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The Williams Sisters Are Tennis’s Past and Present

At the U.S. Open, Venus and Serena played their 30th match 20 years after their first, bringing decades of the game’s history into the stadium

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There is no one story of the Williams sisters. For so many people, in so many different times, they have meant so many different things. There are stories to be told about prodigy and expectations, about fairness and unfairness, about growing up, about adulthood, and now, about motherhood. There are also a lot of stories about tennis matches, especially about winning them.

The story on Friday night was about a tennis match, sort of. Venus and Serena, seeded 16th and 17th, played in front of a raucous home crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium, 17 years after their first meeting in Flushing in the 2001 final. In their sixth meeting at the U.S. Open, Serena came out on top in the most lopsided match of the sisters’ rivalry, 6-1, 6-2.

It was unusual to see the Williams sisters pitted against each other in the first week of a slam. Their last major meeting, far removed from the times in the aughts when Venus and Serena would contest every slam, was still in a final at the 2017 Australian Open. A meeting of the Williams sisters cannot feel like anything besides a marquee match.

But the match itself was not much of a contest. Serena cruised as she often has against her sister; in her last five slam matches against Venus, dating back to 2009, Serena has lost just a single set. Early in the first set, Serena rolled her right ankle, and had to have the tape around it reinforced. From there, she seemed determined to dispel any questions about her strength, stepping over Venus’s second serves and smacking fireballs into the open court.

Indeed, from that point, the match had already taken its shape. In the first game of the second set, Serena broke her sister’s serve. The rallies had already turned short; if Serena did not hit a winner quickly, it seemed that Venus was waiting to unleash an error. After the match, Serena did not celebrate. The sisters met at the net. They hugged, perhaps relieved that they no longer had to be in conflict.

That was the other story of the night; not the Williams sisters, isolated in this moment in time, but the entirety of their careers being brought along with their present into Ashe.

Time has brought changes in temperament, sponsors, and racket-head size. Venus long ago fell behind her sister in the quest for titles, but with her celebrity, in her seeming omnipresence on tour, she has outhit the Sports Takes ecosystem. She’s become a something of a living myth; a hero from another time still lurking in the draws. Last year, at 37, years removed from serious contention at the slams, Venus reached two major finals. In a practical sense, the results were surprising; the elder sister hadn’t looked her best in years. But two decades of relevance will skew the senses.

Years ago, Serena stopped being only a part of the Williams sisters and became an entity all on her own. Her sense-skewing abilities trump even her sister’s. This year, Serena reached the final at Wimbledon. At the U.S. Open, she’s the Vegas favorite to win the title. She missed most of the 2017 season and the beginning of the 2018 season while pregnant with her daughter, Olympia. Complications in Olympia’s delivery seriously threatened Serena’s health. It would have been understandable if she wasn’t quite the same on the court anytime soon, or ever, really. But, at Wimbledon, her run to the final seemed to be common sense. Of course. It’s Serena.

Venus and Serena have 30 singles majors between them. Their match on Friday night was, coincidentally, their 30th meeting. On a tour which is, depending on who you ask, either plagued by inconsistency or blessed with depth, the Williams sisters have been more or less the only constants through the last 20 years.

During the next week, more could be added to their legacy. Serena now has a path through the quarter of the draw which first-seeded Simona Halep vacated when she dropped her first-round match to Kaia Kanepi on Monday. In the quarterfinals, Serena could face the hard-hitting Karolina Pliskova before running into defending champion Sloane Stephens in the semifinals. But projecting into the future seems an unfulfilling task. In these draws, there have been only two unmoving themes in recent years: chaos and Serena.