Venus and Serena Williams: In every great rivalry, one must lose

Venus and Serena Williams' success story, one of the finest in any sport, began in the last century and continues to this day

venus williams and serena williams
Sisters Venus and Serena Williams Photo: emmettanderson/Flickr

venus williams and serena williams

As family achievements go, the records put together by Venus and Serena Williams must rank as some of the finest in any sport.

It is a success story that began in the last century and continues to this day.

The teenage Venus’s first big title came in Miami in 1998, a year in which she reached the quarters of all four Majors—and the semis of the US Open. She won the Grand Slam Cup a month later.

The following year, the teenage Serena—the younger sister by a year—burst onto the scene in even more dramatic style, winning five titles that included not just big Premiers in Paris and Indian Wells but also the US Open and the Grand Slam Cup.

A remarkable 15 years on, they are still playing at an elite level—both now in their 30s and with a stream of health and injury problems in their wake—having put together a pair of resumes that makes the eyes water.

Between them, they have amassed 22 Grand Slam singles titles and 13 doubles titles—26 if you count both women, since they have always played together. Then there are four mixed doubles Slams, an Olympic singles gold each, plus three golds as a pair.

Serena has won the WTA Championship three times across a span of more than decade, and has reached the No1 ranking six times in the same span, first in 2002 and currently as the oldest No1. Venus claimed one WTA Championship and reached No1 on the first of three occasions in 2002. Their combined tally of singles titles is 92, of double titles 44.

With two such giants of the game playing in the same era and over so many years, it became inevitable that they would not just join forces on the same side of the net but would just as often face one other across the net. In fact, 23 times they did just that: 12 times it in a Grand Slam; 11 times in a final; seven times in a Major final. The Williams rivalry, in short, has been one of the most enduring and fascinating in tennis.

It seemed, however, that this rivalry might have reached an appropriate and conclusive climax at the season finale of 2009, the WTA Championships in Doha. Twice they played—in the pool phase and the final—with Serena taking the title that Venus had won the year before.

They had not met since, and when first Serena left the circuit for a year with major foot injury and a pulmonary embolism and then, within weeks of her return, Venus was forced out for seven months with Sjogren’s Syndrome, it looked as though the rivalry may be over for good.

Until now.

With Serena back at No1 in the world and Venus breaking the top-20 last month for the first time since her illness, they arrived at their first clay tournament of the year, the big 56-woman Premier in Charleston, seeded Nos 1 and 5.

As luck would have it, they became the last two of the top eight seeds—those who enjoyed a bye in the first round—still standing. And as luck would also have it, they were drawn in the same half.

But neither enjoyed ‘the luck of the draw’ when it came to the schedule for the Family Circle Cup. With Thursday’s third-round matches affected by rain delays, both the Williams had their matches delayed to Friday. Should they win, they would have to return within a couple of hours to play their quarter-finals.

Both did win, so they alternated through four matches—and went on to beat their quarter-final opponents in straight sets.

And so, three-and-a-half years after their last meeting, they faced one another for a 24th time, their first on clay since the final of the French Open in 2002.

But of course the Williams rivalry has that extra sibling dimension to give such moments a special buzz: Serena and Venus have a closeness, a friendship and an intimacy that no others can match.

This was Serena after their tough Friday in South Carolina:

“It was really motivating to see Venus win today. I figured if she can win two matches, I have no excuse not to win my two matches…”

Then she added: “Venus is the toughest opponent I’ve ever played. I think she’s beaten me the most out of any player. I know her game and she knows my game. I know where she’s going to serve; she knows where I’m going to serve. I know her patterns; she knows mine—she probably knows mine better than I do.”

Indeed when one is playing, the other is watching. When one Tweets, it is often about the latest achievement of her sister. As Venus explained:

“I’ve seen her so many times—hopefully all the times I’ve sat in those stands watching her will give me a little help.”

Perhaps not surprisingly after double duty on Friday, both looked a little sluggish in the opening games. The sun was high and hot but the court, with lots of top dressing after its drenching during the week, was slippery. Neither looked wholly at ease.

Venus gave up her opening serve with a double fault, and then made a volley error with some uncertain footwork to concede what would have been a break-back point. Gradually, Serena began to crank up her serve, looked more certain striding wide of the baseline, and held to lead 3-0.

The Venus serve continued to look both lethargic and inconsistent, an open invitation to her sister’s forehand: It was another break, 4-0, and now the crowd tried to lift the older sister. It worked—at least for a short while. With Serena serving into the sun, Venus made three outright winners off her sister’s delivery and broke: She was on the scoreboard, but still was unable to find her own serve.

A fourth double fault gave Serena two break points and she zipped a winner—her eighth—past Venus to break again.

It took barely a minute for Serena, owner of the most feared serve in the women’s game, to hold to love for a 6-1 set. She had made not a single unforced error against Venus’s eight—but both looked equally subdued by the score.

With the match little more than 20 minutes old, Venus opened the second set with another double fault, and Serena broke to lead 2-0. Then for the first time in the match, Venus held serve, finishing with a rare volley winner.

She tried it again in her next service game and held again, apparently summoning some extra intensity from her weary body. But if her first problem was the debilitating Sjogren’s Syndrome—which surely took advantage of a third match in around 24 hours—the second was her sister. Venus, after all, is not alone in finding Serena the most formidable of all opponents.

So Serena, serving at 84 per cent, held off her sister’s fleeting challenge in the sixth game, broke and served out the match to love, 6-2.

There was no celebration, no smile, simply a warm handshake to mark the conclusion of a difficult 54-minute encounter. Serena led the applause as her sister left the court and kept the on-court interview short and sweet. She was, she agreed, really excited at her sister’s return to this level of competition.

She added afterwards that Venus was not 100 per cent: “Three matches for her in two days I know is extremely tough.”

Venus described her semi-final finish as “something for me to build on.” Unfortunately for the elder of these two extraordinary siblings, it was also a measure of how far adrift she is from her younger sister.

And she will surely recognise that she is unlikely ever again to enjoy the heights which she, at the beginning of the inspiring Williams’ story, shared with Serena.

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