Venus Down Serena Up and On her way to the Grand Slam
Who better to lose to than your younger sister who has always admired and respected you? Well it’s a question that Venus Williams will have plenty of opportunities to answer. Tuesday evening match began as a rivalry that in terms of importance and longevity in the tennis world compares with Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf-Monica Seles. The difference of course being that Venus and Serena are sisters.
The Williams sisters have met 26 times, 13 in Grand Slam events and eight in Grand Slam finals. The 13 Grand Slam meetings are the most of any pair save for Evert and Navratilova, who met 22 times.
The Williams’ latest match, Tuesday night in the United States Open quarterfinals, may have been the most important yet, as Serena is bidding for the first Grand Slam since Graf in 1988.
But it was a rivalry between sisters, and that brings with it some ambiguity or even discomfort. The sisters have said they do not especially enjoy playing each other. “It definitely doesn’t get easier,” Serena said after their most recent meeting, in the round of 16 at Wimbledon this year.
It has been suggested years ago that matches between the sisters might be fixed while fans and tennis writers often describe their matches passionless which is harts ti believe sense individually they each bring so much passion to the game.
Still, Serena told reporters of Tuesday night’s match: “I’m playing the best player in the tournament. She knows how to play, how to win. She knows all my weaknesses.”
It was 1998 when Venus and Serena met for the first time professionally in the round of 64 at the Australian Open. Venus, though playing in just her fourth Grand Slam event, was already a United States Open finalist. Serena, a year younger at 16, was making her Grand Slam debut. Venus won, 7-6, 6- “It wasn’t so fun to eliminate my little sister in the second round,” Venus said.
It was Venus who dominated the competition at first, winning four of the first five meetings as well as their first Grand Slam final, the 2001 United States Open. But in 2002, Serena began to rise above and control the game.
It was the Serena Slam, from 202 to 2003 when Serena won four consecutive Grand Slam events. All four of the victories came over Venus in the final. It was considered the highpoint of the rivalry.
Venus beat Serena in the Wimbledon final in 2008, but has not beaten her at a Grand Slam event since. It was also Venus’s last Grand Slam title, however since then she has struggled with an immune deficiency diagnosed in 2011 causing her her performances to slip.
Still the most controversial match between noted was at Indian Wells in 2001. It was then that Elena Dementieva after losing to Venus in the quarterfinal suggested at a news conference that the sisters’ father, Richard, would decide who won the semifinal between them. A few minutes before the match, Venus pulled out, citing tendinitis.
But this time it felt like a full-circle match and moment at the United States Open. The crowd that would fill the stadium later milled outside Arthur Ashe Stadium full of anticipation on a steamy end of the summer night. Tuesday evening while observing the two sisters it was hard not to flash back to the beginnings of the Venus and Serena Williams story.
Memories of Compton, California and the early stages of their father’s plan to make them champions. The images of braces and hair beads, them walking off court hand-in-hand after their first match against each other as professionals.
Remembering Venus sitting, hooded-up and her emotions mixed, in the stands of this vast stadium in 1999 as her little sister became the first to win a major singles title.
With the whole world watching the Williams’ have provided a sibling rivalry like no other so it only seemed perfect that they meet-up this September match at the U.S. Open with so much tennis history on the line.
She’s a favorite in all her duels at this stage, and a particularly heavy favorite in the next round against Roberta Vinci, an unseeded Italian veteran better known for her doubles prowess who will be playing in her first Grand Slam singles semifinal.
Serena has not lost a set to Vinci in any of their previous four matches, beating her 6-4, 6-3 in the quarterfinals in Toronto last month.
“I think this is the end of the road for Roberta Vinci,” said Chris Evert, the champion turned analyst, on ESPN.
That may be true but truth is Vinci’s dexterous game of backspins and rhythm shifts is the type of game that has occasionally caused Serena grief in the past.
