Australian Open Diary: Tale of two sisters
Once upon a time, around the turn of the century, women’s professional tennis revolved around the two Williams sisters. Venus Williams led the way to the top, beginning with her domination at Wimbledon and the US Open. Just when we thought the world had found the ultimate tennis champion, Venus’ kid sister, Serena burst onto the scene, and began winning everything in sight. Together, they were aggressive, formidable, and path-breaking. In their own way, they contributed to revolutionizing the game as we knew it.
Serena continues to dominate
Things have changed a bit since those glory days. While Serena continues to hold her own and push her legacy towards the all-time greats, Venus has struggled with her game in recent years. Her fight against the energy-sapping Sjogren’s syndrome and the creeping influence of age, have led to a drop away from the top professional spotlight.
As a result, what used to be a regular sight during a Grand Slam fortnight – the Williams sisters figuring all over the draw sheet – has become an increasingly less common feature. So, when today’s third-round schedule at the Australian Open provided a double-header of Williams matches on adjacent prime-time courts, it felt like a small, but significant, return to the good old days. Could the sisters continue to awe us today?
Venues staged an impressive comeback
First up was Venus Williams, on Margaret Court Arena. She was taking on the Italian youngster Camila Giorgi, 13 years her junior. Giorgi is a dangerous floater in any draw, ranked just outside the seeding vicinity. Her first, and usually only, instinct is to attack the ball. This makes her capable of coming up with untouchable stretches of play, and equally vulnerable to ugly errors.
Today, Giorgi begins brightly, forces Venus on the backfoot, and breaks early. Venus looks slow getting to Giorgi’s groundstrokes, and soon finds herself a set down. The elder Williams has often been described, picturesquely, as an elegant gazelle, when in motion. Down a set and a break at 4-6, 3-5, Venus seems to be more of a hunted gazelle staring down the barrel. The long legs drag between points, she appears listless, and an increasingly predictable early-round loss in a Major seems to be a mere formality.
But this is the extremely volatile Giorgi she is playing against. The Italian had shown some nerves in closing out the first set earlier, and now with the match on her racket, she begins to spew errors. The experience of Venus comes to the fore, as instead of attempting to force winners, she focuses on keeping the ball in. As it transpires, this is more than enough. The unforced errors begin to flow from Giorgi, and she is broken to love.
The ensuing tie-breaker is an equally scratchy affair, with both players throwing in their fair share of winners and errors. But Venus has now found the key to breaking Giorgi – keeping it consistent. Soon, the second set is hers, and the final set begins with Venus breaking Giorgi’s opening service game. The match has taken a decisive turn.
Multiple breaks, numerous Giorgi errors, and a few sparkling Venus winners later, we reach match point. The end occurs with another Giorgi hit into the net, and Venus comes through unscathed – 4-6, 7-6, 6-1. Venus raises both arms to her box, and flashes a beaming smile in victory.
It was quite an incredible turnaround, a win which showcased Venus’ maturity and doggedness. Venus is always known as the most attacking of tennis players, with her strong serve and aggressive game. But today, she was happy to dial it back, and let her young opponent take centre stage, which Giorgi promptly messed up with her one-track first-strike instincts.
Venus also plays and talks these days with a sense of happy maturity, almost bordering on wisdom. Compare today’s Venus with her version twelve years ago, and you sense that her philosophy of competition has changed. The in-your-face combative nature and anxious intensity, still very apparent in Serena, has been replaced by a more mellow take-it-as-it-comes philosophy. At 34 years of age, this might not be the worst approach to adopt, and could possibly be the secret to her rising career profile again. For the first time since Wimbledon 2011, Venus has made it to the fourth round of a Grand Slam. She next plays fifth seed Agniezska Radwanska.
Serena started slow but found her feet after the first set
Meanwhile, on Rod Laver Arena, little sister Serena is extricating herself from her own mess of problems. She is up against Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, the 26th seed and another fast-rising youngster. Like Giorgi, Svitolina has come out in aggressive mode, firing winners, leaving Serena flat-footed, and taking the first set 6-4.
The first thought that pops up on seeing Serena is that she creates a stronger impression on court than Venus does. If Venus has the elegance of a gazelle, then Serena has the sturdiness of an ox. The power and pop on her groundstrokes is more easily discernible than her elder sister’s. Of course, Serena’s latest fashion statement, in a backless fluorescent yellow-and-pink outfit already creating headlines, makes her hard to miss.
In addition, Serena is much more expressive than her sister. The fist pumps, the loud “Come on!” after winning a game, the dramatic flailing of hands after a tough point lost, all add up to a more animated personality. Both sisters have the same slow, emotionless march between points, but while Venus exudes a natural calmness these days, you know with Serena that there is a fire bubbling beneath the surface.
When it comes to regaining control of the match, Serena has a different approach compared to Venus. Unlike her elder sister, Serena forces the issue at the beginning of the second set. She jumps on a short ball from Svitolina and crashes it into a corner of the court, she takes on a thunderbolt from her opponent and returns it with interest. Soon, the momentum has shifted, and Serena is in charge of the second set, and the match.
Svitolina becomes increasingly frustrated with herself, and is soon a shadow of the player she was in the first set. By the middle of the final set, Serena is in cruise control, while Svitolina is self-destructing. The younger Williams delivers a final set bagel, as Svitolina’s challenge comes crumbling down. Serena wins 4-6, 6-2, 6-0. She is now scheduled to face Garbine Muguruza in the fourth round.
Serena inspired by Venus’ score
Both Williams sisters ended up playing similar matches today. They both lost the first set in which they were outclassed by much younger opponents, they scrambled to regain control in the second set, and then won in a canter in the third. While Venus left it to much later to stage her comeback, the curiously parallel trends make for interesting analysis. Karmic patterns, perhaps? The answer is likely more straightforward, and might lie in Serena’s statements in her on-court post-match interview.
Asked if she had been following her sister’s match on the other court, Serena replied in the affirmative. “When I came on to the court, I was slightly depressed, knowing that Venus was down a set and break….Later, I looked up and saw Venus’s score and thought, ‘wow, she’s winning, well, I can do better’….we always motivate each other that way,” she said.
To an extent, this explains not just today’s victories for the Williams sisters, but also the success of their extraordinary careers. Each of their victories and defeats has been a shared experience. In the good times and the bad, they have always had each other for support and motivation. In the end, perhaps that is what sisters are for.