x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Williams sisters say they want to meet in final at Dubai Tennis Championships

The American siblings have won 13 grand slam doubles titles and three Olympic gold medals in women’s doubles but they could find themselves on opposite sides of the net in Saturday's singles final, writes Gary Meenaghan.

Venus Williams, left, and younger sister Serena fell a little short as doubles partners earlier this week in Dubai. They could find themselves on opposite sides of the net in Saturday’s singles final. Warren Little / Getty Images
Venus Williams, left, and younger sister Serena fell a little short as doubles partners earlier this week in Dubai. They could find themselves on opposite sides of the net in Saturday’s singles final. Warren Little / Getty Images

When Venus Williams was diagnosed in 2011 with Sjogren’s syndrome, an incurable autoimmune disease that can cause joint pain, inflammation and fatigue, younger sister Serena endeavoured to switch her status in the Williams sisterhood.

“I tried to fill the role of big sister, but I just couldn’t,” Serena, a year younger than the 33-year-old Venus, said earlier this week.

The American siblings have often proved as inseparable on court as they have off it. They have won 13 grand slam doubles titles, three Olympic gold medals in women’s doubles and are already eyeing a title defence at Rio 2016. “That is our thing,” Serena said. “We really want to get there.”

The likelihood of achieving that goal is, much like Venus herself, gradually improving. A lifestyle overhaul that has seen the seven-time grand slam winner adapting to a plant-based diet, has coincided with progress in her health and her game.

In December, in Auckland, she reached her first final in more than a year and, last week in Doha, she pushed Petra Kvitova, the world No 6, to a tiebreak in the second round. “I do the best I can every single day, no matter how I feel,” said Venus, who recently climbed back into the top 50 in the WTA world rankings. “That’s pretty much the best way to put it.

“Serena has been extremely supportive; my whole family has. They have all changed their lifestyles for me. As a family we’ve gotten healthier and that’s been amazing. She was extremely supportive and has just always been in my corner. No matter how tough things get for me, she’s always been there, so it makes me feel better and makes me keep going.”

The sisters live together and Serena confirmed the whole family – led by their mother, Oracene Price – have altered their eating habits for the benefit of Venus, who Serena calls “the ultimate inspiration”.

The younger sister now refuses to bring unhealthy food into the house and has learnt how to cook vegan.

“Her story is the greatest for me,” she said. “To go through what she’s going through, I probably would have hung up my rackets and just played some doubles. She has so much courage to show up week in and week out and play.”

On Thursday night, at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, the sisters edged closer to meeting in the final after Serena beat Jelena Jankovic 6-2, 6-2 to book her place in the final four alongside Venus, who had earlier in the day defeated Flavia Pennetta 6-3, 7-5.

Venus, who won the Dubai tournament in 2009 and 2010 before skipping the next three iterations while fighting her illness, has now won 13 successive matches at the Aviation Club. She has not dropped a set all week.

Of a potential Saturday evening sister act, Venus said: “I think that would be fantastic, but we both have to get there first. I would like both of us to get there, so we’ll see.”

The last time the siblings met in a final was at the 2009 Tour Championships, in Doha, when Serena won in straight sets. “Yeah, she got me that time,” Venus recalled last night with a smile. “It’s been a while” since they played in a final. “I have kind of been a little absent; I haven’t been able to hold up my side of the bargain.”

Absent indeed. Venus reached at least the quarter-final stage of a grand slam every season from 1997 through 2009, but since her diagnosis, three years ago, she has not progressed past the fourth round of a slam.

Incremental improvement is key, said her little sister, who holds a 14-10 lead in their head-to-head matches. One week at a time. “You can definitely see that she is feeling better about her game,” Serena said. “It took her a while to get to this position, so now that she is there she is definitely feeling better, practising better, practising more, and she keeps getting better. It’s all baby steps though; she wants to climb the mountain and she is obviously not there yet, but she is making progress.”

As for Serena, the world No 1 has yet to produce her best tennis this week and yet still finds herself in the semi-finals after comfortably overcoming Jankovic.

“I’m happy to have beaten a top-10 player,” she said. “But if I’m to reach the final, I will have to play better than I did just now.”

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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