INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – For the 29th time as professionals, sisters Venus and Serena Williams met on a tennis court Monday night.
It was the third round of the BNP Paribas Open.
And it was the earliest the sisters – who seemed, until life intervened, destined to meet in every Grand Slam final for forever – had met since their very first meeting in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open.
That was more than 20 years ago. And each meeting since then has had its own story, a distinct chapter in a book with pages of footnotes with hidden subtexts that only two people on the planet could ever understand.
In this case, it was younger sister Serena’s first tournament back in nearly 14 months, after a baby and a wedding and some frightening post-birth complications. The last time they met, in the 2017 Australian Open final, the two shared a secret known to few: Serena was already expecting little Alexis Olympia.
Big sister prevails
Venus won, for only the second time in their last nine meetings, the 12th in 29 total meetings.
The 6-3, 6-4 score was made more competitive by the elder sister’s failure to serve out the match at the first time of asking. Very nearly, she failed to serve it out the second time as well.
But she did, with her serve reaching 120 mph on a regular basis. Venus won just four more points than Serena overall – we can use first names here, because chair umpire Juan Zhang decided to go that route.
But it didn’t seem that close. It felt this close to a Serena breakthrough moment at times. But while there were flashes, she “isn’t there yet”, as she has reiterated a few times this week.
“I think this is the best she’s played in a while. She didn’t make a lot of errors. She served very consistently. You know, she just did everything great. For her, I think it was a really good match,” Serena said.
“Her level is super high and it was very difficult to close out the match, just getting one ball back. Like I said, I have had a few more matches. Even though I haven’t even played that much this year, the matches in the last year count,” Venus said.
In their own bubbles
The two sisters were transported to the stadium for the evening-session match via golf cart. This is general practice: the players share a cart, studiously avoiding each other, sometimes buried deep in their Beats headphones.
That ride, shown on the big screen inside the stadium, seemed endless even to those who watched. Even with the company, it seems such a lonely ride.
Venus was in the second seat, Serena hanging on the open bench facing in the opposite direction. Their backs were to each other. They didn’t speak.
As they took the court, Serena entered first, Venus last, the privilege granted to the higher-ranked player.
And it’s the first time it would have happened since 2002 Wimbledon, when Venus was No. 1 and Serena was No. 2. (They don’t introduce the players as they walk on the famed Wimbledon Centre Court, a subtle distinction).
Serena kept Venus waiting, big sister at the net ready for the coin toss while little sister fussed with her sports drinks and made sure the plastic bag they came in was properly disposed of.
Once there, they didn’t look at each other. They posed for the obligatory net photos like two strangers. Venus had a slight smile; Serena had a sort of a tense-looking smirk. Venus’s left arm and Serena’s right may have been slightly touching. Or perhaps not.
And then, it took 14 minutes to play the first two games, seven minutes and 35 seconds for Serena to hold serve in the second game.
So much unknown
Among all their matches, it might have been one of the ones with the more unpredictable outcome.
Logic dictated that Venus, who had a superb 2017 and a lot more match play in her tennis bones, would have a relatively easy time of it.
Serena always calls her sister her toughest opponent – even when she’s going full throttle. So the added elements of the new mother’s return would just make it even more challening.
But Venus had played just two official tour matches so far in 2018 – both in Australia in January – and had lost both. So she wasn’t exactly match tough even if she did post two wins in Fed Cup last month, over two Dutch players ranked outside the top 100.
And it’s Serena, so you never know.
The occasion might have summoned up an hour or so of vintage play, enough to remind her big sister of her eight losses in their last nine meetings. Serena has often played her best tennis against her sister because she feels, more than with any other opponent, that she has to.
While big sister has always been gracious in defeat, and sometimes of late their matches had that air of inevitability, little sister Serena has never felt that way.
As with most little sisters, Serena always wanted to win.
Serenity for Serena, and an early test
When Venus won their 2008 Wimbledon clash, Serena could barely look at her, barely summon up a smile for a beloved sister who won what would turn out to be the last of her five WImbledon titles, and her perhaps her final major title. Her competitiveness is peerless.
This time, when it was over, the hug was genuine. And Serena was sanguine.
“You know, it’s good that I don’t have to say that this is the best tennis I have ever played – and I lost. My room for improvement is incredible. So I have just got to keep saying each tournament my goal is just to be better than the last,” Serena said.
She faced the opponent who always gives her the best measure of what she needs to do, where she needs to be. Now, she knows. So it’s back to work for 10 days or so before Miami.
“I haven’t played in over a year. It’s definitely not less disappointing. I wish it were, but it’s not. But then again, I (don’t) wish it wasn’t. Then I wouldn’t be who I am,” Serena said. “Yeah, so I just have a long way to go, and I’m looking forward to the journey