WIMBLEDON, England - It was every little sister's nightmare. Serena Williams was trying so hard and playing so badly. She was fighting herself, trying to keep up with her big sister, Venus, who was soaring closer to a title match they both desperately wanted.
She bounced her racket in the dust and slapped it on her leg. She shouted out a plaintive "Nooooo!" as a forehand sailed long.
And when it ended in a tennis tiebreaker turned heartbreaker, with her last desperate serve and double fault, with the ball sliding agonizingly off the net and plunking onto the scarred grass, Serena Williams wiped her face and took the longest walk of her short career, to take comfort from a winner she has known all her life.
"Let's get out of here," Venus Williams told her, leading her away, helping her pack, acting like a big sister should in a moment so awkward and public.
Forget history. Wimbledon's women's semifinals were all about an agonizing family drama yesterday, as Venus Williams, 20, defeated her 18-year-old sister, Serena, 6-2, 7-6 (7-3).
The winner goes to tomorrow's final against reigning champion Lindsay Davenport. The loser heads to the stands to cheer.
It was a match the sisters dreaded to play but had to finish in the hushed, theatrical atmosphere of Centre Court.
"It's really bitter, but someone had to move on," Venus Williams said.
Maybe in the future it won't be quite so emotional or dramatic when Williams meets Williams. Maybe it will become routine. But not now, not yet.
"I think it will become less spectacular," Venus Williams said. "Most of all, Serena and I have to promise ourselves to start playing solid tennis every time so that we can be number 1 and 2, then meet in the finals. It will be a natural thing."
The match confirmed one of the more remarkable journeys in modern sports history, tall, talented sisters coached by their father, rising together from hardscrabble public courts in Compton, Calif., where they dodged gang violence, to the most hallowed court in the world.
"Maybe living in Compton isn't like the most desired place to live, not in the Top 100," said Venus Williams, whose family moved to Florida in 1991. "But I had a great time. I still miss the ice cream trucks."
Wimbledon has never seen anything like this. It was a different time and place when Maud Watson beat her sister Lillian in the first Wimbledon women's championship in 1884.
The Williams sisters brought their high-velocity games and whatever family psychology into a match that showed only glimpses of how good they are and how good they may yet be. Their father, Richard Williams, who has sheltered and guided them on an unorthodox path, couldn't bear to watch the match, walking around the neighborhood as his daughters played.
Serena Williams, who lost only 13 games and didn't drop a set in her first five Wimbledon match victories, came unglued. The reigning U.S. Open champion lost confidence. She sprayed unforced errors. She stumbled. She grew frustrated.
Holding back tears
"I missed a lot of shots, especially on my forehand side," Serena Williams said, a baseball cap pulled down on her forehead, her eyes glistening as she appeared to hold back tears.
Even though it seemed the entire tennis establishment, including her higher-seeded sister, thought Serena Williams was the favorite, she ran against a barrier.
Eight times in the past 32 years of professional tennis, sisters have met in Grand Slam events, and each time, the older sister has defeated the younger one. It didn't matter that Serena Williams had beaten her sister in the last of their four previous matches.
This was different.
Serena Williams said her big sister "brought out her best game against me. ... I guess I wasn't all that ready."
"I've had worse losses," she said. "This is not a bad loss."
Yet anyone with a sibling - and a rivalry - sensed the words masked a lot of hurt. Only press cynics - and there were some - could suggest that somehow the outcome was prearranged, that the sisters and their father concluded that this was Venus Williams' time to win. Anyone who could think such a thing doesn't have a sibling, has never quit a game in anger or cried in frustration as an older brother or sister moves in for a win.
'That's the way it is'
"You know, she's a younger sister," Venus Williams said. "That's the way it is when you're younger. You always get your way. Anyone who has had a younger sibling knows that. When they don't get their way, mom and dad step in, 'Give her the ice cream.' As far as the older sister or the older brother, you know, you roll with the punches. If you win or you lose, you don't get the ice cream, it's OK."
But Venus Williams, still searching for a first Grand Slam title, got her way, even though, she said, Serena "hates to lose."
Still, there were some great moments, some deep, punishing rallies when the sisters sprinted side to side, running down shots nobody else in the women's game could get, even adding a dash of invention, such as when Venus, a right-hander, punched back a desperate return with her left hand.
And there was the taut tiebreaker, Serena sprinting out to a 3-1 lead and Venus coming back, watching her sister slug forehands long, and then watching as the match ended with a whimper and a double fault.
They cleared out as fast they could - neglecting to curtsy for the royalty assembled above them.
They left the same as they arrived, matching one another stride for stride, two sisters united.
"I'm always the big sister," Venus Williams said. "I always take care of Serena, no matter what."