By Abigail Johnson
Twenty-four Grand Slam singles titles. Seventeen Grand Slam doubles titles. Five Olympic gold medals. Five ultimate victories at the WTA Championships.
Do those statistics sound familiar? They are the combined achievements of the most famous siblings in tennis, if not sport in general: Venus Ebony Starr Williams and Serena Jameka Williams.
More commonly known as simply: The Williams Sisters.
From being coached by their parents on the littered courts of Compton, California, Venus and Serena burst onto the WTA Tour in the late 1990s to begin two of the most awesome careers the tennis world has ever seen. Never has the sport been dominated so by two siblings.
But why am I talking about them like they’re gone? Because they’re not gone, and they’re not going. Serena and Venus continue to show, despite passing years, illness, injuries, and people pressing them to retire, that they still have what it takes to not only play, but to play at the top.
This article was mainly going to be about why these two big achievers aren’t ready to give up and go. Lindsay said beautifully a lot of what I wanted to say in her recent piece entitled The Beauty of a Long Decline. So I myself am going to focus on what we will all be missing out on if we try to hustle this pair to the sidelines.
Believe me when I say, it’s an action you would live to regret.
When tennis is such a big part of your life, you can’t believe there was once a time when you were not wrapped up in the game. But for me, the first match I recall watching properly was Venus vs. Marion Bartoli, back in the 2007 Wimbledon final. I would see Serena soon after, and the all-Williams Wimbledon finals that ensued would become my absolute joy. Such power and fight! Everyone was mowed down before them, and the sisters always had a happiness for the winner come the closure of championship point.
Venus and Serena are my first memory of tennis, and they are well and truly a present part of it, a force that leaves their fellow competitors ever wary of them.
Trouble is, spectators and “experts” aren’t really acting like they are.
As I write, we are currently in the second week stage of Wimbledon. This is Williams sister territory on the WTA, and the traditional time for their historic domination. However, shockingly, neither of them are still in the competition. Not Serena, the world No. 1, and 30th-seeded Venus.
Like any diehard Williams sister fan, the first things I look for in a Grand Slam draw are where the two stars are placed, and if this presents opportunity for a Williams sisters final showdown.
Nowadays, with Venus’ condition unpredictable and affecting her ranking, this is more rare an occurrence. But this is Wimbledon, and the draw had them set on track for a final-round battle on their favorite stage.
Any casual fan, who only knows the basics about Venus and her struggles, would flippantly declare another Wimbledon final an impossibility for her. Even some involved in the game. Her fans have heard it all, and it’s aggravating. Especially because, this year, it was looking to be very attainable.
Sjogren’s syndrome, the autoimmune disease that has hindered Vee since 2011, is energy-sapping, and affects her muscles, movement and diet. She wakes up every morning not knowing if it will be a good or bad day for her. Yet, being the champion fighter she has proven she is, she has painstakingly found ways to deal with it. Enjoying an injury-free start to 2014, she made the final of her first tournament back, losing to in-form Ana Ivanovic in three tight sets.
But Dubai was the highlight. At the Premier level event, Venus showed she still has the game, power and belief that took her to the summit of the rankings. Not dropping a set, she utterly thrashed Ana Ivanovic, Caroline Wozniacki, and Flavia Pennetta en route to the final, where she reduced Serena’s conqueror Alize Cornet to tears with a confident 6-3, 6-0 smashing.
Venus has lost multiple times this year, including the first round of the Australian Open, the second round of the French, and the third round of Wimbledon. But all those losses have come in battling three sets.
Remember that stat.
Serena, meanwhile, has had a disastrous year by her – and everyone else’s – high standards. After a completely dominant past two years where no one else has had a proper look in, she finished 2013 battling fatigue, and seemed to carry that into 2014. Even the three titles she won haven’t been convincing — and credit to her, for winning them while struggling. It shows what a remarkable force she is. But tiredness, injury, and inexplicable loss of form have resulted in five losses already this year, which include three in the first weeks of the three majors so far. Last year she lost a total of just four matches, all in three sets, often with her winning more points than her opponents.
