Sibling superiority

Saturday is Final Four day, of course, but it also merits a shout-out to two of baddest 30-year-olds out there, on any surface or by any measure.

I'm watching Venus and Serena Williams play in the Family Circle Cup, and though Serena is dominating her big sister, the mere fact of this semifinal - and the remarkable staying power of its stars - deserves mention.

The first time I covered the Family Circle Cup, a respected Tier 1 tournament, it was still played at Sea Pines Racquet Club on Hilton Head Island, a quaint, well-manicured spot tucked next to Harbour Town that the tournament would soon outgrow. I was, I think, 22, and the storyline coming in, to the best of my memory, was Conchita Martinez trying to repeat as champion, possibly for the third time.  

In the early years of the Family Circle, I was introduced to a pony-tailed 16- (or was it 15?) year old named Martina Hingis who was on the cusp of the world No. 1 ranking. I saw the last salvos of greatness from tennis giants such as Aranxta Sanchez Vicario and Gabriella Sabatini. From my seat in the media tent, I watched a coquettish Anna Kournikova flirt with the cameras, and listened as a world-wise Monica Seles answered painful questions for the hundredth time with patience and grace.

Before long, the tournament moved a new home whose construction was largely motivated by its arrival - Daniel Island, just a short sailboat ride from Charleston, S.C. There, it finally got the two luminary names it had been waiting for - first Serena, to the best of my recollection, and then Venus, talked into playing there by her sister. That may have happened the other way around, but once there, both sisters touted the things that charmed all the players - the scenery, the hospitality, the shopping (Hingis was a particular fan of that, once showing off a glittery new watch.)

I've written before on this blog about the way Serena commands a room, the unexpected sweetness of Venus' smile, and of course the brief 80s music moment I shared with Venus (see "Golden Girl"). What strikes me anew today is the breadth and depth of the sisters' careers. Hingis is long since retired, as are other contemporaries of the Williamses - Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Lindsay Davenport. Kournikova came and went without ever winning a singles match.

The Williams sisters have a staggering 22 Grand Slam singles titles (seven for Venus, 15 for Serena) between them, 13 Grand Slam doubles titles and four Olympic gold medals apiece.  (Their singles totals would be higher had they not faced each other in a final eight times in surreal, obviously uncomfortable situations).  

They have weathered countless injuries and serious illness (Venus revealed in 2011 that she suffers from an autoimmune disorder that causes fatigue and joint pain; Serena was hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism the same year.) They have made fools of those who questioned their pursuit of outside interests, including fashion design, and wondered at the depth of their commitment to the game.

They have changed the face of tennis. I can personally attest to seeing more African-American fans in the Family Circle crowd than ever before when Venus or Serena was on the green clay court, and their decades-long dominance has no doubt inspired many minorities to take up a game they have humanized beyond its starched country-club image.

I don't intend this to be a career obituary, though. Serena in particular looks nowhere near done as clay court season shifts into high gear. And if the two sisters could be healthy and playing well this summer, there are few things more disconcertingly beautiful than their raw power and athletic finesse on full display on the genteel grass of Wimbledon.

Pro sports is not always kind to youth, female youth in particular. Fresh-faced young things are sucked into its maw, ground up and spit back out, pig-tailed potential replaced with surly mugshots. Tennis has been notably culpable throughout the years - Tracy Austin, Jennifer Capriati.

The Williamses' careers have not been without drama, be it controversial line calls or questionable behavior from their father, Richard Williams (much less limelight-prone in recent years). The family also was dealt a terrible blow with the 2003 shooting death of the Williamses' older sister, Yetunde Price. But at an age when most sports stars have moved on - by their choice, or because of the inexorable forward march of a sport with sparse sympathy for past champions who can no longer keep up - the Williams sisters are still center stage, and not as trumped-up shells of their former selves. 

Serena won Saturday's match handily in straight sets. But we, fans of the game, were all winners for being able to witness it.