Serena Williams typically has no trouble directing her fist-pumps and “Come on!”s in the direction of her opponent. But on Saturday, when she needed to vent, she turned toward the back of the court instead. Her words were as vehement as always, maybe more so, but she kept them mostly under her breath.

Venus Williams is usually the picture of silent, unflappable cool, even when things aren’t going her way. On Saturday, after missing key shots, she shook her head and glared, stood with her hands on her hips in dramatic frustration, and even shot out a few angry words as she waited to receive serve.

Can you tell that Serena and Venus were facing each other? Many of us had hoped that the 28th matchup between the two sisters would produce something special. After all, it was their first Grand Slam final against each other in seven years; it marked the unlikely return of Venus, at 36, to the pinnacle of the sport; and it gave Serena a chance to pass Steffi Graf on the all-time major-title list with 23.

But Serena-Venus XXVIII was like many other all-Williams contests: awkward, scratchy, hard to watch and probably harder to play. There’s tension in their matches, but never release, because the success of one member of the family always comes at the expense of another. Serena was so tense to start this one that she smashed her racquet in the third game, and double-faulted three times in the fourth.


Fortunately for her, Venus could never free herself up to take advantage. Time and again, she would put together a winning point and get the Aussie crowd buzzing—they were ready to root for her from start to finish—only to pull up on a ground stroke and send it limply into the net. This was uncharacteristic. Usually when Venus misses, she misses long or wide, because she’s gone for too much. These were tentative errors; against her sister, she wasn’t able to make herself go for enough.

There were moments when the Williamses threatened to take flight. Venus chased down one crosscourt forehand from Serena, stretched her long limbs wide, and sent back an even better crosscourt forehand to win the point. A little later, Serena came up with a neatly sliced drop volley to reach break point, and then followed it up with a powerful backhand down-the-line winner. Most important for Serena, when she needed her serve, it was there for her. She had 10 aces, but she saved her most important delivery for the final game.

At 5-4, 15-15, Venus won the best and probably longest rally of the match. When it was over, the crowd urged Venus on, while Serena struggled to catch her breath. She hadn’t played any close matches at this tournament; how would she react if things got tight in the final? At 15-30, Serena missed her first serve. But instead of safely flipping the second ball in, she sliced it hard, deep, and down the T. It caught the service line, and caught Venus by surprise. Serena won the next two points for a 6-4, 6-4 win that was much more taxing than the scores will ever indicate. In the end, she found a way to stop playing her sister and go back to playing the ball.

“My first Grand Slam started here,” said Serena, who didn’t drop a set in seven matches in Melbourne. “Getting to 23 here, but playing Venus, it’s the stuff that legends are made of. I couldn’t have written a better story.”

“I just feel like it was the right moment. Everything kind of happened.”

As Venus’s final, desperate backhand lob faded wide, Serena turned toward her box and fell to the court. When she got up, she was greeted by a hug from her sister. “You’re amazing,” Serena whispered to Venus.


Serena won No. 23 the hard way—by beating her lifelong inspiration

Serena won No. 23 the hard way—by beating her lifelong inspiration

It was clear for the rest of the evening that these two women belong on the same side of the net, rather than across it. They’re much more themselves when they’re together than they are when they’re forced to oppose each other. Whenever a player says “there won’t be any losers in this match,” as Serena did before this one, it’s usually safe to be skeptical. But there was truth in those words this time; a piece of Serena’s trophy really did belong to Venus.

“That’s my little sister, guys,” a beaming Venus told the crowd during the trophy ceremony, before congratulating Serena on her 23rd Slam title.

“I’ve been right there with you,” Venus said with a smile, “some of them I’ve lost right there against you, which is weird.”

“Your win has always been my win, and I think you know that.”

Serena paid the compliments right back.

“There’s no way I would be at 23 without her,” Serena said of Venus. “There’s no way I would be at one without her. She’s the only reason I’m standing here today, and the only reason the Williams sisters exist.”


If Serena was exaggerating, it wasn’t by much. Venus was the sister who loved tennis first, and Serena was the one who followed her everywhere and did everything she did. Serena became the player she is because she wanted to be as good, and then better, than Venus. And that dynamic continues today. If Serena ever gets tired of the game or the grind or the tour, all she has to do is look at how much enthusiasm Venus still has for it. Can the younger sister really call it quits when her older sister is still out there working at it every day?

With her 23rd Grand Slam title, Serena has passed Steffi Graf on the all-time list, and stands one behind Margaret Court’s 24. Serena, understandably, didn’t want to think or talk about those numbers after the match, and there will plenty of time to go over them in the future. Watching this final, what I wondered was how many majors Venus might have won if Serena had never followed her onto those cracked courts in Southern California. Twelve? 15? 23?

But Serena did follow her onto those courts, and, as their father Richard predicted, she made herself the best of the Williams sisters. Forget the rest of the world; that’s an amazing achievement in itself.