IT IS the oldest rivalry in the history of woman’s tennis and it is one of the most fascinating. Today, for the 26th time of asking, Venus and Serena Williams will face each other on Centre Court. The reward is a place in the Wimbledon quarter-finals.
For the past 17 years, the sisters have been fighting for bragging rights. A tight-knit family unit, they have had to learn how to play each other on the sport’s biggest stages – their early encounters were as uncomfortable to watch as they must have been to play – but now, aged 33 and 35, they face their duels as just another day at the office. Well, that is what they say, at any rate.
“I think it would be a normal match if one of us was not very good,” Venus explained. “But since we both do have some sort of talent level, that’s what makes it interesting because we both can play.
“I think everybody’s always looking for some answer, and it really is you have to play the match. It doesn’t matter who’s across the net, you have to play, show up, compete, do your best, and it doesn’t change.”
It was in the previous century when the two young stars from the ghetto of Compton first squared up to each other in a professional match (Venus won that one in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open). Growing up together, Venus was always the big, protective sister and she looked out for little Serena. Little Serena, meanwhile, still had to overcome the emotional hurdle of beating her big sis. The early matches were indeed ugly affairs. But their father Richard always warned that while Venus was a great player, it was his youngest you had to watch out for – she was the fighter and she would, one day, be the best there is.
It took four attempts for Serena to beat Venus, finally getting her own way in the final of the 1999 Grand Slam Cup in Munich. At the time, she was the US Open champion, the first of her 20 grand slam titles, and while the win marked a turning point, it was not until Serena beat Venus in the 2002 French Open final that she was able to pull away from her sister and gallop over the horizon and into the history books.
Serena, arguably the greatest female player of all time, leads the sibling rivalry 14-11. When they have met in grand slam events, Serena leads the way 7-5 (and 3-2 at Wimbledon). And she leads 6-2 in major finals. But, if Venus is looking for a shred of comfort, when they have met before the final in a grand slam, Venus has a 3-1 winning record. And she won their last encounter at the Rogers Cup in Canada last summer. It was her first win over a reigning world No 1 since 2009. After 17 years, the numbers take some crunching.
The respect and affection between the two is plain to see. Each claims to be inspired by the other, each claims the other has “been through so much”. Serena struggled through serious knee problems in her early days and then, five years ago, she overcame a freak accident that did such damage to her foot that she missed 11 months of competition. During her recovery, she suffered a life-threatening pulmonary embolism. Serena, then, has been through a lot.
But it is Venus’s fight with Sjorgren’s Syndrome, an auto-immune disease, that has inspired Serena. Diagnosed in 2011, Venus took some time off to rest and formulate a plan. Returning to the Tour a few months later, she had a new Vegan diet and a dogged determination to keep going. There are still some days when she feels lousy and there are times when she cannot compete as she would like, but she keeps going. This week, though, she has not dropped a set – this is a good week.
“It has been a challenge, and a challenge to myself, and really just knowing that I can’t be defeated by anything,” she told American TV last year. “Not being able to practice has most definitely affected my game; not really being able to work on the things you need to work on, just speed and agility. I can’t get all those extra little things you need, and it’s hard to get motivated if you don’t feel well, too.
“There’s only so much you can do, so I’ve definitely had to adjust a lot but I just see it as a challenge because in my life I’ve never been defeated by anything. I’ve lost and I’ve had to learn, but I’ve never had to lay down the towel, so to speak.”
After coming within two points of defeat to Heather Watson on Friday evening, Serena has had a lucky escape in SW19. The pressure is mounting with every round as she chases the “Serena Slam” (if she wins the title on Saturday, she will hold all four major championships) and the calendar Grand Slam. Steffi Graf was the last woman to win the four majors in a season back in 1988 and rounded that off by winning the Olympic gold in Seoul. But Serena, who is two grand slam titles shy of Graf’s Open Era record, has had enough of the hype surrounding her goals and her achievements and is trying to focus on the match in front of her. Unfortunately for her, that match just happens to be against her sister.
“I’m not answering any more questions about the Grand Slam or the alleged Serena Slam,” she snapped at one persistent and hugely annoying American reporter. “I think it will be a really good match. I don’t know. She’s playing so well. I’m practicing next to her every day and I’m in awe of how she’s doing. It’s a little frustrating because I know I have to play her. I just don’t know how I’m going to do, to be honest.
“We’re going to do the best that we can. I mean, she’s my sister today. She’s my sister next week. She’s my sister next year. I think that’s a little more important than a match. We’ll leave everything out on the court. When it’s done, you know, we’ll go back to regular life.”
And given that the sisters have earned, between them, more than $100million in prize money alone, the winning sister should be able to afford to buy the loser a consolation drink when it is all over.