US Open 2015: Venus and Serena Williams renew New York rivalry 14 years after first final

Serena Williams beats 19th seed Madison Keys to set up a quarter-final clash against her sister Venus at the US Open

A week ago, 128 women made ready for one of the most gruelling tests in tennis, the US Open, and the heat and humidity made sure it was even more gruelling than usual.

And the top 32, the seeds in the pack, proved far from immune to the rigours of the first week. Barely half of them made it to their allotted place in Round 3—just 18 of them—and by the time the draw was reduced to 16, only two in each half were actually ranked in the top 16.

More remarkable still was that, among five unseeded players, two were qualifiers, so had already played and won six matches. The teenage Anett Kontaveit enjoyed a gift of a run without facing any seeds, while Johanna Konta had cut down two, No18 Andrea Petkovic and No9 Garbine Muguruza—but both now faced former Grand Slam champions.

For despite the early culling of seeds, quality had persisted in the shape of the top two seeds at either end of the draw, No1 Serena Williams and No2 Simona Halep.

There remained six former Grand Slam champions, as well, three of them winners at the US Open: Williams going for a fourth straight title on home soil, Sam Stosur chasing her second, and Serena’s elder sister Venus, at 35 the oldest woman in the draw, going for the title 14 years after her last.

It fell to Konta to take on the formidable and in-form former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova come Monday, and Kontaveit had the equally daunting prospect of one of New York’s favourite daughters, the enduring Venus.

Could the youngest remaining woman in the draw equal the best ever result by a qualifier at the US Open, set in 1981, and reach the quarter-finals? Or could Venus extend the record set at Wimbledon this year and become the oldest to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final in more than two decades?

Any lingering doubts were dismissed in just 50 minutes, as the elder Williams broken five times, hit more winners, dropped only four points on her first serve—and even ran further than her young opponent. It was a performance of such focus and power from the baseline by Williams that Kontaveit managed just three games, 6-2, 6-1.

When Venus withdrew from the US Open in 2011 with what later proved to be the debilitating Sjogren’s Syndome, New York may have wondered whether the former champion, already 31 at the time, would ever shine brightly here again after she slipped outside the top 100.

For three years, she played a limited schedule while she fought to keep the illness under control. Gradually, though, she made inroads, notably beating her sister for the first time in five years in the semis of the Montreal Premier last year. And this year, the early hard courts brought victory in Auckland and a quarter run in Australia—plus good showings in Doha and Miami.

Along the way, her path crossed with Serena’s again, at Wimbledon, their first Grand Slam meeting since Serena beat Venus to the title there in 2009. Now it seemed as though New York, the place where Venus won the title all those 14 ago in her first Major final against Serena, may play host to their 27th meeting—but in what circumstances.

For perhaps the biggest story of the tennis summer, and of this tournament, was the one surrounding Serena’s campaign to win the Calendar Slam.

For this remarkable player, who turns 34 this month, and who won her first Major as a teenager at the US Open in 1999, was hot favourite to win her seventh back where it all began, her 22nd Major overall—which would equal the Open era record of Steffi Graf.

She was in the midst of one of her best ever seasons: 51-2 so far, losing in two semi-finals to Kvitova in Madrid and Belinda Bencic in Toronto, and on a 24-match US Open streak, winning three back-to-back titles since losing to Stosur in the 2011 final.

But her quest in New York was proving tough, so much so that she had to fight back from a set down against Bethanie Mattek-Sands to reach the fourth round. And now she faced an even tougher American, the 20-year-old big-hitting talent of No19 seed Madison Keys.

They had met only once before, at this year’s Australian Open, where Keys pushed Williams to an opening tie-breaker in the semi-finals having beaten both Kvitova and sister Venus along the way. She also made the quarters at Wimbledon, and was improving with every tournament under the tutelage of 1998 US champion, Lindsay Davenport.

Many were already talking of Keys as the next great American player, and she was beginning to the look the part: lean, fit, confident, and able to match Williams with serve and forehand power. And to reach this latest test, Keys had dropped no more than six games in any match, and that included a 6-3, 6-2 demolition of Agnieszka Radwanska.

Williams would have to step up her level if she was to contain Keys, and the opening seven games showed why, in a blistering display of serving and ball-striking from the baseline. The standard of tennis was near-flawless on both sides, and a packed Arthur Ashe were soon cheering almost every shot.

But having stood toe-to-toe, Keys blinked in the eighth game with a couple of double faults—surely the tension taking hold at last—and Williams pushed on the opening door to break. She served out the set in under half an hour, 6-3.

The composure and quality of Keys rose to the challenge at the start of the second set, when a huge return-of-serve from Serena brought up break point. Keys held, and came under even greater pressure in the third game—this time four break points, two of which she saved with aces—and she held with a searing forehand.

The set was already 20 minutes old and Keys seemed to gather greater confidence from her tests. She played magnificent tennis to hold to love, 3-2, but just a couple of wayward strikes in the seventh game, and she was in trouble. Serena went for the kill, broke her prey, and held to love with a 121mph ace. She finished the job with a final break, 6-3, having made just three unforced errors in 68 minutes.

And so the big quarter-final face-off was set, one sister trying to deny the other her shot at one of the biggest coups in tennis.

Yet Venus summed up this remarkable rivalry perfectly: “Awesome, it’s been awesome! I’m so proud of Serena and I think she’s proud of me, and we inspire each other.”

The only criticism Serena had for her sister was the speed of her win: “I barely had time to get ready for my match today she was playing so fast! I have to be ready for that, play as well as today… but at least a Williams will be in the semis so that’s great!”

While the Williams story was unfolding, another was ending. Eugenie Bouchard, whose form after a breakout 2013 had plummeted to just nine wins in 26 matches this year, had at last shown signs of her old form this week. But a fall in the changing rooms forced her to withdraw with concussion. Roberta Vinci goes on to meet either unseeded Kristina Mladenovic or No13 seed Ekaterina Makarova in the quarter-final.

Bottom half fourth rounds:

No5 Petra Kvitova vs qualifier Jo Konta
No22 Sam Stosur vs No26 Flavia Pennetta
No20 Victoria Azarenka vs unseeded Varvara Lepchenko
No2 Simona Halep vs No24 Sabine Lisicki

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