History is just two steps away but for Serena Williams the giant leap has already been taken. On Tuesday night, she beat her sister Venus to reach the semi-finals of the US Open – her toughest match of the tournament had been won.
Serena is used to beating Venus – she has won all but one of their encounters since 2009 – but it is never easy. Their matches tend to be downbeat affairs with one sister taking the upper hand early on and extinguishing any competitive fire in the other.
I wasn’t beating myself. I was facing an incredibly tough opponentSerena Williams
This time, though, it was different. This time there was so much more at stake: if Serena wins the title here, she will complete her calendar Grand Slam and prove beyond doubt that she is the greatest player the women’s game has ever seen.
She managed it, just, in a fraught three sets of nerves, tension and, at times, excellent tennis. She was the better player in the first set, she was desperately nervous in the second and then, finally, in the third, she became the champion we have all watched dominate this season and won 6-2, 1-6, 6-3. But it had been a draining night.
The two sisters embraced at the net, Venus telling her kid sister that she was happy for her, and at last it was over. Usually good at toying with the press, Serena inadvertently let slip quite how emotional the match had been for her. Asked what she found most satisfying about the events of the evening, she said bluntly: “Walking off the court and it being over with.”
Four years ago, Venus was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, an auto-immune disease that has no cure and attacks the joints leaving the sufferer exhausted and in pain. She has found a way to manage the condition and keep playing but her form depends on how the condition is affecting her. At the Open, she had been playing well and knowing Serena’s game inside out, she was ready to win – and Serena knew it.
“She was at an unbelievable level today,” Serena said. “Down to the match point it just was not easy. It’s probably the toughest match I have played in a really, really, really long time where I wasn’t actually beating myself. I was out there facing an incredibly tough opponent. So seeing and knowing that she has that level is so good and inspiring as well, and, hopefully, it’s encouraging for her, too. I think against any other player she, for sure, would have won. In the very first game I knew she was playing well. But she played really well in her last match and she’s been playing really well all tournament. She’s been going through this tournament really sneaky and on the low, and that was, I think, also good for her.”
For all her 21 grand slam titles and stranglehold on the No 1 ranking, Serena still gets nervous before and during matches and, because of that, her greatest opponent is usually herself. If she can quell the nerves, she is unstoppable; if she starts to think, she wavers.
As the big night approached and Venus occupied her every waking moment, she shut herself off from the hype and kept herself to herself. At Wimbledon, as she chased the Serena Slam (winning there meant that she held all four grand slam trophies in a run over two seasons), she made a joke of not mentioning the “S-word”, the “slam”. Here in New York, on home soil, there is no escaping the questions about the calendar Grand Slam. So she went into hiding before she faced Venus.
“I didn’t really listen to a lot of the press and read anything about it,” she said. “I kind of was in a hole and I didn’t turn on my TV and didn’t watch any of the matches, men or women. I didn’t really live in that world.
“But it’s a big topic because I think it’s the greatest story in tennis because with how we started and how we grew up and how we were able to win championships and be, you know, such inspirations for so many women across the globe. I mean, it doesn’t get better than that.”
Playing Roberta Vinci today ought to be a much less stressful experience. Serena beat the Italian in straight sets in Toronto last month, her fourth win out of four against the world No 43, and she knows what to expect tonight.
“I’m not going to underestimate her,” Serena said. “She played really well. She’s not in the semi-finals of a grand slam for no reason. She knows what to do and she knows what to play. I just think it was great that I played her in Canada because I kind of know what to expect, and I’ll be more ready for it this time.”
Venus has been beaten, the hard part has been done, and now Serena Williams stands just two steps away from history.