August 8, 2008

Williams Sisters bid for multiple medals

BEIJING (AP) - Seated side by side amid a roomful of strangers, Venus and Serena Williams exchanged glances and giggles like a couple of kids in the back of an elementary school class. Instead they were front and center at an Olympic news conference Friday. The sisters' unique relationship has long played out on the world stage, and in Beijing they're U.S. teammates, doubles partners and potential opponents in the singles final.

Venus and Serena have made the Olympics a family affair once before - at the 2000 Games in Sydney. They became the first siblings to win the doubles, and Venus also won the singles to join 1924 champion Helen Wills as the only women to sweep both titles. There were no milestones for the sisters four years later in Athens. Serena missed those games because of a knee injury, and Venus lost in the third round.

In Beijing, they're together again. "Being here with Serena is so much fun," Venus said. "In Sydney we had a blast. In Athens I didn't have as much fun because she wasn't there. It completes everything for me to have her here." There were doubts as to whether the sisters would be healthy enough to make the trip, because both are nursing knee injuries. Venus' most recent match was the victory over her sister in the Wimbledon final five weeks ago, and Serena hasn't played since retiring from the semifinals July 19 in Stanford, Calif.

When Venus was asked if she's concerned about her knee holding up on Beijing's hard courts, she said: "I'm blocking that out - mind over matter." Said Serena: "I'm working on just getting better, and everything is going to be looking good."

Teammate Lindsay Davenport withdrew from singles Friday because of a lingering knee injury that has sidelined her since late June. She still hopes to play doubles with Liezel Huber, and they could meet the No. 2-seeded Williams sisters in the final. Even with the sisters involved, doubles matches are usually relegated to outer courts, where crowds are small. But when Olympic tennis begins Sunday, the Williams-Williams partnership will be among the main attractions. Doubles also offers the best medal hope for the U.S. men, with Bob and Mike Bryan seeded No. 1.

"In the Olympics the singles and the doubles are the same, because a gold medal is a gold medal," Venus said. She and Serena have been partners in only four tournaments since the summer of 2003, but they've combined for seven Grand Slam titles, most recently at this year's Wimbledon only hours after their singles final. Williams-Williams have never worried much about doubles tactics, instead relying on thunderclap strokes.

"They're always tough to play against because they're powerful, even though they're not really quite doing doubles movements," said Olympian Ai Sugiyama, who lost to the sisters at this year's Australian Open. "At the net they're just standing there instead of moving or crossing or poaching. But they're tall, and their quality of serves and strokes is great." At Sydney the sisters were so overpowering their semifinal opponents from Belgium abandoned the net to avoid dealing with Williams volleys from point-blank range. "We had such a great time in Sydney," Venus said. "We felt like we couldn't miss, and we didn't."

The sisters' domination of singles on the women's tour began a year later. They met in a Grand Slam final for the first time at the 2001 U.S. Open, and that was part of a stretch where Venus or Serena won seven of nine major singles titles. Venus won Wimbledon for the fifth time this year, increasing to seven her total of Grand Slam singles titles. Serena has won eight majors but ranks her Olympic medal in doubles as her top achievement.

"It was never my goal to play the Olympics," Serena said. "Growing up it was like Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and winning Grand Slams. But when I did win that gold medal, it's definitely my best trophy I have by far. I'm like Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee and thinking of all these wonderful athletes that did win Olympic gold medals. You're one of the few that have, and it was really cool." Venus agreed. "It has been beyond my dreams to play the Olympics," she said. "It takes awhile to set in. A few years after you win you're like, 'Wait a minute, this is my gold. Oh, my gosh, yes.'"

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