So much has already been written about the Williams sisters over the past decade that it’s difficult to add anything useful to the discourse surrounding their importance to the game of tennis. As individuals, each stands out for their own accomplishments. Serena Williams is already one of the top four best women ever to have wielded a racquet. By the time she retires, she may well be the undisputed best. Elder sister Venus has nurtured her to this point. Throughout their parallel careers, Venus has served the dual roles of trailblazer for and biggest supporter of her younger sister, all the while carving out her own legacy amongst a rich tapestry of tennis legends.
Serena was first to burst through the Grand Slam gate with her win against Martina Hingis at the 1999 U.S. Open, but it was Venus who led the Williams’ charge to #1 by the early 2000s. At the start of 2002, the WTA was squarely Venus’ domain. Fresh off back-to-back Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles, Venus seemed poised to dominate for years to come. However, Serena upset that narrative by winning Grand Slams two through five as part of her now famous “Serena Slam.” Those who felt sorry for Serena while Venus shone brightly now bled for big sis. Either way, both had arrived.
Their rivalry is punctuated by so many unique considerations. They are sisters, competing against and with each other, winning more often than not. The thing about the “Serena Slam” that is often overlooked is that Serena played Venus in each of those finals. For me, that is one of the most amazing parts of their story. The tennis world was gifted these two supremely talented sisters who ruled the sport at the same time, but that which happens in our backyards, happened for them on the grandest world stages. Their grace in navigating that sibling dynamic at such young ages will always mesmerise me. Can you imagine having the joy of reaching #1 in the world being tempered by having unseated your sister in the process? These are the types of things that Venus and Serena dealt with that we will never understand. Theirs is a unique dynamic.
Tennis players have rabid fan bases; Venus and Serena are no stranger to this phenomenon. Perhaps, because of their distinct celebrity and achievements, they have even larger and broader followings than most. The flip-side of this is that they have detractors who foster a keen dislike of the two. Some dismiss them as “haters.” Others view it as a tale-as-old-as-time misogyny that undercuts successful, strong women. Some of it is understandable, a push back against larger-than-life personalities which exist outside our realm of understanding. However, the resistance is also racial. Because racism is often ambiguous and not easily identifiable, some make the mistake of dismissing it from the discourse surrounding the two.
The ugliness of Indian Wells in 2001 is at the forefront of this discourse. There was also the Irina Spirlea bump at the 1997 U.S. Open, where the Romanian intentionally bumped Venus on a changeover, and later declared “she thinks she’s the fucking Venus Williams.” But, as is the case with most incidents of racism, they are difficult to pinpoint. We know Venus and Serena have dealt with this throughout their careers, but we have no way of knowing the full extent of it. To their immense credit, they have handled most of the obstacles that could have derailed their success with remarkable aplomb.
Tennis statistics will never hail the Williams rivalry as one of the all-time greats. Yet, their careers are prime examples of how numbers often obscure context in favour of wins and losses. How much weight should we attribute to the “unique considerations” that have shadowed them throughout their time on the WTA Tour? It’s not something that can be fully assessed. Instead, we should marvel at all that they have been able to achieve collectively: as rival singles players, as a doubles tandem, as a sibling rivalry, as friends, and as world class athletes. With the best of their rivalry almost certainly behind them, it’s time to heap as much praise on them in appreciation of careers that we will never see the likes of again.
This is the first of a series that will focus on some of the best tennis rivalries.