By early 2001, with Venus age 20 and Serena still a teenager, they had won between them three singles Majors, four doubles Majors, the Fed Cup, and two Olympic golds in Sydney. They had also played each other five times—the very first being 20 years ago at the Australian Open 1998—and then came their first schedule meeting at Indian Wells.
In the event, it did not happen. What followed instead was a 13-year boycott by both sisters after they were booed and abused by a few in the crowd following the withdrawal of Venus with illness from their scheduled semi-final.
It took years for those wounds to heal, years during which the sisters faced many other health problems but still managed to bestride the tennis ranks into their 30s. Finally, though, they buried the hatchet, Serena returning in 2015, Venus in 2016, and this year, they would at last play each other on centre court, and with still more history behind them.
Now 36 and 37 respectively, they have both been ranked No1—Serena only last year reaching a tally of 316 weeks at the top—and have accumulated 30 Major singles titles, 14 Major doubles titles, and four Olympic golds.
The only disappointment for the tournament, perhaps, was that they would meet unseasonably early. For while Venus was still ranked No8 in the world—indeed last year, she was the only woman to reach two Major finals—Serena was unseeded. For she left the tour after beating Venus at last year’s Australian Open, and gave birth to her daughter in September.
But even after life-threatening post-birth complications, she was back, had beaten two players, including No29 seed Kiki Bertens, and now had to face the woman she has always regarded as her toughest opponent, sister Venus, in the third round. It would be their earliest encounter in a tournament since their first match 20 years ago, and Serena described the prospect thus:
“I really abhor every time we play.”
It is easy to understand the sentiment: Those with close bonds to siblings can barely comprehend the focus it must require to put aside the emotions and channel the competitive juices—and all the more so when each has an understanding of the tribulations the other has faced and overcome.
But they had done it 28 times before, and most recently in one of nine Major finals, in Australia last year—Serena’s last tour match until this tournament.
The younger sister had the advantage, 17-11, and an 11-8 lead on hard courts, and had also won eight of their last nine. Could Venus ride her superior match-fitness to a 12th win?
Well from the very first game, the intensity on court was palpable. Venus faced three deuces, saved break point with an ace, and finally held. Not to be outdone, Serena fought off four deuces in a marathon seven and a half minute second game. Venus, alternating double faults with aces, faced another break point in the third game, but with over 16 minutes already on the clock and a tally of a dozen winners between them, she held, 2-1.
With the first easy service game, Serena levelled 2-2, 20 points apiece. And now Venus responded with a love hold, and stepped in to return her sister’s serve early and with great depth to draw errors: it brought a break to love, 4-2.
They were playing first-strike tennis, both going for winners off serve and off return of serve. Venus, though, had the lead, and served out the set to love with two more aces, 6-3, in little more than half an hour, and with 12 winners in the bag to just seven errors.
Serena had made 17 errors in that first set, as she determined to step in for quick winners—too often missing her target—and long rallies continued to be thin on the ground in the second set.
But in contrast with the first set, the opening three games went to one player, Venus, 3-0, with two breaks. Perhaps inevitably, her lead did not last, and Serena got one break back, hustling her sister with a killer drop shot and then a forehand winner.
The two exchanged another a pair of thrilling breaks, with Serena staving off match-point in the process, and then Venus faced a break point that would have levelled the set, 5-5. But she aced, and closed out the match, 6-4, in an hour and 24 minutes.
As one would expect from these two, each was full of compliments for the other.
Venus: “Her level is super high and it was very difficult to close out the match, just getting one ball back… I think I have played more matches in the last year. Even though I haven’t played that much this year, the matches in the last year count.”
Serena concurred: “I haven’t played in over a year… I think this is the best she’s played in a while. She didn’t make a lot of errors. She served very consistently. She just did everything great.”
Then the two-time former Indian Wells champion added:
“Losing is definitely no less disappointing. I wish it were, but it’s not. So I just have a long way to go, and I’m looking forward to the journey.”
But it will be Venus who continues this journey in the desert, and in a half of the draw that still has all but one of its seeds intact. She will take on No21 seed Anastasija Sevastova for a place in the quarter-finals after the Latvian beat Julia Goerges, 6-3, 6-3.
In the other quarter, the No2 seed and former champion, Caroline Wozniacki, had a battle on her hands against Aliaksandra Sasnovich, and was the first to concede a break in the deciding set. But she broke straight back, and finally got the decisive break for 5-3, serving out the win for a Round 4 place, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, after two hours 17 minutes.
Wozniacki will have her work cut out again against No20 seed Daria Kasatkina, who beat No13 seed Sloane Stephens, 6-4, 6-3. The 20-year-old Kasatkina has now beaten all four reigning Major champions in the last seven months, Jelena Ostapenko, Garbiñe Muguruza, Stephens—and Wozniacki last month in St Petersburg.
Also competing for a quarter-final place will be No7 seed Caroline Garcia, who beat No26 seed Daria Gavrilova for the first time in six meetings, 7-5, 6-4. But she will have to fight for that place against No10 Angelique Kerber, who beat defending champion, No24 Elena Vesnina, 7-5, 6-2.
But the lesson from Indian Wells this week is that the Williams story is nowhere near over yet. It is even possible that, all these years after that infamous 2001 tournament, the oldest woman in the draw could win her first Indian Wells title.
And in a rare tribute to the two remarkable sisters, the umpire called their scores by first names only. It did, of course, make things a little easier, but it also proved that, when it comes to the greatest athletes in the world, first names say it all.
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BIOGRAPHY: Hector Bellerin
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