The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, have come full circle. This incredible 2017 Australian Open Grand Slam final took place on the same court that the two played their first professional match against each other in the 1998 Australian Open.
Now, in the final chapters of their illustrious two-decade careers, the sisters have won a combined 30 Grand Slam singles titles and 14 Grand Slam doubles crowns. They each also own an Olympic gold medal in singles (Venus, 2000; Serena, 2012) and three golds in doubles (2000, 2008, 2012).
After so many competitive matches and joint appearances in Grand Slam finals in their early playing years, no one really expected to see them playing against each other again in another Grand Slam final, nearly 20 years later. This culmination of sorts for the two most dominant players of their era should leave us in awe of all they have achieved in a sport that was not always excited about their mastery of the game.
The Williams sisters have transformed tennis from a sport dominated by the white country-club set to one swept into a new era of play based on the beauty, strength and endurance of two incredible Black women. Watching tennis during this period was like watching basketball go from Bob Cousy to Julius “Dr. J” Erving. After seeing real athleticism in motion, you can’t go back to the way things used to be. The fear for WTA administrators in the next few years has to be who will watch when the sisters are gone.
Hailing from the most unlikely circumstances for future tennis stars, Compton, California, the sisters were guided on this path by their father, Richard Williams. After watching a match on television, Williams had the unbelievable vision that he would turn his two youngest daughters into the “world’s top two players” — even though Venus and Serena had yet to be born. Williams even created an 85-page plan of action for how to bring his idea to fruition. With the support of their mother, Oracene, the sisters spent countless hours on a concrete court in Compton learning the game from their father, who himself never played.
But the unorthodoxy paid off, as the sisters have dominated their sport in unbelievable fashion. Venus, the older sister, has more Grand Slam titles (7) than every female player on tour not named Serena (23), who has now surpassed Steffi Graf for the most Grand Slam singles victories in the Open era.
The road to greatness was not only unorthodox, it also has been difficult and arduous at times. Both sisters have experienced injury, racism and emotional pain, like the 2003 murder of their sister, who was shot to death in Compton, a mile from the courts they learned to play tennis on.
Venus has overcome a chronic illness, Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that causes fatigue and joint pain, to incredibly remain an elite professional athlete. Even more telling of Venus’ moral fiber is how she has remained loving and caring as her baby sister has soared above her in their chosen profession. Venus once was predicted to be not just the great player that she is but an all-time great. Instead, she has watched as her sister has taken that mantle and run with it. Yet, Venus has never wavered in being her sister’s biggest cheerleader and champion. “Serena Williams, that’s my little sister, guys,” Venus told the thunderous crowd at Melbourne. She added, nearly teary eyed, “Your win has always been my win, you know that.”
Serena, possibly the greatest athlete of our generation — if not any generation — has endured more than most on her remarkable journey. Among other trials, she survived a pulmonary embolism in 2011 that reportedly had her near death. The recovery cost her an entire year and when she finally returned to the tour, she was ranked No. 175. Within a year, she was back to No. 1.
Both sisters also have survived the psychological scars of racism and sexism that even today no Black female athlete can fully be free of despite the wealth and adulation bestowed upon them. Both were belittled in 2014 by the then-head of the Russian Tennis Association, who called them the Williams “brothers.” In 2012, tour player Caroline Wozniacki mocked Serena’s physique with a Hottentott impersonation on court. (Oddly enough, Wozniacki is now one of her closest friends on tour.) The media has questioned Serena’s resilience, desire and love for the game. And who can forget the treatment she received in 2001 at Indian Wells, where she was booed and heckled because the crowd believed the injury that kept Venus from playing against her in a semifinal match was faked. Richard Williams later recalled hearing racial epithets, and Serena vowed not to play there again. It would be 14 years before she would return and when she finally did, she would be welcomed by a warm and extended ovation.
In the modern sports environment where performance is measured by victories and income, despite her dominance on the court, Serena has not reaped the off-court revenue that her nonrival Maria Sharapova has. Until her banishment last year for using performance-enhancing drugs, Sharapova was the highest-paid female athlete in the world for 11 straight years. Over those same 11 years, the Russian lost every single match she played against Serena — all 18 of them.
Through it all, Serena has remained undaunted, at one point declaring that she gave them “Martin, but now they are going to get Malcolm.” That attitude has helped her continue winning in her sport long past anyone’s expectations. This 23rd Grand Slam victory vaults her back to No. 1 in the world for the seventh time and makes her the oldest player to hold the distinction.
The legacy the Williams sisters share is tremendous. In 2002, Venus became the first Black woman to hold the No. 1 ranking in the Open era. That same year, Serena overtook her to become the second. (Althea Gibson was the first African-American woman to be ranked No. 1, but it was prior to the Open era.] Now, as Venus and Serena march defiantly but inevitably deeper into the twilight of their amazing careers, it is time for us to sit back and savor all the wondrous and defining moments the two sisters have given us and the world over the years, for we will never see its like again.
Now, as Venus and Serena march inevitably but defiantly deeper into the twilight of their amazing careers, it is time for us to sit back and savor all the wondrous and defining moments the two sisters have given us and the world over the years, for we will never see its like again.