Even before Venus and Serena Williams were born, their father, Richard, was fueled by tremendous ambition—the desire to have his two girls become world-class tennis players.
And it happened. The Williams sisters first learned the game in Compton, California. Then came a move east, to Florida. Through hour after hour of hard work in the blazing sun, under the eyes of their devoted father, Venus and Serena cracked groundstrokes, fired serves, honed competitive skills.
Now, on this day in 1998, the two met for the first time as pros. The match happened in the second round of the Australian Open—each sister at the time in grand ascent.
Venus was 17, having reached the finals of the ’97 US Open in her debut at that event. Ranked No. 216 at the beginning of ’97, Venus cracked the Top 20 just prior to the ’98 Australian Open.
Serena was 16, competing in the singles of a major for the first time. But just a few months earlier, ranked 304th, Serena upset Mary Pierce and Monica Seles in Chicago. The week before the Australian Open, in Sydney, she beat Lindsay Davenport. By the time Serena arrived in Melbourne, her ranking had soared to No. 53.
Amazingly, in the first round, Serena took on sixth-seeded Irina Spirlea—Venus’ victim in a dramatic and acrimonious US Open semifinal. After a slow start, Serena won, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-1.
Venus’ path was much easier, her opener a routine 6-3, 6-0 win over 68th-ranked Alexia Dechaume-Balleret.
So the stage was set for a historic moment. According to a New York Times article written about the Venus-Serena match, “The last time the siblings squared off was eight years ago, when Serena, then 8, got all the way to the final of her first junior tournament only to find herself swatted into submission by her big sister, 6-2, 6-2.”
The match in Australia began much closer. Over the course of a first set highlighted by eight service breaks, each sister revealed the power, movement and clutch pressure play that would eventually take both to the top of the world. It went to a tie-break. But while Serena led early, Venus pulled away to win it. 7-4. She went on to win the second set, 6-1.
“Today would have been great fun if it were a final,” said Venus, “but it wasn’t so fun to eliminate my sister in the second round.”
Said Serena, “If I had to lose in the second round, no better than to Venus; I tried to keep thinking of her as someone else, but I guess Venus has a little more experience than me.”
Echoing her father’s aptitude for prophecy, Serena also said this: “What you saw was something for the future.”
The sisters have since met one another 30 times, an incredible rivalry now in its fourth decade. Serena leads, 19-12. Their most recent encounter came last summer, in Lexington, Kentucky. In what’s considered one of the highest quality matches the two have played versus one another, Serena won, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.