WIMBLEDON — There was a time when the tennis whisperers claimed that any match between the Williams sisters would be predetermined, ordained, by the father who incubated them to be stars.
Actually, that time was as recently as this past weekend when one of the sports leading (and controversial) correspondents in the U.S., Jason Whitlock, declared that Monday’s round of 16 confrontation would be decided by Richard Williams. That bulletin was issued hours after Serena Williams just barely survived a surprisingly tough bout with Britain’s Heather Watson, twice two points from defeat.
It’s been 17 years since the siblings first faced each other across the net, in a match that counted. But in some corners, the feeling still persists that the fix is in and Venus will subtly submit to Serena — though Williams pater isn’t even on this side of the Atlantic, reportedly advised not to travel because of ill health.
Appearing on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, Whitlock stated: “She’s playing her sister next. I think Richard will make the call and she will get a cakewalk into the next round.”
It is Serena, after all, who is chasing a calendar year Grand Slam, with the Australian and the French Open already in the bag.
Richard’s girls are all grown up, however, presumably long past doing their dad’s bidding — if ever it existed — and each ferociously competitive.
The women haven’t gone head-to-head since the Roger’s Cup in Montreal last summer, where it was Venus who prevailed. Previous to that, Serena had won all matches dating back to 2008. So it’s hardly been a taut tug-of war, with Venus hindered by the exhausting effects of Sjogren’s syndrome, an auto-immune disease diagnosed four years ago.
In fact, Venus has had the easier progression to the fourth round here, not dropping a set en route.
They’ve met between the lines on 25 occasions — on the women’s tour and in eight major finals — with Serena enjoying a 14-11 edge.
“That’s pretty crazy,” said Serena of their inter-sibling Grand Slam history. “It’s ridiculous.”
Between them they have 10 singles titles at Wimbledon, five apiece, and five doubles championships.
Their longevity is remarkable. And the curiosity factor of watching them go mano-a-mano hasn’t abated.
“We’re both more mature,” said Venus, who at 35 is two years older than Serena. “Still as tenacious. Back then we were definitely fun to watch. I think we still are.”
They know each other’s game so well, which is either an advantage or saw-off. And of course they remain very tight.
“Competing with each other has nothing to do with whether we’re close or not,” said Venus. “I think it’s just knowing what the other one goes through. If I see her in a match in a tight spot, I know exactly what that feels like. I think that’s a unique relationship. That is pretty rare in sport.”
At a separate press conference, Serena continues the theme, almost as if they were communicating telepathically.
“We’re going to do the best that we can. I mean, she’s my sister today. She’s my sister next week. She’s my sister next year. I think that’s a little more important than a match. We’ll leave everything out on the court.’’
But while she once ran to keep up with Venus, Serena is now the dominant sister.
“In the beginning, it was hard because I was younger. Playing Venus Williams was very difficult. But now it’s absolutely nothing. Only thing for me is I’m playing the toughest player I’ve played in women’s tennis. That’s never fun.”
Sincerely or not, Serena is at least tacitly putting a flutter on big sis.
“She’s playing so well. I’m practising next to her every day and I’m in awe of how she’s doing. It’s a little frustrating because I know I have to play her. I just don’t know how I’m going to do, to be honest.”
Everybody goes at it Monday, all the competitors, men and women, who remain in the hunt. That includes Vancouver’s Vasek Pospisil, last Canadian (men’s singles) still standing, survivor of a five-set marathon on Saturday, and never before gone this deep, though he did win the doubles title last year with American partner Jack Sock. Pospisil is up against Serbian Viktor Troicki, seeded 22.
All eyes British will be on 2013 champion Andy Murray, who put a scare in his fans, not just by losing the third set 6-1 against Italian Andreas Seppi but by taking an injury time-out, lying flat on the court next to the umpire’s chair for treatment of a sore shoulder and back.
Murray takes on the giant Croat, Ivo Karlovic, among the hardest servers in the sport. Murray has beaten him in all five of their previous meetings.
The most intriguing engagement might be former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, 28th seed, against Poland’s Agnieska Radwanska, seeded 13th, and whether the Serb has anything left after stunningly eliminating defending champion Petra Kvitova on the weekend.
It’s been an eventful first week. Stay tuned for Week Two.