Australian Open 2017

Australian Open 2017: Records tumble again as Serena Williams beats sister Venus to reclaim No1

The American beats her sister Venus Williams to win the Australian Open crown and return to world number one

When Venus Williams beat Coco Vandeweghe to reach her first final at the Australian Open in 14 years, the dancing, twirling exuberance of her celebration might well have been that of the long-limbed teenager who reached the quarter-finals in Melbourne in 1998.

Now 36 and playing in her 17th Open and her 73rd Grand Slam—records both—Williams had changed little, aside from accumulating seven Major singles titles from 14 finals. As she put it: “That moment was just joy.”

And if she should win her first Australian title in her first Major final after over seven years? “It would be beautiful. It would be beautiful.”

It would, too, be an extraordinary achievement in a career marred in recent years by Sjögren’s Syndrome, and back and knee injuries that saw the one-time No1 in the world plummet outside the top 100.

But Venus is just one half of a bigger, still more extraordinary story: The other half is sister Serena, against whom she would play for the 28th time come final Saturday.

It would be their 15th Grand Slam meeting in a series that began in this city in 1998 when Venus was 17 and Serena 16. It would be their ninth meeting in a Grand Slam final—the last played at Wimbledon in 2009—and they would combine to make this the oldest Major final in the Open era, boasting almost 72 years between them.

And these sisters are also best friends, each other’s No1 fan, and regard one other as the toughest player they have ever faced.

After Serena’s semi-final win, she explained their close relationship:

“After everything that Venus has been through with her illness and stuff, I just can’t help but feel like it’s a win-win situation for me. I was there [with Venus] for the whole time. We lived together. I know what she went through. It’s the one time that I really genuinely feel like no matter what happens, I can’t lose, she can’t lose. It’s going to be a great situation.”

For all that, there was an awful lot at stake—for Serena in particular. Should she win, she would reclaim the No1 ranking that she gave up last September after three and a half years at the top. She would also overtake Steffi Graf’s Open record of 22 Major singles titles.

One thing was certain, though: No matter the stakes, the friendship, and the respect. The sisters Williams would give no quarter once the first ball was in play. Not that either was immune to the moment of the occasion, and two of the best servers ever to play the game were as tight as a drum in the opening stages.

Venus began, and immediately struggled to hit a first serve into play, and a superb cross-court forehand winning return of serve from Serena brought a quick break.

But Serena was just as tight: she double faulted, and Venus responded with her own punishing returns of serve to break back.

All the tension spilled over in the third, a long tussle to deuce with errors flowing from Serena. The crowd was already fully engaged in every point, with plenty of vocal participation during the rallies. A final punishing return from Venus got the break back, and Serena smashed her racket in frustration.

Still the tension was palpable: aces and double faults abounded on both sides, and that left the way open for some clinical winners on return of serve. Another break apiece, and they were still at 2-2.

At last, there was a hold from Venus, and then one from Serena. With almost half an hour on the clock, the sisters stood all square, 3-3.

Now the momentum shifted just a little as Serena at last seemed to relax. Venus double faulted, and her sister pounced, first with a return of serve winner, then a net rush to make a winning volley off her feet. She broke to lead 4-3, and that buoyed her through a tough hold and then a brilliant love game, including two aces, for 6-4.

By the second set, both seemed to have loosened up, and both held serve. Even at 0-40 down in the third game, Venus unleashed five big serves, backed up with two drive volley winners to hold.

They stayed on even terms until, as before, the seventh game. In the longest rally of the match thus far, a full-blooded baseline exchange, Serena forced a forehand wide from Venus for break point, and then had another, but both chances were snuffed out by big serves. On the third, though, Serena ripped a cross-court backhand winner and her box was on its feet: The breakthrough was made, and four big serves later, she stood at 5-3.

Venus was not about to back off, and went up for a huge smash winner to open the ninth game, but she clearly pulled a muscle in her shoulder. She shook it out to hold, but now Serena stepped up to serve for the championship.

Suddenly, she was 15-30 down after the longest and most intense rally of the match ended in a crushing cross-court forehand from a chasing Venus. The crowd roared, but after two forehand errors from the elder sister, silence descended on this vast arena: Serena had match point. She chased down a drop shot, put it deep, and drew one last error from her sister to clinch her 23rd Grand Slam title.

The embrace between the sisters was, of course, long and heart-felt, but perhaps it had been inevitable that the younger sister would eventually step up to receive this trophy. After all, she had won seven of their last eight matches and, since those teenage days, had been the dominant player. But judging from the smiles on both sides, Serena had been right: there really was no loser in this match.

Serena summed it up in a gracious acceptance speech:

“I really would like to take this moment to congratulate Venus. She’s an amazing person. There’s no way I’d be at 23 without her, there’s no way I’d be at No1 without her, there’s no way I’d be anywhere without her. She’s an inspiration to me. [Turning to her sister] Every time you got a win this week I felt like I won too.”

Of course the bottom line is that Serena continues to be the one breaking tennis records at every turn: the most Australian titles, seven; the most Majors in the Open era—and only one short of Margaret Court’s all-time 24; the oldest woman to win a Major and to hold No1 in the Open era; joint most appearances in Melbourne (with her sister) at 17; most match-wins at the Australian Open, now 81, and most match-wins in Majors in the Open era (men or women), at 316; the longest span between Grand Slam titles, now over 17 years.

And who’s to say that, by the end of 2017, the mighty Serena won’t have overtaken Court in Major titles and overtaken Martina Navratilova in weeks at No1?

For now, though, let us leave this Williams adventure with the words of Venus. Asked if this was the greatest story in sports, she said:

“I don’t think we’re going for the greatest story in sports. We’re just going for some dreams.”

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will be going for their dreams, same time tomorrow.

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