Keith Strudler: Big Sister
Last night at the US Open was certainly not the first, or second, or even twentieth time the Williams sisters played opposite each other at a tennis tournament. In fact, it was the twenty-seventh, with Serena’s win giving her a 26-11 edge. In recent days, it’s been all Serena, having taken seven of the past eight matches. Last night was a reminder of which sibling would go down in history as the more dominant tennis player. Despite a valiant effort by the 35 year-old Venus, the slightly junior and more athletic Serena rallied for a serviceable three set victory. All which means Serena will now continue into the semifinals as the overwhelming favorite to win this US Open and her 22nd major singles event. That would tie her with Steffi Graf for the most ever, and it would also complete her calendar Grand Slam, winning the Australian, French, Wimbledon, and US Open in the same year. Not that it’s in question, but this title would further enshrine Serena as the greatest women’s tennis player to grace the court. One could certainly argue she’s actually the greatest female athlete in any sport, but that’s a discussion for another time. Regardless of the depth of perspective, Serena’s win over her sister last night was yet another demonstration of athletic grace under pressure.
While it seemed presumptive, last night’s win was by no means a cakewalk. Venus largely dominated the second set while Serena’s overpowering serve temporarily abandoned her. It left some to wonder if the pressures of ending big sister’s title hopes may have overwhelmed Serena. But the third and final set left no room for doubt, either towards her game or mental psyche. That led to an emotional hug at the net at match’s end, a moment that softened even the most abrasive fan. It’s a safe bet that the strains of winning a quarterfinal tennis match are exponential when it comes at the expense of your family.
While Serena still sits atop the tennis world, the sun appears to be setting on Venus, especially when it comes to major championships. In fact, this may have been older sister’s best shot at a last hurrah, and Serena probably knew it. Despite her lofty efforts last night, when Venus left the court, it felt strangely like a conclusion, even if that was never articulated. For the record, Venus has said she’d like to play through the Rio Olympics, which of course is next year. After that is simply conjecture to all of us.
Right now, and likely moreso Saturday night at tournament’s end, the world will try to contextualize Serena’s career, which is understandable. A win this weekend would put another exclamation point on a career of ongoing emphasis. It’s part of why second hand Open tickets this year were just slightly less expensive than a European Vacation. In summer. But what’s also lost here as Venus quietly steps further from dominance is the context and impact of her tennis career, something that’s lost in Serena’s considerable shadow. Venus herself won seven major titles and, before Serena truly emerged, was perhaps to be the greatest ever. It’s not unusual for great athletes to be outdone by others in their generation – think Monica Seles to Graf, Agassi to Sampras, and so on. Players are generally limited by the random fate of their contemporaries, something boxers are keenly aware of. But there’s nothing particularly random about Serena and Venus, siblings with similar tennis genes, training, and work ethic. If sports success is dictated by both nature and nurture, the Williams sisters drink from a common glass. So it's safe to say that if Serena, Venus's kid sister, decided to do anything other than play tennis for a living, this weekend could be the coronation of a different Williams.
Perhaps what's most impressive is how Venus has handled it all. Sibling rivalries can go one of two ways -- either supportive, or more likely, contentious. And this isn't the Manning brothers in a sport like football, where Eli and Peyton rarely play each other and are literally never on the field at the same time. This is tennis, a sport that embodies the essence of one-on-one. As Serena surpassed her elder, we've never seen a sour grape, an ill will, or a jealous moment. Just a big sister who seems really proud of her little sis. Any of us who are parents of multiples can only hope our own would act the same -- even if just over a box of legos. That, more than any number of majors, is what's most impressive about Venus. As for Serena, well, her record speaks for itself.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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