It's tricky business to draw meaningful conclusions from a tennis match that opens with the two competitors skipping onto court arm-in-arm with Ronald McDonald. But that's how last night's exhibition by Venus and Serena Williams began at MCI Center, with the sport's most famous siblings taking the court shortly after gospel singer CeCe Winans, Dunbar High School's drum line and jazz saxophonist Mike Phillips had warmed up the crowd of roughly 7,000.
The best-of-three sets exhibition wasn't a competitive event, of course. Instead, it was the final stop on the three-city Williams sisters tour designed to showcase their tennis skills in markets where they hadn't played before and, in the process, raise money for the charitable arm of their primary sponsor.
When last seen on opposite sides of the net in a competitive match, Venus had the upper hand, defeating Serena in straight sets in the fourth round of the U.S. Open in September. With nothing at stake but familial bragging rights, it was no different last night, as Venus defeated her younger sister, 6-3, 6-4 in just over an hour.
Fans paid as much as $150 for a close-up look at the sisters, who boast 12 titles in Grand Slam events between them. And they were rewarded with flashes of Serena's powerful groundstrokes and glimpses of Venus's blinding serve. In the third game of the match, Venus fired successive aces and closed the game with a service winner to take a 3-1 lead.
But for the most part, the tennis wasn't exactly electric, with the sisters' games understandably rusty after more than two months away from the pro tour.
Their matches against each other have rarely lived up to expectations and this exhibition was a continuation of the theme, with few sustained rallies. Serena pulled off a few masterful lobs, but for the most part errors, rather than winners, decided the points. If the hour's workout is any measure, Venus is in better shape for the first major event of 2006, the Australian Open, which is roughly five weeks away.
"I've been working on some things in my game," said Venus, 25, after signing autographs following the match.
"I feel confident. I'm in fairly good shape; obviously I'll get better. But I think I'm hitting the ball clean, I'm serving well and I'm in good form."
Serena is the Australian Open's defending champion. After a slow start, she roared back in the second set to erase a 4-1 deficit. Her groundstrokes still packed her signature punch, but far too often they strayed beyond the court or found the net. Her footwork was also sluggish, particularly in the first set.
"I'm working out every day and trying to get ready for [Australia]," Serena said afterward.
The evening got under way shortly after 8 p.m. First to take center court was one of Venus and Serena's sisters, Lyndrea, an aspiring recording artist, who shimmied and sang to "It's so hot. I'm burning up."
Winans delivered an elegant National Anthem, then followed with a ballad, "You Are Loved."
Dunbar's drum line got the crowd clapping and stomping. And Phillips wowed with a saxophone solo, then took a moment to praise the sisters' charitable work.
"They took time out of their busy schedules," Phillips said.
"They could be training right now. They could be re-habbing, but they gave back to the community through Ronald McDonald House."