French Open 2016: Paris cannot rain on the Serena and Venus Williams’ parade

Serena and Venus Williams are both through to the fourth round of the French Open in Paris

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis in Paris

They are two superstars of women’s tennis. Serena and Venus Williams.

The sisters, who continue to headline the women’s tour after almost two decades, are both multiple Grand Slam champions, are both seeded in the top 10 at this year’s French Open, and are both into the last 16.

Serena, who turns 35 in September, has been notching up Grand Slam titles—and Olympic medals and many other trophies—since she arrived on tennis’s centre stage at 16 years old. She has gone on to win Majors 21 from 26 finals, yet only once since then, in 62 Grand Slam singles appearances, has she lost in the first round,

So far, she is the only woman to hold all four singles Major titles at the same time twice—in a span separated by 12 years—and has four Olympic golds, five WTA Championships from seven finals, and almost 300 weeks as world No1. This week, she is playing in her 15th French Open as defending and three-time champion, and if she wins the title, it will be her 60th match-win in Paris—and more significantly, draw her level with the Open era record of Steffi Graf’s 22 Major singles titles.

But that is not where it ends for Williams: Serena has joined forced with elder sister Venus to win 13 Grand Slams and three Olympic golds in doubles—and they have teamed up this week in Paris for the first time since they won the doubles title here in 2010 (they were forced to withdraw with injury before their planned appearance in 2013).

And that is not where it ends for Venus, either. She reached her first Grand Slam singles final in her first year on the big stage in 1997—at the age of 17. She will turn 36 next month, and between then and now, she has won seven singles titles from 14 finals, singles Olympic gold in 2000, and the WTA Championships in 2008.

Her recent story has been one of determination over adversity, too: She contracted the debilitating Sjögrens Syndrome in 2011, did not get beyond the third round of a Grand Slam for three years, but then last year made the quarters in Australia and the US Opens and won her first title since 2010. Having fallen outside the top 100 at the end of 2011, she ended last year at No7. No wonder sister Serena always points to Venus as her biggest role model.

Roland Garros, and clay in general, has not been the tall and rangy elder Williams’ happiest hunting ground. She was runner-up here in 2002, and has reached the quarters twice more, but in the last decade, she had made the fourth round only once—until now. Playing in her 70th Grand Slam and her 19th French Open, she has joined Serena in the fourth round once again.

Neither sister has done it the easy way, though: Both had to play popular French opposition and both had to deal with appalling weather conditions.

Serena and No26 seed Kristina Mladenovic battled through a 6-4 first set, which went with one break to Williams. In the second, Mladenovic twice came back from 0-40 down to hold, and they battled to a tie-break as the rain began to fall heavily. They would wait out the Paris storms for two and a half hours before returning to play one of the finest and closest games of the tournament.

Mladenovic went 5-2 up, but Williams levelled to 5-5, but on match-point she hit a smash long. At 8-7, courtesy of a double fault from the French woman, Williams hit another volley long. Then it was Mladenovic’s turn to serve for the set after playing the latest of her many and effective drop shots.

But Williams would not let this slip. On the fifth match-point, Mladenovic hit the ball long and, after two and a quarter hours, Williams headed into the second week and a meeting with No18 seed, Elina Svitolina, who beat No14 Ana Ivanovic.

In five previous meetings against the unpredictable flair of former No11 but now No50 Alize Cornet, Venus Williams had not dropped a set, not even faced a tie-break, but the French woman was riding a high and a wave of support from the home crowd.

This encounter would be different, though. For a start, they played only three games before the storms arrived, and returned almost three hours later to battle through a long set, exchanging breaks, but heading to a tie-break: Williams edged it, 7-6(5).

Cornet, though, produced her crowd-pleasing all-court tennis to turn the match around in the second dominant 6-1 set. But Cornet had been troubled by cramps and a left hip problem in her long second-round three-setter, and she quickly faded in the third here as Williams upped her serving. The American dropped only two points and broke three times in the decisive 6-0 set after almost two hours of play.

However, to reach her first French Open quarter-final in 10 years she now has to face one of the form players of the tournament so far, No8 seed Timea Bacsinszky, who reached the semis here last year.

Williams was asked, however, about the secret to her youthfulness: “Good genes. My sisters look just as young.”

They do, too, and as soon as Venus had completed her singles battle, she was out on court with one of them for another battle, a doubles contest that was halted after a gruelling 62-minute first-set tie-breaker—to the Williams. So after their long, late finish on Saturday, they were back Sunday morning and playing to a packed house with vast queues waiting for a glimpse of the superstars. Their Kazakhstan opponents levelled the match, but the Williams stormed through the decider, 6-0, to complete their task in an hour or so. Not yet done, they were also slated to return an hour later to play for a spot in the quarters.

Venus said of Serena: “I’ve always been a big sister. It’s the best job in the world. I think probably she thinks being a little sister is the best job in the world.”

And playing together remains a big deal, even with this punishing scheduling:
“What can you do? We both want to be in a position to win both matches. It’s important to us. We never want to let the other down, so I hustled as quick as I could to get on the court. Fortunately, if we can win the match, we play again.”

It seems, then, that very little can rain on the Williams’ parade, even after all these years.

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