happened here, mostly at the start, when the tennis often unfolded like this: Venus ace, Serena miss, Venus winner, Venus ace, Serena winner, Venus miss.

Once they found their range, however, the quality improved. Venus leaped in front early with a break. She served for the first set. Then her sister caught up. A tiebreaker came and this far into the match they were striking the ball beautifully. You could see clearly how nobody remaining in the women's draw, which moves to the semifinals now, comes close to playing with the tar and feather ferocity of these women. Yes, some of their peers hit hard, but not like this, not while knocked off balance, not from uncomfortable positions when the feet are not set.

The crowd loved this match. They treated it like a final. Because the sisters often have up-and-down results, because they do not seem to be able to commit fully to this game, they came to New York with Serena seeded fourth, her sister seventh. That meant there was no guarantee they'd be set apart, in different halves of the 128-player draw. As things turned out, they ended up bunched up close, too close, so close that their match Wednesday night was a quarterfinal.

A quarterfinal that felt like a final.

Serena won the first-set tiebreaker. Then she found herself behind again. Suddenly, there were more winners than mistakes. The fans were kept rising, clapping, yelling. It was raucous. It felt like an event. It felt like Broadway and the bright lights.

Venus nudged ahead again in the second set. She had plenty of chances. Set points by the handful. Then her sister clawed her way back. The points tumbled forward. There were back-and-forth rallies and mad dash slices and hard sprinting gets. Tennis as it should be played, tennis as good as it gets. Finally, at 8-7 in the tiebreaker, Serena ahead, her big sister hit a forehand long.

The crowd roared. The match was over. Serena over Venus, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (7). This was the 10th evening of play here at the U.S. Open, but the tournament felt like it had finally begun.

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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