The Williams sisters are set to meet for the 26th time in Manic Monday’s fourth round at Wimbledon. They’ve come close to meeting at both Grand Slams this year. If not for Madison Keys’ brilliance at the Australian Open this year, Venus and Serena would have met in the semifinals. They were also on course for a fourth round clash in Paris, before Venus fell meekly to Sloane Stephens in the opening round. Tennis draw oracles finally get the hotly anticipated matchup as the Venus and Serena rivalry gets renewed on Monday.
Only twice in their 26 matches have the two played at this stage of a tournament or earlier; 23 have come in the quarterfinals or later. Between 2008 and 2009, the sisters played each other nine times, with Serena winning six. They’ve played only twice since, four years later in a Charleston semifinal dominated by Serena, and again last year in the same round at the Rogers Cup. Venus won that match in Montreal; after losing the first set in a tiebreak, she conceded just five games in the final two sets. Their recent history – only two matches in over five years – tells us nothing about Monday’s match.
Tennis pundits and fans argue that Serena Williams has lacked a steady rival during her career. Justine Henin filled that role for a time, especially after beating Serena in three straight Slam quarterfinals in 2007. After Henin’s retirement, Victoria Azarenka was thought to be the player most likely to fill her shoes. All the while, Venus was overlooked as the most obvious candidate for Serena’s greatest rival. With the two playing so few times in recent years, perhaps the collective memory of their rivalry is one of yesteryear. But, Monday’s meeting means Venus and Serena’s rivalry gets renewed, or, at the very least, the tennis world will get a refresher course of what the two have done against each other.
What the Williams family endures when the sisters play each other is something nobody outside their circle will ever be able to fully understand. The dynamic is complicated further this time around by the heightened stakes for both women. Serena will be aiming to preserve her chance at another Serena Slam, and Venus will be aiming for (perhaps) one last shot at glory. Their mother, Oracene, has already joked she will probably not attend the match. With all the complexities of playing a sister, it is no wonder the two have often been unable to summon their best tennis during these matches.
Tennis fans lament Venus and Serena having to play in the fourth round. While Venus has improved her play and consistency in the last 18 months, her ranking is still not high enough to avoid these early round scenarios. Nonetheless, she is well on her way. Venus ended 2013 ranked #49 in the world. Since finding a way to better manage her Sjogren’s Syndrome, she’s made a steady climb back to the upper echelons of women’s tennis. In fact, Venus will crack the top 10 if she makes the semifinals, and the top 8 if she goes one further into the final.
Serena’s record on the year (32-1) gives the impression of complete dominance over all challengers. Yet, so many of those wins have been of the come-from-behind variety; Serena has been close to losing on so many occasions. Her latest brush with defeat almost cost tennis fans the chance of witnessing this latest edition of the Williams rivalry: Serena was twice two points from losing to Heather Watson in the third round. Instead, she remains unbeaten in Grand Slams in 2015, and is now four matches from a second career Serena Slam. This version of Serena Williams, perhaps the most dominant incarnation, is more likely to troubleshoot and survive than to blitz an opponent off the court.
Yet, it is Venus who enters the fourth round in better form. She played near flawless tennis in winning her first round match 6-0 6-0 against Madison Brengle, and has yet to lose a set from three matches. She is serving well, and attacking her opponents with relentless and consistent aggression. History tells us Serena is the better player by a considerable margin. She is also in the midst of a years-long reign at #1. She has looked tentative and at less than her best on several occasions this year, but she has still managed to find a way every time. Consider too that both women will have the benefit of two full days of rest, and the queuing faithful at Wimbledon could witness something special on Monday.
At 35 and 33 years of age respectively, who could have foreseen both Williams sisters still competing at this level? Venus has been written off so many times over the last five years. Yet, she keeps putting in the hard yards. Meanwhile, Serena’s singular focus on her place in history grows more steadfast with each passing Slam win. Last fall, tennis scribes were obsessed with whether Serena would be able to tie Evert & Navratilova with 18 majors. A year later, it’s whether she can tie Graf at the U.S. Open with 22 and complete the Calendar Slam. Venus and Serena Williams defy conventional wisdom.
There will be no predictions made here, only a bit of advice: Tune in and savor these two icons of sport continuing to excel when most, even their younger selves, expected them to be long gone. Both women have won five singles titles at Wimbledon; their surname has been etched on the Venus Rosewater Dish more than any other. This may be the last time we see them play on tennis’ biggest stage, especially if we allow ourselves to buy into the limitations of age. Monday’s match could also spark a string of high stakes matches between the two. For much of their early careers, the Williams’ unpredictability was one of their most frustrating characteristics. Now, it’s something to marvel at, never knowing what remarkable feat they will achieve next.
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