MELBOURNE – In the moments after history was made, the biggest smile belonged to a little girl who was part of the trophy ceremony that anointed Serena Williams the most decorated Grand Slam champion in the open era.
Sian D’Monte, an 11-year-old aspiring champion from Sunbury, Victoria, got big hugs both Serena and the runner-up, her sister Venus. She got kind words, too. And then got got more hugs.
D’Monte could never forget these special moments with two of the finest athletes of all time; perhaps it will spur her on to greatness of her own whether it’s in tennis, or something more world-changing.
The two strong, beautiful, accomplished women little Sian met Saturday night continue to create a story that is unique in sports, a story that on some levels trumps the history little sister Serena made by defeating her sister 6-4, 6-4 to win the Australian Open.
It is her seventh Australian Open title and the 23rd Grand Slam title of her career. In the Open era of tennis, that’s now one more than the next best, Steffi Graf. All-time, only Australia’s Margaret Court has more at 24.
It is the 10th major title won by Serena since she turned 30. She is 35, her sister 36 – mid-30-fun – as Serena put it. It would have been the first-ever Australian Open title for Venus, whose run to the final here and her unbridled joy after her semi-final victory over fellow American Coco Vandeweghe would have been the best story in the women’s event were it not for her sister.
We won’t forget 34-year-old Mirjana Lucic-Baroni’s story in this most veteran of Slams; another story of perseverance and indomitable spirit for the former prodigy who took 20 years to reach her first major semi-final.
Venus has a 7-8 record in major finals; since the loss to Martina Hingis in the 1997 US Open, all of those losses have all been to her sister.
She lost to her in her prime years in the early 00s. She lost to her late in the decade when she was still a commanding presence at Wimbledon. And now, nearly eight years after her last appearance in a major final, she has lost to her again.
And yet, their story is one of uncontested victory.
“All the times I couldn’t be there, couldn’t get there, you were always there,” Venus said during the trophy ceremony, speaking to her sister with the world eavesdropping. “I’m enormously proud of you. You mean the world to me.”
Venus the stateswoman has been steadfast through all the years she has battled injuries and the autoimmune disease Sjogren’s. She was robbed of precious opportunities even if her sister likely would always have continued to stand in her way. She will never really know.
But the big sister’s efforts over the fortnight show that for a two-week period, she can be better than any other tennis player in the world other than the little sister.
“There’s no way I would be at 23 without her. There’s no way I would be at one without her. She’s the only reason I’m standing here today, the only reason the Williams sisters exist,” Serena said as she received her trophy. “Every time you won this week, I felt like I got a win too.”
Williams stood there stoically as she listened to all that, but her moist eyes betrayed her, if only a little. In the 15 years since she stopped winning Slams and watched her sister fill the family trophy case, what she had already done seemed to be enough.
But in her fierceness during this final, Venus betrayed the competitive fire that she has so often downplayed with her grace in defeat.
Venus’ bearing during this tournament was part inspirer/philosopher, part kid in a candy store – a combination that anyone who is 30-fun-something would love to have.
“Serena’s been in a lot of finals, but I haven’t been able to, you know, be there as much as she has. To have this opportunity to play against each other again, and to be able to rise to that occasion, was quite momentous,” Venus said in her press conference.
As Serena pointed out later in a TV interview, there was a full-circle sort of feeling Saturday – a milestone immediately celebrated with a Nike commercial on US television after the victory and with a pair of Nike Michael Jordan running shoes (No. 23 being his legendary number) that she donned before the ceremony.
The 1998 Australian Open was the first Grand Slam tournament of Serena’s career. The first big match of the 28 the sisters have played against each other came here asa well, in the second round that year (won by Venus, 7-6, 6-1.)
“I just felt like it was a celebration for everything we’ve done in sport, everything we’ve done for women, everything we’ve tried to do to inspire people,” Serena said in her TV interview.
Serena was focused enough on No. 23 that she said she did not know that by winning Saturday, she would also get the No. 1 ranking back. But she has that, too.
“Something about not being top dog, so to say, I gotta get there again. Gives me something to strive for – not that I didn’t have that motivation before, but it makes me even hungrier,” she said.
The tennis in the final was intense. In the early days of their rivalry, back when it seemed the two would be playing against each other for every major for … forever, their meetings were awkward. It was almost like eavesdropping on a sisterly squabble in their girlhood bedroom; awkward all around.
As they got used to the situation, the tennis improved. Sometimes, it was even very good although they probably haven’t had that one match that everyone will remember for the tennis, not the circumstances.
The last time Venus beat Serena at a Slam was 2008 Wimbledon. In the aftermath of that, as Venus danced her way back to the chair, Serena looked like the angriest person on the planet. The big sister might always have been philosophical when her baby sister defeated her but that grace was rarely reciprocated; Serena is a different kind of competitor.
“Emotionally, it gets easier. Physically, not,” Serena said later about facing her sister.
In more recent times, Williams has very much come to grips with the notion of being a gracious loser. She has had some soul-crushing defeats along her journey to get to No. 23, and she has handled them with an aplomb born of maturity and perspective.
This time, had she lost, you sensed Serena’s happiness for her sister’s victory would have been heartfelt and genuine. But the little sister made sure it didn’t come to that.
You don’t often see Venus react the way she did during this match. She often looked disgusted or annoyed at herself. There were some anguished, frustrated looks. She knew she was making too many errors to win the match unless her sister’s level fell off. She slowed noticeably in the second set, and her shoulder looked as though it was troubling her. Despite the fairly close score, it didn’t feel that close by the end.
The elevated level of emotion tells you Venus sensed it may well have been the last time she fights for a major trophy. She won’t ever consciously think about it, admit it, or even talk about it – that’s not how champions think. But she also knows her body, her history, and her birthdate.
On the other side of the net, Serena had that pained look she gets on her face when she wants something so badly she could spit nails even though when plays Venus, the volume of the infamous Serena roar is muted quite a bit.
As she prepared to serve on match point, she turned her back to her sister, clenched her first twice, and muttered loudly to herself.
She turned around again and served it up. As Venus’ final shot went wide, she fell to the court. Her sister came around and enveloped her in the tightest, most loving, most sisterly hug you will ever see.
“You’re amazing,” Serena said.
Little Sian D’Monte thought so too. And the notion that millions of other little Sians around the world can witness this is worth more than any trophy, no matter how big or how important.