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Sympathy can only go so far

Serena Williams sat in her courtside chair, jacket over her legs and towel over her shoulders, trying to stay warm during a 10-minute medical timeout early in the final set of the Wimbledon final.

Her adversary and sister, Venus, was in the locker room getting treatment for the abdominal strain that made her double over or grimace after most shots.

Of all the things that could have run through Serena's head _ What is taking so long? Will she quit? How's my big sis doing? _ this is what she thought: "I want to make sure I hold serve here."

Tough as it may be to stay relentless against a hurt sibling, Serena focused and beat Venus 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 Saturday to defend her Wimbledon title. It was her fifth championship in the past six Grand Slams, each capped by a victory over Venus.

"I have to look at the big picture. Twenty years from now I don't want to look back and say, "You know what? I really should have fought harder,' " top-ranked Serena said. "It was a little more difficult, seeing as it was Venus that's injured. I just had to tell myself to look at the ball and nothing else."

Venus started her fourth straight Wimbledon final _ she won in 2000-01 and lost last year to Serena _ with her midsection and upper left leg covered in tape.

She got more wrapping in the timeout in the third set after her serve was broken in a game in which she double-faulted twice, put a forehand into the net and generally looked miserable.

"I couldn't run too fast, I couldn't stretch out too much," she said. "I was hitting serves in the net because it's harder to reach up."

Her serve speeds were down around 85 mph by then, 20 to 30 mph slower than usual, and after hitting them she would wince.

But she was determined to play. This was, after all, a Wimbledon final, and perhaps more significantly she faced her sister. The family drew boos and jeers at a 2001 tournament in California after an injured Venus withdrew before a semifinal against Serena.

"Everyone's quite familiar with the history. I had to at least show up and go out on the court," Venus said. "Serena and I have taken a lot of (flak), so I felt I had to take one for the team."

Venus might not even have been a finalist if not for Serena. When Venus aggravated the two-month-old stomach muscle strain in her semifinal against Kim Clijsters, it was Serena's encouragement during a rain delay that kept her going.

Venus skipped practice Friday and cut short a session two hours before the final, limping off with a left groin twinge.

"I think she was very courageous to go out there and play," said trainer Karen Davis, who treated Venus and predicted she'll be out two to four weeks.

Two minutes before the start, All England Club chief executive Chris Gorringe emerged on court with a microphone and intoned, "Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please." The crowd of 13,810 suddenly quieted, perhaps wondering if a withdrawal announcement was coming. Instead, Gorringe noted that a representative of a charity would handle the prematch coin toss.

And then the players came out, Venus several paces behind, walking with a slight hitch.

She didn't have problems early, winning the first game with three service winners that reached 110 mph. She broke at love with a passing shot and went ahead to 3-0 thanks after two forehand errors by Serena, capping an 11-point Venus run.

"It tugged at my heartstrings watching Venus out there," said their mother, Oracene Price. "I didn't want her out there in the first place, but that's her choice. That's what probably made it difficult for Serena at the beginning."

Venus then had four break points to take a 4-0 lead, but lost two with backhand errors. Serena saved another with a 107 mph ace, and it was on the fourth that Serena's fiery on-court persona showed.

It was a spectacular 10-stroke point ending with a passing shot by Serena. She turned her back to Venus, pumped a fist, curled her body and yelled, "Come on!" Serena won the next two points to make it 3-1.

The next few games were marked by the powerful hitting and relentless running that elevates the sisters to the top, with strokes accompanied by shrieks.

But serving down 5-4, Serena played a poor game, as though she was easing up a bit. She fell behind love-40 with a double-fault, smacked a backhand winner to save one break point then flubbed a 16-stroke exchange with an awkward shot that sailed wide.

Serena finished with 30 unforced errors to Venus' 25, and the second set opened with three consecutive service breaks.

Serena gained control in the second set by breaking at love to go ahead 4-1, with Venus missing two backhands and two forehands, the last sailing 5 feet long.

The final set was similar, Venus' errors mounting as she looked more uncomfortable, slapping her left thigh while awaiting serves. When her eighth double-fault made it 5-2 she slumped over, leaning on her racket.

Serena improved to 38-3 with four titles this season. She is 40-1 in the past six Slams, a semifinal loss at the French Open the only glitch. Venus' last major title was the 2001 U.S. Open.

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