"The first time you win, nobody picks you. The last time you win, nobody picks you. You’ve just got to pick yourself.” Tennis-playing philosopher Venus Williams uttered those words at Wimbledon last year. Like so many of Venus’ cosmically inspiring pronouncements, it belongs in any collection of great motivational quotes.
Over the last 15 months, those words have not only seemed inspiring, but also prescient. A few days after Venus said them, she reached the semifinals at Wimbledon for the first time since 2009. This year, she went one round further at the Australian Open and at the All England Club. Could she do something similar at the U.S. Open?
If so, it would make Venus’ statement sound even more farsighted. Twenty years ago, as a brash and wiry 17-year-old rookie—a “Yearling,” as she described herself—Venus galloped all the way to her first Grand Slam final, at Flushing Meadows. It was an unlikely run, and Venus would make a lot of fans happy if, as a 37-year-old, she could recapture some of that sport-changing magic.
In 1997, the loudest cheers in Venus’ player box came from her 15-year-old sister, Serena, who wouldn’t make her U.S. Open debut until the following year. In 2017, Venus will again be flying the Williams family flag alone. Serena, who is due to have her baby in September, may not be cheering her sister in person this time, but she’ll be with her in spirit.
Considering that she defeated Venus in the quarterfinals at the 2015 U.S. Open, and in the final of this year’s Australian Open, Serena’s biggest contribution may simply be staying out of her sister’s way.
Whether or not she contends for the title, Venus’ enduring presence is what matters most to the Williams sisters’ never-ending story. We’ve heard a lot about how much Venus and Serena hate playing each other, but the truth is that neither would be the player or the person she is today without the other.
“That’s my little sister, guys,” a beaming Venus told the crowd in Melbourne—this was her way of congratulating Serena on her 23rd Grand Slam singles title.
Seeing the grin on her face, and the giggle in her voice, it was easy to forget that the little sister’s victory had come at the big sister’s expense.
“Your win has always been my win,” Venus added, explaining the family philosophy that has served them so well. “And I think you know that.”
“She’s the only reason I’m standing here today,” said Serena, turning the compliment around. “And the only reason the ‘Williams sisters’ exist.”
It was Venus’ love of tennis that had first brought Serena to those legendary Compton tennis courts in the 1980s. And it was Venus’ belief that she could be the best in the world that made Serena believe the same thing. Serena wanted to follow in her sister’s footsteps, but she followed them so well that she ended up running right past her.
If that led to any bitterness from Venus, she has never let it show. Instead, as she has dealt with the ups and downs and aches and pains that come with age, she has learned from Serena the way Serena once learned from her.
“I’ve been really blessed to have this sister called Serena Williams,” Venus said this spring. “She’s so cool. She’s super inspiring, so I don’t really need to look much further [for motivation].”
The first time Venus reached the U.S. Open final, nobody picked her—except Serena. The same will probably be true the last time she plays at Flushing Meadows. This year, Venus will be on her own. She’ll be playing for herself, but at 37 she’ll also be doing the same thing she did for Serena at 17—showing her what’s possible, as long as you pick yourself.
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