Like just about everyone out there, I’m eagerly anticipating the latest version of Venus vs. Serena slated for the evening session at the BNP Paribas Open. From their first professional match against each other, these meetings have been Events, regardless of the quality of the play that actually takes place. Siblings are not a novelty to tennis — after all, Bulgarian tennis was pretty much a Maleeva family affair during the 1980s, and Patrick McEnroe was a creditable pro in his time. But, aside from some of the earliest winners of the Slams, when they were genuinely private club championships, it was unheard of to have two siblings who had the potential to be all time greats — even while facing each other.
It’s easy to look at the broad sweep of the Williams’ sisters careers over the past 20 years and see how great their accomplishments have been. And, it goes without saying that their reach goes far beyond tennis — their accomplishments and longevity have inspired everything from name checks by Kanye to being painted on the side of local buses in Haiti. But, if you stop the clock right before their ill-fated scheduled meeting at Indian Wells in 2001, it’s clear that even by then, they already had Hall of Fame careers.
In 2001, Serena had only been playing a full schedule on the tour for three seasons, while Venus had been on tour for four seasons — their anticipated match at Indian Wells would only have been their sixth professional meeting, where Venus held a 4-1 edge in their prior meetings. Yet, even in the nascent part of their careers, their accomplishments were already mind-boggling.
As of March 2001, Venus Williams had already won two Grand Slam singles titles, and had been the runner up at the 1997 US Open, played during her debut year on the tour. She and Serena had won already completed the “Golden Career Grand Slam” in doubles, winning each major once plus the Olympic gold medal in doubles in 2000. Moreover, they also completed the “Williams Family Mixed Doubles Grand Slam” in 1998, when they combined to win all four Grand Slam mixed doubles titles (two each). In addition to the doubles gold medal with Serena in 2000, Venus had also won the Olympic gold medal in singles at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, as well. And, in perhaps the most surprising result at the time, Serena also had a Grand Slam title by then, with her 1999 US Open title.
It can’t be ignored that Venus and Serena reached these early heights in the face of a very hostile sport. While the jeers from the crowd in Indian Wells in 2001 might be the most well-known incident, Venus and Serena had already weathered hostility from the tennis community — whether a shove from Irina Spirlea, or a scolding from John McEnroe (John McEnroe!) for their alleged lack of “humility” — that surely exceeds the publicly known incidents which have sadly not subsided, even 17 years later. Their greatness today rests as much on their competitive accomplishments, as their willingness to be examples and to challenge prejudice based on race and gender, both in their words and their continued pursuit of excellence. But, even if you stopped the clock in the California desert in 2001, it’s worth noting that Venus and Serena were already great.