Indeed, Serena would rather forget these past few months.
So, why are we missing out if we push these women away? Surely this is the beginning of Serena’s demise? Surely Venus can’t stick at it much longer?
Well, let’s start with Wimbledon 2014, and reason No. 1: These Losses Were Not The Beginning Of The End.
Venus, after playing herself into good form with a three-set win over Torro-Flor and a victory in straights over Kurumi Nara, found herself in a third round duel against Petra Kvitova, a fellow former champion. Like Venus, she has a love for the hallowed grass courts and a powerful game that fit together perfectly.
While people were uncertain as to how Venus would be on the day, Petra herself is noted for her often erratic play. No one knew quite what to expect, but what followed was what everyone hoped for.
This match was one of the toughest and highest quality women’s matches at a Slam in recent years. Serves firing, shots blasting, and matching each other stroke for stroke, Venus and Petra pushed each other to the limit, letting few chances arise for either one of them, and pulling off some breathtaking points. Their average groundstroke speed of 75 MPH was exactly the same as that of the two players who had taken to Centre Court before them.
They were Novak Djokovic and Gilles Simon.
Venus took the first set 7-5, and was two points away from victory as Kvitova served at 4-5, 30-30. But Petra squeaked out the tiebreak, and eventually the match, 5-7, 7-6, 7-5.
It was an outstanding match, with really nothing separating the pair until Kvitova took advantage of serving first at the end of set three.
No one would have blamed Venus if spent energy and the pain of a tight loss had caused her to part with sadness on her face. But, as a true champion, she congratulated Petra brightly, and walked off the court with a beautiful smile as she waved farewell for another year.
She deserved every part of that standing ovation.
Petra Kvitova was playing at Slam-winning standard, is ranked No. 4 in the world, and, as you know, went on to win the Championships in dominant fashion. She was playing on her best surface, at her best level.
And Venus Williams, fighting all she that fights and still coming within an inch of defeating Kvitova, cannot be told that she’s at the beginning of the end after that showing. And she let that be known in her press conference, where for the umpteenth time journalists were pressing her to admit just that.
“People have been trying to retire me since I was 25,” she announced. “For some reason in tennis we always do that to our players. It’s like: ‘Get out of here.’ So I’m not getting out of here.”
On the contrary, this match promises the beginning of better.
Serena is more difficult. At the beginning of the season, it was acknowledged that injury and tiredness contributed to shock losses at the hands of Ivanovic, Cornet, and Cepelova. After the latter, Serena herself issued that she had come up against a wall after her long period of invincibility, and needed a bit of a break from the game.
But her 6-2, 6-2 loss to Muguruza in the French Open second round was complicated. Muguruza played a great match with a firm strategy, and yet Serena was spilling errors and out of focus, gifting Garbine points and not putting up a fight as she made a swift exit.
Was there something more than an injury, such as a personal issue, bothering Serena? Venus wasn’t going to let on if so, stating, “Even if I knew anything, I wouldn’t say it here.”
Serena told in short that she had been incredibly off her game, while Muguruza had been at her best. Focusing on the future, she declared: “I’m going to work five times as hard so that I never lose again.”
Everyone knows how Serena hates to lose, and how she uses her losses as a springboard for greater success. And so, as is rare in tennis circles, Serena was not yet written off as the one to beat.
Wimbledon duly arrived. Serena’s opening matches, against Anna Tatishvili and Chanelle Scheepers, respectively, ended in 6-1 6-2, and 6-1 6-1 triumphs. And if you read many of the articles on the match, you might have been fooled into believing Serena was on fire.
Actually, it was questionable as to if these journalists had actually watched the matches.
Serena came out with flashes of her killer self, going on sprees of whipping winners and perfecting well planned shots. However, many times it looked like she had forgotten how to hit a groundstroke, and it was her serve finding its mark that got her through and won her free points. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling a vague sense of worry.
As she seemed more in form against Scheepers than in her first match, and expressed wishes to get better bit by bit rather than to play well all at once, the theory that maybe she was still just warming up to the grass appeared likely.