“She’s going to present a completely different game than my last three matches, four matches,” Serena said. “She has nothing to lose. I don’t either. So we’re just going to go out and have a lot of fun.”
It was understandable if unconvincing spin. A Grand Slam at this very advanced stage would certainly be a great deal to lose. Venus certainly recognizes the Grand Slam’s value, and when asked what Serena achieving it would mean to her, Venus continued to think collectively.
“I think that would be huge, not just for me, but for my family, just for what it represents and how hard we have worked and where we come from,” Venus said. “So it would be a moment for our family. But at the same time, if it doesn’t happen, it’s not going to make or break you. We don’t have anything to prove. She has nothing to prove. She’s really the best ever, so what are you going to do? Just try to make it. If you don’t, then that’s that, and go on to the next one.”
THE MATCH: VENUS VS SERENA
Serena has shrugged off so much tennis trouble this year – scrapping and rallying repeatedly on her way to the major trophies – and she shrugged off some more trouble on Tuesday night against her in-form sister.
The Williams’ have changed the women’s game with their open-stance backhands and hyper-aggressive returning, but even by the family’s standards, Venus was audacious in the early going: taking huge cuts at anything resembling an opportunity and even a few that did not.
“She came out hitting so hard, just blasting every shot,” Serena said in her post-match interview on court. “I was on defense a lot because she had so much power. It wasn’t really easy today at all.”
It was a deliberate attempt to retake the initiative after losing six of the last seven matches against Serena: the only exception being Venus’s victory in the semifinals of the Rogers Cup in Montreal last year.
In their last encounter Serena won 6-4, 6-3 in the fourth round at Wimbledon this year. But Venus posed a bigger threat Tuesday and actually ended up winning one of the key statistical duels of the evening: winning 50 percent of the points played on her second serve to Serena’s 48 percent.
But the bottom line was the score line, and after struggling in the second set, Serena played an intense opening game in the third to hold serve, then broke Venus in the next game with an off-balance backhand winner down the line.
“That was a big moment,” said David Witt, Venus’s longtime hitting partner. “After that Serena turns into a front runner and she sees the finish line and goes for it, and there’s nothing Venus could do unless Serena left an opening on her serve. And that’s her strength.”
Serena appeared introspective and serene when she faced Venus but Tuesday night she responded to the early break by bending forward with a clenched fist and roaring.
Both players are good so the crowd, continued to sound conflicted. There were phases in the first two sets where one could almost hear sound of hearts racing. If there was a crowd preference, it was in favor of Venus, but on balance, the vibe was more observational than participatory.
Difficult of course both, Venus and Serena remained conflicted, too. But in the end they’re are consummate professionals who are perfectionist. It’ sin their DNA and it was honed and developed. They can’t help it. It’s the way they’re wired.
The Williams’ have never thrown a game because as much as they mutually respect one another they each want to be their best.
“She’s the toughest player I’ve ever played in my life, and the best person I know,” Serena said. “So it’s going against your best friend and at the same time for me going against the greatest competitor in women’s tennis. So it was really difficult today.”
Challenging it is but Serena still possesses the ultimate trump card in women’s tennis, and though her first serve has not been an irresistible force throughout this tournament, she leaned on it again down the stretch.
She saved a break point in the third game of the final set with an ace and went on to hold to 3-0. Serving at 4-2 and 30-30, she fired another ace. And serving for the match at 5-3 and 40-15, she caught her first-serve toss – apologizing sweetly – and then reared back and fired her 12th and final ace to close out the victory.
Serena turned, unclenched her fists, re-applied her game face and marched slowly forward for an extended embrace with her sibling, who now trails their head-to-head series 11-16 but still has an insurmountable lead in another department.
“I will always be the older sister,” Venus said. “That’s never going to change.”
Serena in her typical manner turned toward the stands as they could actually see her suppress her natural inclination to express triumphant celebration, then it seemed she, suddenly remembered it was Venus on the other side of the net.