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Venus and Serena: Last Name Not Needed

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Venus and Serena. Serena and Venus. They are first-name only references, a status reserved for A-list celebrities, usually for entertainers, not athletes. For a decade, no discussion about women's tennis is complete without mentioning Venus and Serena Williams. While they have been inconsistent on and off the court, the two have dominated for stretches while driving conversations about the sport. With each in the Wimbledon semifinals on Thursday, they are poised to meet in Saturday's all-sister final.

Women's tennis needs Venus and Serena as much as any sport needs any two names. As the sport undergoes yet-another transformation at the top of the game, the Williams' sisters are still there and still dominant. The two top-ranked players in the world over the past two years -- Kim Clijsters and fellow Belgian Justine Henin -- have recently retired. Moreover, the two "it" girls of the present, Maria Sharapova -- tennis' reigning diva -- and Ana Ivanovic were ushered out of Wimbledon before the quarters. Thus, the path is clear for sisters who are one match each from their 16th career meeting and their seventh with a Grand Slam title on the line. They have been dominating lesser players this fortnight, not good news for their semifinal opponents.

The unorthodox nature of these sisters in confounding to many, frustrating to some yet refreshing to others. We live in an era in athletics where a laser like focus and discipline is constantly drummed into young athletes. The mantra in trying to reach "the next level" is to practice as much as possible; train as diligently as possible, lead a Spartan life of full of discipline and devoid of distraction.

Young athletes are shuttled through monk-like existences of training and more training with special schools, coaches, institutes, therapists, and assorted gurus to reach their goal to be the best. Balance in their lives be damned, their life is their sport.

Not so for Venus and Serena. Raised in tennis by their father, Richard, on the public courts of Compton, California, they have not taken the route followed my most of their counterparts on the tour. Richard confounded the tennis hierarchy by limiting his prodigies' schedules and time commitments. He maintains a presence around his daughters and tour, needling tour officials and management about real or perceived slights against his daughters (even in this Wimbledon, both Venus and Serena have been curiously assigned outer courts away from the main stages as they have progressed to the semis).

Venus and Serena have a lot of outside interests, as both are into fashion and design beyond the tennis clothes they wear to work. As their competitors focus their time and energy on the singular pursuit of excellence in their sport, the sisters come and go during the tour schedule, frustrating tour officials with their spotty schedules and last-minute pullouts. Despite their sporadic participation, however, they have and continue to display stretches of dominance, as we are seeing now at Wimbledon. Not the path the tennis elders would like to see taken, but successful nonetheless.

Their unwillingness to be tennis players and tennis players only may be maddening to some but has certainly not turned away the public or endorsers. Ratings, especially for the "Breakfast at Wimbledon" on Saturday, hinge dramatically on one -- or preferably both -- of them playing. When they met in the final of the U.S. Open in 2001, CBS changed their schedule to put them on prime time. They are simply compelling names and figures in the sport.

Madison Avenue has noticed as well. Some of Serena's endorsements include or have included: Puma, Avon, Wrigley, McDonald's and Close-Up. Venus has also endorsed Avon, Wrigley, and McDonald's along with the richest female endorsement deal with Reebok, Powerade and Wilson's leather, among others.

The sisters identifies by first-name only are thriving while having balance in their lives. As they dominate the biggest stage in tennis this week, they do so in a manner that is exasperating to some and flies in the face of the modern singularly focused athlete. Yet here they are, Venus and Serena, Serena and Venus. Once again.