June 28, 2004 12:00 PM

The spectators had never seen doubles action like this. Serena speeding one way, Venus racing the other, each in perfect sync with the other. Camisoles flying everywhere. “The dressing room was utter chaos,” says Lori Saad, manager of a Saks Fifth Avenue in Charleston, S.C., where the Williams sisters recently staged a tag-team shopping spree. “They had a teeny dog with them, and he just sat on the couch and watched.” Says Serena: “We spent like five hours in that store. At one point I looked at Venus and said, ‘Uh, why are we still here?’ And she held up a great top, and I said, ‘Let me try it on!’ She’s like, ‘It’s no fun when I shop alone.’ I agree.”

The Williams girls have always been close—heck, nearly inseparable—as they tore through the ranks of women’s tennis and transformed the sport. But these days their sister act is changing. Despite being together for the upcoming Wimbledon tournament, where play begins June 21, the two are spending less time on the court and more pursuing other careers—Venus, 24, is already a practicing interior designer, and Serena, 22, wants to be a movie star. Lately too, the sisters have given up meeting in one familiar place—the finals of Grand Slam events. Venus has been hobbled by foot injuries since last summer; Serena had surgery for a partially torn left knee tendon in August. Once the top two female players in the world, Venus and Serena are now ranked No. 8 and No. 10, respectively, following their early exits at the recent French Open.

They are also deliberately spending more time apart. “Serena’s doing more acting and I’m not into acting—unless she gets me a part,” says Venus. “I’m a behind-the-scenes girl.” Kerrie Brooks, who has trained them for the past several years, says, “I have definitely seen them develop their own personalities. They call each other every day, but they are going in their own directions.” Pulling away from a sibling, of course, is a natural part of life. “It’s about time,” says their mother, Oracene Price, who was divorced from their father, Richard, in ’02. “They are ready to go out on their own.”

Yet even as they enjoy the freedom of being out from each other’s shadow, they know where to turn in times of trouble. They helped each other get through their parents’ divorce as well as the random murder of their eldest half sister, Yetunde Price, 31, in Los Angeles last September. “She was a wonderful person,” says Serena of Yetunde, who left three young children. “We’re dealing with it however we can. Some days are better than others.”

Certainly they can afford to take a break from their day jobs. They have each won around $13 million in their careers; both also have endorsement deals—Serena with Nike, worth a reported $40 million, Venus for about the same amount with Reebok. Yet they swear tennis is still their top priority, and that they aren’t worried about any rising young stars. “There are always up-and-comers,” says Venus. “So let’s do battle. I still want to be the best.”

But clearly their focus is no longer solely on tennis. Venus is earning a degree in interior design and has her own design company, V Starr Interiors, which has done several residential projects. “There are so many things I’d like to be,” says Venus, who also devours language tapes (Spanish and Italian) and wants to branch out into fashion. “I love being busy. I go out, but I’d rather stay home and study.” Although she’s coy about her love life, she has often been spotted with clothing-company executive Davide Tomassoni, 28, who calls himself her “special friend.”

Serena, the more extroverted sister, still lives with Venus part of the year in the $1.8 million home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., they bought in 2000. But two years ago she got an apartment in Los Angeles to be closer to her “actor friends,” she says. So far she has filmed parts in the TV shows Law & Order and The Division and is plotting her feature-film debut. “If I hadn’t played tennis, I was destined to be an actress,” she says. “I’m a complete drama queen. When we were younger, Venus and I put on plays for our parents, and I always had to have the biggest role. Then somehow my career got sidetracked by tennis.”

She’s making up for lost time now. Since setting up camp in L.A., she has met Ben Affleck (“He’s cool, not like that whole Bennifer guy. And, oh my God, he’s cute”) and begun dating Rush Hour director Brett Ratner, 35. “We’re just friends,” she says of Ratner, who has a different take on things. “We’re very good friends,” he says. “I have a big crush on her. She’s not afraid to fail, whether it’s tennis or acting.”

Just take a peek at her list of goals, scribbled inside a pink fuzzy book embossed with “I Love Orlando Bloom” on the cover: “Win the Italian Open. Win the French Open. Win Wimbledon. Become a size 4. Be in a movie. Start Serena Williams Education Foundation. Write a book.” What, no Nobel Peace Prize? “Just watching her is inspiring,” says Venus. “I just want her to have it all. To be honest, I want more for her than I do for myself.”

Lately Venus and Serena have been huddling to work on two books, one about tennis and the other full of sisterly advice for young girls. This August they’ll be together in Athens for the Summer Olympics. Both already own gold medals in doubles tennis, but with the Williams girls it’s never about the hardware. “I remember I had to lend one of my gold medals to Serena for a photo shoot because she misplaced hers,” says Venus. “That’s just the kind of thing a big sister does.”

Alex Tresniowski. Lori Rozsa in Palm Beach Gardens

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