On Monday in Indian Wells, California, Venus Williams defeated her younger sister Serena 6-3, 6-4 to advance to the fourth round of the BNP Paribas Open.
Venus backed that up with another victory and is now in the quarterfinals, but the matches with Serena always take the headlines. Over more than 20 years, we have seen this matchup 29 times. However, this particular match felt a little different than the previous 28. It goes deeper than Venus picking up what is just her 12th win in this spirited sibling rivalry. Some outstanding qualities of both Venus and Serena were clearer than ever, both as tennis players and as people.
Venus and Serena have other siblings, but they do not have to compete with those other siblings for trophies and prize money in order to establish a legacy in a truly global sport. So, they have never made a secret of the fact that they have an incredibly close relationship.
Given the above paragraph, it has always been and always will be somewhat awkward to watch Venus and Serena play each other, both for fans and the sisters themselves. Even little things like the chair umpire using first rather than last names when calling the score add to that feeling. Every time the score is announced, the sisters are reminded that their own flesh and blood is on the other side of the net.
Early in their careers, this dynamic often swallowed up their head-to-head meetings. Both sisters wanted to win, but clearly hated the thought of the other having to lose. They would almost never look each other in the eye and the quality of play was not exceptional. The winner would always be careful not to celebrate too much. It was also not uncommon for the losing player to take pictures of her sister with a Grand Slam winner’s trophy.
As brilliant as both Venus and Serena are, they are still human beings. So, it is always going to be challenging for them to play each other. Serena has stated that she would rather face anyone else besides Venus.
Still, they have both learned how to manage their head-to-head meetings better in recent years. Both coaching teams readily admit to giving their respective player a scouting report before recent matches as opposed to doing nothing to prepare for earlier matches between the sisters. There are even occasional fist pumps by both Venus and Serena when they win a big point against each other now.
With both sisters well into their 30s, Serena now a mother and Venus now an aunt, their maturity both on and off the court was on full display in Indian Wells. The venue of Monday night’s match was also significant.
In 2001, Serena and Venus were slated to play each other in the semis of Indian Wells. Venus withdrew just minutes before the match with a knee injury. Fans perceived this as the sisters not wanting to play each other and their father deciding who would advance to the final.
As you can see and hear in the YouTube video below, Serena and her family were booed loudly in the final against Kim Clijsters. The entire Williams family was deeply affected by the ordeal and the word racism was thrown around. Both Venus and Serena vowed never to return to Indian Wells.
(YouTube video by robmercer2009)
In 2015, Serena announced her return to Indian Wells in a Time Magazine essay. Venus returned to the event the following year. As recently as five years ago, if you had told anyone who follows tennis that Serena and Venus would play each other in Indian Wells during Serena’s first official event as a mother, you would have been laughed out of the room for more than one reason. The fact that things did happen this way speaks the loudest volumes possible about the kind of women Serena and Venus have become.
Both all-time greats
At this point, the above heading is beyond debate. However, the Williams sisters have been so good for so long that it is easy to forget just how much they have accomplished. Also, they are still going strong.
Serena is just one Grand Slam singles title away from tying the all-time record of 24. As if that is not impressive enough, her most recent Grand Slam win came at last year’s Australian Open. She won the event without dropping a set. She beat her sister in the final. They were two of just a handful of people who knew what the rest of the world would soon find out. Serena was pregnant.
Winning a Grand Slam title under ordinary circumstances is incredibly difficult. Many great players have never done it. Doing so while carrying another human life inside you is one of the most jaw dropping feats that can possibly be imagined.
Coming back to the tour after a long absence is a huge challenge, no matter the reason for the absence. Victoria Azarenka played her third event since becoming a mother in Indian Wells. The two-time Grand Slam champion has not reached a quarterfinal and is still ranked well outside the top 100. Five-time major winner Maria Sharapova has been back from a 15-month suspension for almost a year and still cannot string more than one or two good matches together.
Meanwhile, Serena defeated two top-60 players in her first event back from maternity leave. She followed that up by going toe-to-toe with a top-10 player for the better part of two hours. There is not another human being on the planet who can pull that off. She is more than six years older than Sharapova and Azarenka.
The later years of Venus’ career have their own incredible backstory. She is now 37 years old. Tennis has skewed towards older players in recent years. Accomplishing big things in your 30s is not the eye-popping achievement it used to be.
However, Venus was diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome during the 2011 US Open. This is an autoimmune illness with fatigue and joint pain being its primary symptoms. These are the last things anyone who is trying to play tennis at a world class level in their 30s needs to deal with.
Yet, Venus is still plugging away. The world No. 8 has reached the second week at four of the last five Grand Slam events. This includes two finals last year. Prior to that, she had not played for a singles trophy at a major since 2009. The sisters seem intent on playing at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Venus will be 40.
Often times, it is difficult to appreciate the greatness of an athlete until after their playing days are done. However, the Williams sisters are an exception. There are around seven billion people in the world. Now, consider the odds of two people from the same family spending over two decades as the dominant forces in women’s professional tennis. When you really think about it, it is staggering.
So, with Venus and Serena still doing amazing things in the twilight of their careers, enjoy it while you can. It will not last forever. There will be other great quarterbacks in the NFL after Tom Brady retires, but the sports world will never again produce anything that comes close to Venus and Serena.
Featured image from telegraph.co.uk
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