However, her three-set loss to Cornet spoke otherwise.
After she took the first set 6-1, Serena’s attention apparently went out of the window. She lost her ability to strike the ball the way she likes to, allowing Alize plenty of opportunities to take advantage. She closed a 5-0 gap to 5-3 before dropping the set, but she could not fix her pieces back together. Tearful, frustrated, upset, and looking lost — Serena was not Serena. Alize only had to play consistently and calmly to strike her out of competition.
This was one loss too many for the World No. 1, and while many speculations were made over this latest defeat, there were those that came to the conclusion that for Serena, this was the beginning of the end.
Considering where Serena was say, eight months ago, this declaration is a shock to the system.
But the point here is that this is not the beginning of the end. And here’s why.
Following her Wimbledon exit, Serena seemed genuinely sad and confused. She commented: “In Australia I just couldn’t play. In Paris I played really bad. Here I thought I played better.” She also expressed how hard she had worked coming into the tournament.
Just two days after these words, Serena and Venus came on court for their second round doubles match. What followed was one of the strangest, and even scariest, episodes on a tennis court in recent times.
Serena was uncoordinated and looked distinctly weak. Her movements were slow and sleepy. She couldn’t catch the balls the ballkids sent her, and couldn’t even bounce a ball and keep it under control. Throwing a straight toss and hitting a serve was out of the question. After many minutes sat talking with Venus and the doctors, at one point collapsing in tears, she eventually took to the court to play.
Unfortunately, doubles is a game for two players each side, and after the greatest ever server in the women’s game had served four consecutive double faults, she and Venus walked hand in hand courtside and ended the match.
Serena, it was announced, had a viral illness.
In Venus’ statement later in the day, she revealed Serena had been unwell for “a few days.” Seeing how serious things looked, and how mystified and upset Serena had seemed after her singles defeat, it’s most likely that the start of this illness was affecting her during that loss without her knowing it. If this is so, it’s something she can come back from. If it isn’t, which is unlikely, Serena can use it to take a break and then start completely afresh with a clear, unhindered mind. You wonder if she’s been trying too hard.
And there’s more for why Serena will still be going. She’s not just playing tennis for love of the game – although she does love the game. She’s playing to make history. She’s going to make sure that 18th Slam, which seemed so attainable not long ago, does not remain elusive. And she’s going to go for as many Slams as she possibly can.
She’s still atop the rankings. She’s still the most feared player on tour. Serena wants the best, and she wants to be the best.
You just try stopping her.
Despite all these facts, perhaps the biggest reason why it would be foul to wish the days of the Williamses past is this: They Are Legends Of Women’s Tennis.
I don’t say that lightly. Just look at their careers! Look at those statistics which introduced this piece! Witness how players still wilt before them because of the enormity of what they have done, and what they are still able to do, in the game.
Look at how they have stood for what they believe.
Venus and Serena have come right from the days of teenagers winning Slams – themselves included. Venus turned pro in 1997 – that’s the year I was born – with Serena soon hot in pursuit. That’s 17 years on tour! They have travelled through those years as top competitors with global recognition. They have many, many times been the last two standing at major events. They are the only siblings to have been ranked No. 1 and 2 side by side.
They introduced swift power and huge serves to the women’s tour.
They have beaten big names of the past, and likely big names of the future.
Venus refuses to be defeated by an enemy disease day in day out.
And Serena came back from death’s door to go on a run of knockout domination that left the world in awe, and cemented her case for being the greatest female player ever to grace a tennis court.
Regularly in the tennis world, you listen to people reminiscing of past greats, and imagining an age in which they join on the baseline with players of the present.
Venus and Serena are two active persons of tennis history. They will never be repeated. And their names will go down through the years, where they will be respected and admired as two players with the determination, skill, and perseverance that enabled them to stand – and to succeed – throughout their careers.
We can be so quick to forget.
There will never be another Venus and Serena. And we still have them with us.
Don’t take for granted what we have the privilege of witnessing.
Don’t take for granted the Williams Sisters, who have given, and given, and still have more to give.