It is one of the most remarkable sports stories of our time that two siblings who have won 30 major singles titles combined, plus 14 women’s doubles major titles together, plus two mixed doubles majors apiece — 48 major championships total — came from such difficult circumstances in Compton, California, to conquer women’s tennis. That in itself is mind-blowing and inspiring beyond all description.
It is even more jawdropping and remarkable that these siblings — beyond being extraordinarily GREAT at their shared profession — have been that great for a very… long… period… of… time.
For 20 years — on an overall level and at the major tournaments — Serena and Venus Williams have played each other. Like their own individual careers and their doubles careers; like their relationships with American tennis fans; like their complicated human lives, their rivalry has evolved.
It might not be easy to see that evolution in the wake of Serena’s lopsided victory Friday night at the U.S. Open. it might not be natural or instinctive to think that this latest Williams match, their 30th, marked a higher level of sporting excellence. To be sure, any great rivalry — which this certainly is — grows larger when both players play well at the same time, forging close contests in which the drama drips from every point and the athletes involved are forced to handle the pressure of the scoreboard in addition to the pressure of playing a formidable opponent they respect.
By that measurement, Serena-Venus 30 wasn’t particularly special. Yes, this match — in its finer details — wasn’t especially memorable. However, this match was a treat for the simple reason and fact that it happened. One more time, a U.S. Open crowd was able to bathe these sisters in appreciation and admiration. One more time, these two giants of American sports were able to play inside the biggest arena in regular tournament tennis, on the largest stage American tennis has to offer. One more time, Serena and Venus met at a major. This time, they met at a major after Serena’s childbirth, a moment which owns extra poignancy in light of the fact that when they contested the 2017 Australian Open championship, Serena was pregnant with her child.
Yes, this match was memorable for its milestones and markers, not for its forehands or serves or volleys. It wasn’t a complete tennis feast, but it was still something tennis fans couldn’t have easily expected at the end of May, when Serena’s status was uncertain and Venus was struggling to do anything. Serena has picked herself up — exceeding expectations, as she has a way of doing quite frequently — while Venus shrugged off less-than-ideal health to power through the first two rounds and make this date possible. It is a gift to tennis fans that this match became a reality at all.
Yet, if the more detailed aspects of the match didn’t give rise to a soaring, pulse-pounding thrill ride, there was still something to appreciate in the match: Very simply, Serena Williams — a person who has evolved so much in the two decades of her shimmering and iconic career — showed how much she has evolved within the context of matches against Venus.
In the early stages of this rivalry, it was very emotionally uncomfortable for these sisters to play each other. To be sure, it made complete sense for this discomfort to exist. It was not and is not a natural experience to play tennis with a beloved sibling in childhood… and then play finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and other larger-than-life tennis tournaments. It figures that Serena and Venus needed a lot of time to walk through that complicated section of their inner worlds. They did play a few special and exceptionally good matches, but many of them contained an unavoidable vibe which simply didn’t — and doesn’t — flow through any other match on the WTA Tour. It was no one’s fault. It was no one’s failure. It was no one’s problem. It was just THERE.
In light of that backdrop, how impressive it was to see Serena be so comfortable in putting her night-vision goggles on (metaphorically, of course) and calmly tending to business so that she could move to the fourth round and face Kaia Kanepi on Sunday.
Growing older is supposed to create wisdom. That reality has been so profoundly true in both Williams Sisters, but Serena’s near-death experiences, her childbirth, and her social justice initiatives have magnified her journey. Wisdom owns many manifestations. One of them is the ability to be more at peace in the face of complicated emotions or situations which represented more of a puzzle in past years.
You could see that inner freedom in Serena on Friday. That freedom didn’t mean she loved Venus any less, or that a part of her no longer carried some inner shred of regret that her own win meant Venus’s loss. It simply meant that Serena did the job put in front of her to do: Play a professional tennis match. After it was over, she could hug Venus, smile with Venus, praise Venus, and credit her older sister for everything she had meant — and does mean, and will always mean to her.
This is what maturity looks like. This is what an evolving journey looks like. This was not a spellbinding match or a night which crackled with unusual intensity. It was a match in which Serena Williams did her job to the best of her ability… and had plenty of love to give afterward.
Simple, but profound — that is how many of life’s best examples and most important lessons are delivered. Serena sent quite the message on Friday night in New York.