The well-rounded Williams sisters

BOSTON — Having steamrolled their way to the semifinals, in mirror-image fashion, without losing a set, the Williams sisters — both facing Russian rivals — took decidedly different paths to Saturday’s Wimbledon finals.

Venus dispatched Dinara Safina, who wore her world #1 ranking like a shackle round her neck, without having to break a sweat (6-1, 6-0), while Serena required all her grit and guts to outlast Elena Dementieva (6-7, 7-5, 8-6) in a brilliant exhibition of tennis firepower. Thursday’s successful sister act set up a rematch of last year’s final, won by Venus 7-5, 6-4.

Even absent the defending champion, Rafael Nadal, sidelined by a knee injury, the men have commanded the headlines at Wimbledon. Roger Federer is bidding for a record 15th grand slam title. And the final is guaranteed to see at least one player who represents years of thwarted hopes.

Andy Roddick was supposed to be the next great American star, the successor to Pete Sampras, but he has not risen to the challenge since winning the 2003 U.S. Open as a 21-year-old. And while Andy Murray, at 22, is a newcomer in the game’s upper ranks, the Scotsman bears the weight of more than seven decades of British disappointment in their men’s performances on the kingdom’s most sacred grass.

Still, it is the Williams ladies who have commanded my attention, if only from a growing sense that we/I have been a bit begrudging about their careers. It certainly hasn’t stemmed from a lack of appreciation of their magnificent talents. And it’s almost impossible to assess how much the always thorny issue of race has tinged any judgments. My hesitancy to completely embrace the two sisters stems largely from their failure, or more accurately unwillingness, to be more like Roger — single-minded and totally dedicated to the goal of tennis greatness.

Both sisters come and go on the tour, giving short shrift to lesser events, and sometimes have appeared to compete in less than peak condition. They welcome myriad distractions from the sport in their lives — fashion design, acting, writing, interior design — and we have viewed most of them with a bit of condescension. Instead of embracing these pursuits as reflections of modern-day Renaissance women, we have seen them as unwelcome offshoots of our celebrity culture as well as obstacles to the sisters attaining their full potential — not, of course, in life, but rather at a game.

But once again at Wimbledon, when the stakes are at their highest, the sisters have risen to the occasion. And on Saturday, a Williams will again reign supreme: Either Venus will win her 6th Wimbledon title, her third in a row, and her 8th major championship; or Serena will capture her 3rd Wimbledon and 11th major. If there is any disappointment for us, it is only that an all-Williams final lacks that cutting edge of genuine rivalry. The discomfort felt by the sisters in playing each other has always been palpable and, thus, the victory celebration is tempered by the winners’ shared disappointment with her sibling.

Still, it’s time to recognize that not only has the on-again, off-again, more well-rounded life approach worked for the sisters, it may actually prove to be the answer to survival in the game. While countless other top players — Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin among them — have faded away at young ages, succumbing to burnout, injuries or simply the toll of the relentlessly oppressive tour, Venus, at 29, and Serena, at 27, still got both game and heart.

To the extent that we fans might have wanted, even demanded, something more from them, we were wrong and exceedingly shortsighted. Regardless of which Williams comes out on top Saturday (if you must bet though, get down on Venus rising), it’s time to give them their full due.

Both sisters are great champions and worthy successors in the American line — and, indeed, particularly to Martina Navratilova, who was, after all, a lady of wide-ranging pursuits and interests. We should never begrudge those, especially when they may turn out to be the very secret to enduring success.

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