Moments after losing to Meghann Shaughnessy in the fourth round of last week's NASDAQ-100 Open in Key Biscayne, Fla., Venus Williams let out a sigh of resignation. "You know, it's impossible to win every match," she said. Oh, really? Lately her younger sister, Serena, has been disproving that. After beating Jennifer Capriati 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the NASDAQ final on Saturday, Serena was 17-0 for the year and had lost only once since mid-August 2002. The gap that separates her from the rest of the field is, like her shoulders, impressively broad. "If I play my best," she says, "I don't think anyone can beat me."
Here's what must be particularly dispiriting to her colleagues: Serena was far from her best last week. She suffered from a stomach illness early in the tournament, and her game was mottled by errors. Still, until the final she had dropped not one set and had stayed on the court for an average of only an hour. In the semifinals Kim Clijsters, generally regarded as the leading candidate to unseat Serena, mustered only six winners and had little answer for Serena's power in a 6-4, 6-2 loss. The word invincible hasn't been bandied about the WTA tour this much since Steffi Graf's heyday. " Serena has absolutely no reason to lose this year," says her quarterfinal victim, Marion Bartoli.
Venus is another story. No doubt jolted by the success of Little Sis, Venus appeared uncharacteristically delicate last week. Both her tennis and her body language indicated there were places she would much rather be than on a tennis court. Though she gamely fought off eight match points before succumbing to Shaughnessy, she was beaten thoroughly 7-6, 6-1. Venus's swagger was missing, and other players smelled blood in the water. "I think we can see a little bit of a lapse in her game," says Jelena Dokic. "I don't think she's as solid as she was before."
Adds Clijsters, who may soon inherit the No. 2 ranking from Venus, "I'm sure [ Serena] hits the ball even harder than Venus, and she serves better than Venus."
Other players have also picked up on Venus's tendencies. Her forehand breaks down under pressure. She has a hard time with serves into the body. Her second serve is easily attacked. "When you put Venus on the defensive, she is a different player," says Shaughnessy's coach, Rafael Font de Mora. "Her whole personality on the court changes."
Late in the Shaughnessy match, Richard Williams left his court-side perch, shaking his head in disappointment. When an usher offered a consoling pat on the back, Richard said, "It's O.K, Serena's still around." Is she ever.