Serena can be giddy – a fun-loving extrovert who loves to be silly while being a reflective, caring mom. Venus is a celebrated icon who has given so much and more than ever she is an introvert with a hint of zen.
One has vast round shoulders, such impressive fonts of power. The other is elegant and long, with a lean, appealing athleticism.
They are different. Serena, seeded No. 17, has the best stroke in the game – a serve that dictates. Venus, the No. 16 seed, has a reach and speed that astonishes. Her backhand is a laser. Her longevity kicks logic in the gut.
Serena has twice faced death because of an embolism and, more recently, frightening complications from a challenging childbirth. Venus still deals with a serious autoimmune disease. Yet, they are, so to speak, the same. They’re the Williamses, the fasten-your-seat-belts wonders who are both charmers and change agents. No, they don’t lead marches. They don’t write legislation; rather, they shift our mindsets, inspiring us and shaking things up.
To Mary Carillo, “Serena and her sister dance on the edge of a volcano more than any other champs I’ve watched.” Serena’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou said the values that the sisters deliver are “huge and universal.”
My favorite recent Venus moment came after she prevailed in the 2017 Australian Open quarterfinals. On Venus’ match point, her foe’s forehand whizzed long. The semi was hers. Yes, Venus is reserved – but in her ecstasy she bent low and then exploded into a vibrant dance that seemed like an out-of-body experience. She twirled, she leapt, she hugged herself, unleashed a shimmy or two and then dipped into inventive shapes a jazz dancer would have applauded – such triumphant body language.
When she emerged at just 14, Venus was a wide-eyed waif with plain clothes and big dreams who made her debut in an Oakland, California arena. Her dad boldly informed us that she and her sister would become No. 1 and 2 – and revolutionize the game. Wouldn’t you know, the sisters did zoom to the top while shaking up a stodgy sport.
Venus won Slams and collected Olympic gold, battled for equality and human rights and continues to cope with her disease. Now she’s a certified tennis elder who’s won 7 Slams, 49 titles and over $40 million. “Goodness,” joked one Aussie grandmother, “she should be home knitting.” The 38-year-old still beams, yet all the while she’s enigmatic – a beautiful mystery. Her gravitas is quiet. She holds her truths within. Serene and minimalist, she tells us, “I have a good life, a good family, and a good little dog…I’m living the dream…I’m pretty good at tennis.”
She reminded Elle magazine that she and Serena were “exactly the opposite of anything that ever happened before in the game. The old tennis world was pretty reserved, but Serena and I are bold. We stand out. We have color. We’re strong. We’re pretty. We have personality. We think things out. We’re smart.”
And here’s a newsflash. Serena is a newsmaker like no other. She won a Slam while pregnant. She married the founder of America’s fourth-leading website, survived a life-threatening childbirth, was a marvel at Meghan Markle’s and Prince Harry’s royal wedding, inspired millions with her daring appearance in Paris and then swept to the Wimbledon final. And her story is far from over.
She and Venus are the two greatest siblings in sports history. But the head of Russian tennis, Shamil Tarpsichev, referred to them as “the Williams brothers.” For years Serena has been the leading lady of women’s tennis. But Ion Tiriac, who owns the big Madrid tournament, said she was old, overweight and not good for tennis. Many marveled at the bold and beautiful body suit Serena sported in Paris. But amazingly, France’s tennis boss, Bernard Giudicelli, claimed she was disrespectful. Serena is a wonder woman who inspires African-Americans, women, single mothers, kids and a kazillion others, whether she’s on court, on network TV, at a glitzy gathering or on the cover of Time magazine.
And, all the while, Venus is obviously timeless. It’s not so much that she hasn’t been on the cover of Time Magazine by herself, it’s that she defies clocks and calendars.
The two have experienced it all: titles, bumps, boycotts, records, setbacks, family tragedy, comebacks, growth and redemption – their gritty stories draw us in. They’ve touched every sentiment – joy, contempt, rage, fear, jealousy, pride, envy, love, ecstasy. They’re wise, and fiercely defend each other. Others have retired, were suspended, or wavered at crunch time. The Williamses refuse to stop – they’re icons. Friday night at the US Open they will meet for the 30th time. Serena – who’s won 23 Slams, 72 titles and over $96 million – leads the rivalry, 17-12. But Venus prevailed in their last match in Indian Wells in March.
For all the magic of their legacy, there’s an anomaly. The matches between them can be hampered by a certain “kiss your sister” quality. Their cutting-edge ferocity – so essential when they face others – can seem to be on mute. Now, the only women to have played each other in four consecutive Slam finals will again thrill a full house on a big stage on a big night in the Big Apple. It’s right and wonderful. But it hardly seems right and wonderful that they should meet in the third round. But who cares? For as John McEnroe told us, the sisters are “the greatest story in sports history.”