Chris Evert summed it up perfectly last night, moments before Venus and Serena Williams took the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium: “Years ago, when they first came on the scene, it was the Williams sisters against the world,” she said. “And now, it’s now Venus versus Serena”
It’s been more than 17 years since they first battled it out on the court, and in that time, both the world and the Williams sisters have changed. Venus towers over the game as an elder stateswoman, having fought for equal prize money with unflinching will and continued her pro career with dignity and determination after being diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome in 2011. Serena, on the other hand, has amassed what is likely to be one of the two greatest CVs in Open Era tennis, and at the age of 33, is attempting to complete a Calendar Grand Slam, a feat that would come just two months after she wrapped up the second so-called “Serena Slam” of her career. She was the favorite Tuesday night, when the sisters squared off in the quarterfinals of the US Open, and she did what she was supposed to do – outlast her older sibling 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 – to move one step closer to tennis immortality.
But the hype surrounding their match, and Serena’s quest, also speaks volumes about the way the sport has evolved. By now, the Williams’ story is as well documented as it is unconventional – from sun-baked courts in Compton, California to the top of the tennis world – and their rise has helped drag the very traditional world of tennis into the 21st century, sometimes begrudgingly, often incrementally. Evert wasn’t overselling it; during the first few years of the Williams sisters’ careers, it really was them against the entire tennis world.
The early success of the sisters brought on an inevitable result: they started to run into each other in big tennis tournaments. In the first three years of their rivalry, they were slated to play each other six times – half of those at Grand Slam events. Venus and Serena clashed in a Wimbledon semifinal in 2000 and a US Open final in 2001. Venus, older and more experienced, won both of those encounters, but the reality was most of those early matches were hardly memorable. This was probably to be expected; tennis, no matter how it’s played, is about aggression. Given the context of their relationship and their ongoing friction with the establishment, the Williams sisters weren’t foes, they were allies.
They still are today, though you get the feeling Venus is growing tired of losing to her little sister. Serena’s quest for the Calendar Grand Slam has been well covered, but, for 35-year-old Venus, a victory would’ve meant a precious last chance at a Slam title (her last major semifinal was five years ago). It would also have meant some sort of retribution for what transpired during Serena Slam Vol. 1. While everyone remembers Serena winning four in a row – a run that began at the 2002 French Open – some might have forgotten that it was her older sister who had to hold the runner-up platter in every single one of those finals. Derailing Serena’s quest for a fifth consecutive major and the completion of the Calendar Grand Slam could have been some well-aged payback.
The stakes were high, and the sisters left everything on the court of Arthur Ashe Stadium last night. Venus gave her dominant little sister everything she could handle, particularly in the blitzkrieg that was the second set. Venus’ serve was booming, and her often-unreliable forehand was finding its way past Serena. The match seemed destined for a nail-biter of a third set, but Serena, as she often does, found another gear, and reminded us why she’s gotten the best out of her big sister 7 out of the past 8 times.
The most memorable moment was saved for the end. At net, the sisters embraced, and you could feel big sister Venus not only wrapping her arms around Serena, but also around the whole stadium and whoever was watching on a screen anywhere in the world.
A great battle had ended, and she had lost. But all Venus wanted to do was hold her younger sister, who still seemed far away, locked in whatever mental space great tennis players travel to when they need their absolute best.
GIF: Venus hugs Serena pic.twitter.com/xpIo7aOMvf
— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) September 9, 2015
It’s amazing to think that there was a time when these sisters, who have given tennis so much, were not particularly welcome within its confines. When every move they made was greeted with controversy. When their guard had to be up at all times. When they could only count themselves and their family as a source of peace.
Peace was all there was when Venus wrapped her long arms around the exhausted Serena last night. Peace with what they’ve been through. Peace with the outcome of this particular encounter, and peace with everyone around them. Over the past two decades, the Williams sisters have embarked on an amazing, occasionally jarring journey. Their stories are far from over, yet with each passing year, the odds of seeing them compete on the same court grow slimmer. If this was their final battle, then the image of them embracing is a fitting farewell. Through triumphs and tribulations, Venus and Serena Williams will be linked, now and forever. And we’ll never see another pair like them.