It’s been a long time since Venus Williams hid inside her hooded sweatshirt in the player’s box while watching her sister claim history as the first African-American female to win a Grand Slam in the Open Era in 1999. While Venus used the disappointment to propel herself towards winning the next two US Opens and Wimbledons, she once again took a back seat to her sister’s run at history during Serena Slam 1.0, where it was Venus holding the runner-up trophy for each of her sister’s four consecutive Grand Slam wins. It seemed that in the years between Serena’s first US Open win and Serena Slam 1.0, achieving her own success, and realizing that her kid sister was an imminent legend in her own right helped Venus to accept the intrusion on what we all thought was going to be Venus’ spotlight.
Back in the early days, the Williams sisters were a monolithic force. Living and training together, they made each other better, and intimidated everyone else with their play and their confidence. Bound together by their quixotic father and their own outsider status, they replaced genteel modesty with brash confidence — but, over the years, justified each and every one of their youthful boasts (and more of their father’s predictions than anyone would care to admit). As time went on, and Serena emerged as the more successful of the two, they developed separate lives, teams and interests, but there was never any doubt that Venus was Serena’s hero, and Serena was Venus’ inspiration.
Yet, in all of these years, and despite accusations to the contrary, Venus and Serena competed hard against each other — not always producing great tennis, but always bringing compelling drama to their matches. It would be fair to say that it was their combined star power that helped to establish the Saturday night US Open ladies’ final as must see TV in its early years. Nearly 15 years later, as the celebrity filled stands can attest, even a quarterfinal match between the two is still the hottest ticket in town.
If there were ever a time for Venus Williams to consider throwing a match, it might have been tonight. With her sister on a march towards history, and with her own place in the tennis firmament secured, it would be understandable if Venus declined to play the role of spoiler. But, from the first ball, it was clear that Venus, as always, came to play. Serving consistently and with power, and keeping Serena on her heels with aggressive groundstrokes, Venus started the match by staying even with Serena. But, eventually the tides of the match swayed with Serena — her scrambling defense blunted Venus’ weapons, and her counterattack exposed the weaknesses in Venus’ game that Serena knew better than anyone else. Venus held on and grabbed the second set when Serena pulled back — overcome by nerves and Venus’ fearless play. But, as has been the case in all of their Grand Slam matches since Wimbledon 2008, Venus had no answer as Serena surged again, cutting back on the errors and steeling herself to take the match away from Venus.
For all of the spectacle that comes with a Williams sisters match, it’s never easy to watch match point. It’s the moment that exposes the zero sum nature of the endeavor. There’s a reason we’ve always enjoyed the sisters’ doubles exploits so much — it’s the one time we get to see their glorious play without the bittersweet moment of one breaking off a piece of the other’s dreams.
Yet, despite the disappointment she must have felt, Venus capped tonight’s loss by embracing her sister with a broad smile and words of encouragement. Anyone looking at a picture of that moment might have thought Venus had won, as all Serena could muster was a sigh of relief, as her own march to tennis immortality stopped what could have been her sister’s last chance at glory. But, once again, in learning to embrace her sister’s greatness, Venus Williams has shown us another piece of her own.