Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Sisters Don't Have to Do It For Themselves

Winning together has to be much more fun than trying to outdo the other. (Getty Images photo)

Sometimes with sports, you wish some statistics could be frozen in time.

The Miami Dolphins’ perfect 1972 season that included a Super Bowl title would be one, because so many people hate the team that has come closest to breaking it, the New England Patriots. Babe Ruth’s beloved home run record was a ghost that haunted Roger Maris and Henry Aaron. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova’s rivalry was so splendid that it would have been perfect had it stopped when they were tied in head-to-head victories, but it did not.

And over the weekend, another set of stats emerged to create a bit of perfection. When Serena Williams won Wimbledon, she tied her sister Venus for a fifth title there and the two of them then went out and won their fifth doubles championship on the hallowed lawn of southwest London.

It’s as it should be, evenly divvied up for a pair of sisters whose achievements don’t seem to be all that appreciated by the culture that has watched them grow up and dominate their sport, yet manage to be close and loving siblings.

Oh, the public grasps that they win tennis trophies and are great at what they do. But the notion of two sisters rising and dominating at the same time is seen more as a curiosity or a bit of trivia than the magnificent achievement it truly is. Maybe they’ve just been around so long we take it for granted.

Think about it. What if Tiger Woods had to mow down his own brother to win any of his championships? What if LeBron James had his brother willing to take a charge as he went in for a monster dunk? Would Leon and Michael Spinks ever gone on to boxing glory if they had to fight each other? The lifelong feud between sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine includes one winning an Oscar over the other or one being chosen for a role over the other, but that’s not truly a one-on-one competition.

Yet eight times when Venus or Serena sought a Grand Slam championship, the pinnacle of her sport, she had to vanquish her sister who was standing over on the other side of the net.

This is beyond my comprehension. I am one of four girls born in successive years. Because of the way the birthdays fell, my younger sister was actually two grades behind me in school but I was never in high school without at least one sister always there. Same thing for Girl Scouts, band, camp, school plays, any sport, pretty much any activity. These days, we even share friends.

I have the most in common with my sister who is 14 months older than me. We share similar interests, have chosen a somewhat similar line of work and look enough alike to have been mistaken for each other. If we were to play cribbage, backgammon or even H-O-R-S-E, I would want to kick her ass to Sunday (I am, after all, the younger.) But if there was something she wanted more than anything in the world and I was the one who stood in her way, I would absolutely crumble.

Our parents raised us as this little cluster. They sort of had no choice, but it’s how they did it that resonates with me. Gifts were games all four of us could play. If one girl had a friend over, we all got to invite a friend over. Once when we were little, one of my sisters found a dollar at the local bowling alley. My father took it up to the counter, got change and gave each of us a quarter to play pinball.

I suspect the Williams sisters were raised much the same way – that family, your sister(s) are what come first. Maybe the reason their combined success and strong relationship are taken for granted is because of a wee bit of sexism; girls and women aren’t so tough as to hate each other, of course they’d be friendly rivals.

Because of that patronizing view, the sisters’ parents don’t get near the credit they deserve. Earl Woods was seen as a wise mentor to his successful son; Richard Williams and Oracene Price have always been perceived as a little odd. Granted, Richard Williams has said and done a few goofy things and it is always a treat to see what Oracene’s hair is going to look like, but the proof of their success as parents is right there for the world to see.

Two sisters. A whole heap of trophies. Victories over each other. Victories teamed up with the other. And a whole lot of love.

Serena lost in the first round of the French Open earlier this summer. Venus lost in the first round of Wimbledon. Their days of head-to-head competition may be over, and that’s probably a relief for their parents.

But the two are headed off to London soon in search of a third gold medal in women’s doubles. Commercialism and fierce competition have always been part of the Olympics, yet the ideal of the Games is something much higher-minded – that of building something greater through the experience and not just the victories.

It’s a lesson the Williams family has been teaching us all for a long time.

All for one and one for all, right down to the clothes we wore.