2020 Top Matches, No. 7: Serena edges Venus in surreal Lexington scene

2020 Top Matches, No. 7: Serena edges Venus in surreal Lexington scene

It may not have been an enjoyable experience to have to play each other in front of maybe a dozen socially-distanced spectators, but the Williams sisters' love for the game and competition overrode everything else at The Top Seed Open.

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“It’s annoying,” Serena Williams said when she saw the draw at the Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., in August. It was easy to understand why: She was playing her first tournament since the Australian Open, and here she was slated to face her sister in the second round.

“It feels like I always play Venus,” Serena said.

Indeed: This was the 31st tour-level meeting between the sisters, a number that obviously doesn’t include the thousands of practice matches they’ve played against each other.

At first, Serena-Venus XXXI didn’t look as if it would be remembered as one of their best. The summer heat was oppressive, and neither of them had played a competitive event in eight months due to the pandemic. Watching Venus take a long, slow walk to the bathroom between sets, and Serena work hard to catch her breath, I wondered if, at 40 and 38, they just weren’t going to be able to rise to the occasion this time.

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I should have known better, of course. Instead of wilting in the heat, Venus and Serena only got better as the match went on. It may not have been an enjoyable experience for them to have to play each other in front of maybe a dozen socially-distanced spectators, with a highway visible behind the court, but their love for the game and for competition—neither of which they had been able to experience for months—overrode everything else.

Venus was coming off a win over Victoria Azarenka in her first match back, and she still looked fresh in the opening set against Serena. During the lockdown, Venus had made a few adjustments to her serve, and it showed. After dropping the first two games, Venus blazed through six of the next seven to win the first set.

Whatever an older sister can do, a younger sister has to try try to do better, right? That’s been true for Serena and Venus for much of their careers, and it was true again on this day. In the second set, Serena shrugged off her early sluggishness, matched Venus’ serving efficiency, and found her timing on her return.

The third set continued the same back-and-forth, give-and-take pattern as the first two. Serena jumped out to an early lead; Venus responded by going up 4-2; and then Serena had the final answer. With her back to the wall, she locked in and reeled off the last four games. Most spectacular was the running backhand that she hammered for a winner to break for 5-4. After keeping her emotions bottled up, as she often does when facing her sister, Serena let us know how much this match, and the chance to compete again, meant to her.

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“I’ve lost a few tight sets lately,” Serena said, “so I was telling myself I wanted to win this one and try to focus on those last two games.”

“Having no crowd makes things more relaxing,” she added. “I’ve practiced in louder places than this court.”

She has also played her sister in grander venues than the Top Seed Tennis Club, but this might have been Serena-Venus at its purest. There were few fans, few ranking points, and not a lot of money on the line, and neither woman particularly wanted to face the other. But none of that mattered. What mattered for them, even after two decades on tour, was the fight. Rather than a Grand Slam final, this felt like a hardcore practice session, one where Serena and Venus were slugging it out against each other in the backyard. We were lucky to have a chance to watch.