INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—It’s just about always been the case that when Serena Williams and Venus Williams meet on a tennis court that it’s usually a better story than a tennis match. Call it the Williams Family Quartet: Sisters. Rivals. Serves. Nerves.
Installment number 29 of the quartet was a well-anticipated third round matchup in the desert at the BNP Paribas Open. Time was when each sister usually occupied a separate half of the draw, the two in theory on a path towards the finals. But much has changed in this decade; most recently, of course, Serena’s year-long maternity leave. This match against Venus would only be her third singles match since she’d beaten Venus in the finals of the 2017 Australian Open.
Never is the zero-sum starkness of tennis more vividly and awkwardly demonstrated than when these two play one another. Excited as the fans who’d packed the stadium were to see the two Southern California-raised stars take the court, to root for one meant to recognize what was being taken from the other. Serena and Venus had always known this too. But sibling affection—and 121 combined WTA singles titles—had shielded each. In a sport of solitude, they’d created a distinct dyad. That twin pairing in mind, to watch two people joined by blood, love and experience compete versus one another often felt like an invasion of privacy.
EXTENDED MATCH HIGHLIGHTS:
The first three games went to deuce, at once a sign of tension and a scent of hope. Would Serena indeed have the goods to thoroughly challenge her more match-tough sister?
Not really. Serena served at 2-3 and played a deeply rusty brand of tennis, broken at love with a long backhand that was one of 41 unforced errors she’d make throughout the match (to 19 for Venus). Venus maintained a solid focus, at 5-3, 40-love, closing out the first set emphatically with a 120-m.p.h. ace to cap it off in 37 minutes.
“She didn’t make a lot of errors,” said Serena. “She served very consistently. You know, she just did everything great.”
Certainly that was the case early in the second set. Venus went up two breaks, served at 3-0 and had a point for 4-0. Despite seeing Serena take the next two games, Venus held for 4-2 and then struck a bone-crushing inside-out forehand to go up 5-2. Venus appeared primed for something rare: A routine victory over Serena.
At 5-2, ad in, Venus held a match point. Serena struck an awkward short return that compelled Venus to come in on less than advantageous terms. Serena easily laced a backhand down-the-line pass for a winner, snapped up the next two points and then held at 30.
Such is the beguiling beauty of tennis’ scoring system that despite controlling most of the match, Venus would have to close it out on the thin knife-edge lead of 5-4. When Venus double-faulted on the first point of that tenth game, new possible plot lines entered the picture. Up 30-15, Venus then lined two straight down-the-line forehands into the net. Serena held a break point for 5-all. Said Venus, “Her level is super high and it was very difficult to close out the match.”
THE DAILY MIX, WITH JOHN ZINNI AND JOEL DRUCKER, FROM INDIAN WELLS:
And then, so fast you’d barely have seen it, Serena struck a forehand return long, hit another forehand into the net and then, down match point for the second time, sailed another forehand past the baseline. In 86 minutes, Venus had won 6-3, 6-4.
“At least they’re in the margin,” Serena said of the many shots she’d missed. “I’m getting there. It’s not exactly where I want to be, but, I mean, I’ll get there eventually.”
For Serena, there would next week be Miami, then on into an indeterminate spring, her sights perhaps pointed most of all towards the Slam she at this point was most disposed to winning, Wimbledon.
“She’s going to be speeding back to the seedings and to winning tournaments sooner than later," Venus said. "That’s all I see. I think that’s what everybody sees.”
Asked which parts of her game she’s improved in the last few years, Venus said, “I think my forehand is bigger than ever. Still fast. Still just trying to—honestly it’s always about improvement.”
Venus next faces a player 180 degrees removed from Serena in style and familiarity: Anastasija Sevastova, armed with a slice backhand and a full bag of spins and tactics. And while no one has any idea how many times Venus has been on a tennis court with Serena, she and Sevastova have met just once, Venus winning 7-5, 6-2 in a 2016 quarterfinal in Kaohsiung, China.
If for Serena, tennis this evening occupied the future, for Venus, the future was now: a genuine possibility to capture a title a two-hour drive from where she and Serena’s amazing tennis journey had first started more than 30 years ago. Private as these sisters could be, each also knew that the whole world would be watching.
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