But those days are long in the past, a distant memory for them and for us. Now Venus Williams is 35 and Serena will turn 34 in less than three weeks. They have grown accustomed to the burden of inflicting defeat upon each other, and both women realize that it is an essential part of their job to find ways to beat each other. Heading into last night’s quarterfinal, Serena was ahead in their career series 15-11. She was, of course, the clear favorite as the top seed against No. 23 seed Venus. But no one knew quite what to expect as they approached their latest confrontation, primarily because Venus has had a disappointing year since the early stages of the season. Some wondered if Venus could keep up her end of the bargain, believing she might be emotionally conflicted since she is fully aware that her sister is going for the Grand Slam.
Thankfully, and unmistakably, it was apparent from early on that Venus was out there to win. If Serena was going to prevail in this match, she would have to earn it. To be sure, Venus was nervous at the outset, serving a double fault to fall behind 15-30 in the opening game of the match. After holding a game point, she faced a break point, but erased it emphatically with an unstoppable first serve to the forehand. She closed out that game with a forehand winner set up by a superb first serve to the forehand. 1-0 for Venus Williams. The battle was on.
Yet Serena had her game face on and she quickly held at 15 for 1-1. Venus had an easy service game to move in front 2-1, but the rest of the set was simply a showcase for the soaring talent of Serena. She held at 15 for 2-2 with a gorgeous backhand down the line passing shot winner and then broke for the first time in the fifth game. Venus was up 30-0 at 2-2, but Serena travelled to break point. Venus saved it with a stinging backhand down the line, fashioned a game point, but was stymied by Serena there. Now Serena used a backhand drop shot to set up an impeccable backhand pass down the line, and she got the break with a running crosscourt forehand that drew an error from her sister.
Serena held at 30 for 4-2. In the seventh game, Venus served an ace at 117 MPH down the T to lead 40-30. Serena made it back to deuce with a change of direction backhand down the line into the clear. At deuce, Serena’s artistry was fully on display as she went to the backhand drop shot again, drawing Venus up to the net. Serena followed with a scintillating backhand half-volley topspin lob winner. She took the next point with a deep return down the middle that coaxed an error. It was 5-2 for Serena, who closed out the set in style with a love game on serve that included two winners off the ground and an ace. Set to Serena Williams, 6-2.
But Venus recognized that she had played better tennis than the score indicated. She proceeded to serve magnificently all through the second set, and Serena was hard pressed to answer that bell. In her first three service games of the second set, Venus did not lose a point. Meanwhile, she broke an apprehensive Serena for 3-1 on a tame double fault released at 68 MPH. With Serena serving in the fifth game, Venus obtained an insurance break as Serena double faulted again on the penultimate point. Having established a 5-1 lead, Venus was stretched to deuce three times but she saved one break point and ultimately came through on her third set point. Venus won it 6-1, and after 63 entertaining minutes the match was locked at one set all.
Serena clearly sensed the importance of a strong start in the third set. She did, however, struggle in her opening service game, double faulting for 30-30. But she held on with consecutive aces for 1-0, and the favorite was ready to make a significant move. Serena played perhaps her finest return game of the match to gain the crucial break for 2-0 in the final set. Venus commenced that game with an ace, lost the next point for 15-15, but Serena collected the following three points, all with outright winners off the backhand side. The top seed thus reasserted herself at a critical time in the match, and in the process regained the momentum in the match.
Nevertheless, Serena was down break point in the third game. She responded boldly with an ace down the T at 110 MPH, and then cracked a pair of unanswerable first serves to hold or 3-0. After Venus held in the fourth game, Serena surged to 4-1, holding at 15 with an ace out wide. Venus, however, was not going away, holding at 30 for 2-4. But Serena was now in terrific rhythm on serve. Two aces helped carry her to 5-2. Venus tenaciously held in the eighth game with an ace down the T, and so it was time for Serena to serve for the match at 5-3. She was more than ready for that challenge, holding at 15 with an ace out wide in the deuce court, revealing considerable poise under pressure to close out a first rate account 6-2, 1-6, 6-3.
The triumph puts Serena right where she wants to be, two matches away from becoming the first player since Steffi Graf in 1988 to win the highly coveted Grand Slam. There will be plenty of time in the days ahead to focus on Serena’s quest, to laud her if she realizes that feat, to place what she would be doing in historical perspective. But, for the time being, we should celebrate the historical significance of the Serena versus Venus career series. Serena extended her lead to 16-11. At the U.S. Open, Serena leads 3-2 over Venus; they split two finals in 2001 and 2002. Because Venus has had serious health issues and is no longer the player she once was, she has met Serena only four times since 2009. Venus did manage to topple Serena in their highest quality match ever in the semifinals of Montreal (6-7 (2), 6-2, 6-3) during the summer of 2014.
Their best match against each other at a major was at the 2008 U.S. Open, when Serena triumphed 7-6 (6), 7-6 (7), saving a total of ten set points in recording that victory. That was also a quarterfinal. Perhaps that is a good omen for Serena, who went on that year to secure her third U.S. Open singles title. In any event, I will long recollect last night’s three set quarterfinal between the sisters Williams. It could well be their last match of lasting value. I would rank it up there among their five best head to head matches. The standard of the ball striking was extraordinary. Serena demonstrated once more how much variety she has in her game. Venus reminded us that she remains a remarkably good tennis player and a prodigious competitor. They put on a stirring show. An epic it was not, but I was glad to be able to witness this spectacle in person.