One is a giddy extrovert, fun-loving and silly. The other is an elusive introvert with a hint of zen. Her mantra is in-the-moment.
One has vast rounded shoulders, such considerable fonts of power. The other is elegant and long, with a lean, appealing athleticism.
They are different. The live-wire younger one has the best stroke in the game – a serve that dictates. The quiet elder has a reach and speed that astonishes. Her backhand is a laser. Her longevity kicks logic in the gut.
One nearly died due to an embolism, the other still battles an autoimmune disease.
Going into tonight’s final, one had 22 Slams and reigned at No. 1 for 310 weeks. The other had seven Slams and was No. 1 for 11 weeks.
But Serena and Venus are the same. They’re the Williamses, the fasten- your-seat-belts gals. They’re change agents. No, they don’t do Martin Luther King change. They don’t lead marches. They don’t write legislation. They’re into HSN. But the dynamic duo has shaken things up.
Emerging out of L.A.’s inner city, their dad called Venus the ghetto Cinderella. Agents swarmed when they were nine and ten. They shunned junior tourneys, but didn’t hesitate to don statement beads. Their beads fell to the court, but not nearly as fast as their rankings rose. Shaped and inspired by their dad and their clan, they took tennis by the scruff of its neck and gave it a good shake, announcing We’re here, we’re good, we’re big, we’re black, we know this game, we are not going away. Don’t try to change us. Are you paying attention? As sisters, as African-Americans, as Americans, as stars – we’ll do it our way.
And so they did. Titles, bumps, boycotts, records, setbacks, family tragedy, comebacks, growth and redemption – their stories had grit and drew us in. “As the Williamses Turn” was never designated as the Official Soap Opera of the WTA. It should have been. Venus and Serena touched every sentiment – joy, contempt, rage, fear, jealousy, pride, envy, love, ecstasy. They transformed our game and went on to become icons for our culture.
Others retired, were suspended or wavered at crunch time. The Williamses’ journey refuses to stop. Once again, in Australia, literally and figuratively, they were the last ones off the island.
Here, much of their supporting cast had changed. Mother Oracene, the eternal witness, was at home. The mastermind of it all, father Richard, had a stroke and reportedly is struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. Serena’s recent guru, Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou, was debonair as usual, as was Serena’s bearded fiancé Alexis Ohanian.
At last it was showtime. The two sisters, who once shared a bedroom and a bunk bed, emerged to share the court at Laver Arena, where Serena had won six titles and where they’d last faced off in the 2003 final.
For all the magic of the Williams legacy, there’s an outlier. The matches between them can have a certain dreary “kiss your sister” quality. That cutting-edge ferocity – so central to their other matches -– can lag.
Serena would later tell ESPN that the final was a “celebration for sport, for women, for everything we did. It didn’t matter who won…[We showed that] you can conquer anything.”
But the sisters couldn’t conquer their nerves. Early on, errors abounded – the greatest server of all time double-faulted three times in one game. Venus hit out, and suffered seven backhand errors in the first set. There were four straight breaks of serves. Finally, at 3-3, Serena hit a drop-shot winner and blasted a down-the-line backhand to score her third break of the set. It propelled her to a patchy and devastatingly standard 6-4 first set win.
Then, in the second set, the level on both sides picked up.
The proper Aussie crowd at last awoke, as Venus, thanks to some astonishing serving, saved three break points to hold. She would have good looks at some vulnerable second serves, but couldn’t dent her sister, who now was in gear and dictating with Serenian ease. At 3-3, on her third break point, Serena leaned in effortlessly and powered a stunning cross court backhand return of serve winner to break and go up 4-3. And the rest is history. Serena promptly held twice more to score a 6-4, 6-4 win that allowed her to leapfrog two Germans. She surpassed Steffi Graf as she gained an Open Era record 23rd Grand Slam, and she reclaimed the No. 1 ranking from Angie Kerber. This was Serena’s tenth major as a thirty-something. She’s the oldest woman to win a Slam. She claimed the title without losing a set, and now has a 17-11 record over her sister. Her poignant sisterly hug with Venus after her triumph lasted longer than many of the points in the match.
When the world was obsessing on the child Venus Williams, her Daddy Richard, with the usual twinkle in his eye, loved to tell us that Venus had a little sister who was much meaner. Serena wasn’t that mean today, but she was mean enough. All of which prompted one reporter to ask Venus if she thought she and her sister were the greatest sports story of all time.
With her typical humility Venus replied, “I don’t think we’re going for the greatest story in sports. We are just going for some dreams. In the case that we are [the greatest story], what an honor, what an honor.”
No, Venus, the honor, for twenty-three lively, loud and luminous years, has been ours.
Additional reporting by Tanya Liesegang