Monday September 7th, 2015

NEW YORK – It had to happen this way. You knew that, didn’t you? It just wasn’t right, the way seeds kept falling in Flushing Meadows all week, the way upsets and literal meltdowns kept clearing out the path for Serena Williams. Yes, early on, her serve was spotty. Yes, her intensity can sputter and flit. But this Grand Slam thing isn’t supposed to be about fine-tuning, a matter of one player’s mere adjustments. Winning all four majors should be a brutal march, a mental wringer. It should be hard, especially in the final step. 

Because it’s the hard—to borrow from A League of Their Own's Jimmy Dugan—that makes it grand. And now, if only because we need a logical culmination to the lunatic, 30-year-old vision of a cigarillo-sucking dad in Compton, Calif., if only because her big sister Venus, as Serena said Sunday, “helped create me,” the hard is finally here. On Tuesday, Venus will present the most complicated test yet for Serena in the quarterfinals of the 2015 U.S. Open, and the most serious challenge to her completion of tennis’ first calendar Grand Slam in 27 years.

“In terms of a dream scenario?” said Isha Price, their sister. “This is as dreamy as you could get.”

“The only thing more interesting would be for Serena have to go through her in a final,” said commentator Pam Shriver. “But quarterfinal? I’ll take it. It had to be.”

The numbers, of course, will have Serena walking into Arthur Ashe Stadium the heaviest of favorites: 33 years old, holding the last four Slam championships and 21 overall, 52-2 in 2015. She is just about everybody’s bet to finish her career as the game’s all-time best. Venus? She’s 35, ranked 23rd and hasn’t won a major singles title in seven years; she suffers from a strength-sapping chronic illness that can make her current 24-10 record seem wondrous.

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“The good Venus is a top player,” said Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena’s coach, after his charge’s impeccable, 6–3, 6–3 win over Madison Keys Sunday on Arthur Ashe. “But the bad thing is that we don’t always see the good Venus.”

When they play, though, numbers, trends and precedents lose all meaning. Serena holds a 15-11 edge, but fears her sister most: “The only player in the draw I don’t want to play,” Serena said. “I’ve taken a lot of losses off her of her, more than anybody.” Yes, she has won six of their last seven matches, including a straight sets drubbing at Wimbledon '15, but when “good Venus” shows up, fleet and aggressive as she was last summer in Montreal, the result can be a top-quality, three-set screamer that leaves the mighty Serena looking cowed.

No one knows what factors touch that off. No one even bothers to parse the sisters’ dual and dueling psychologies anymore.

“They’re almost like twins sometimes,” said Oracene Price. “It’s hard, because they’re so connected. They’re each other’s cheerleader. That’s why it’s so difficult—and that’s why I know I’m not coming to the match.”

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Prediction? Oracene just laughed. So if even their mom can barely figure it out, what hope for mere mortals like the top man on tour? “The first thing that comes to my mind is how would I feel to play my brother, and I don’t think that would be possible, honestly,” World No. 1 Novak Djokovic said Sunday night.

“It’s strange, you know. They are sisters. They live together. They grew up together playing tennis. Of course they love each other, but then have to be professional and go out on the court and play each other so many times in the finals of Grand Slams, in the biggest matches. They both were No. 1’s of the world: Chapeau for that. But I don’t know if I’ll be able to play my brother. It’s not possible. I would not be able to handle on the court.”

There have been siblings in tennis before. The Everts, the McEnroes, the Maleevas; matches were fraught, family dynamite. No one will ever forget the sight of Venus in the family box at Ashe in 1999, hooded and impassive while little sister grabbed the family’s first Grand Slam title. She seemed in mourning; her mother, Oracene Price, anguished over the aftermath. Once, Serena told me that she has “never” felt any tension between them because of tennis, not even that first time. But, she added with a diplomat’s alacrity, “if I did, Venus cancelled any feeling I may or may not have had by taking pictures and being genuinely happy for me, the way I would have been for her.”

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And since that night? There has never been a hint that a match, a title, a winner’s check, or simply the need for pure competitive satisfaction has damaged their bond. The true triumph of the Williams sisters is that, in a sport that has strained so many families, relationships, psyches, their love remains unquestioned. Even when—after speaking movingly about how grateful to have someone who knows her perfectly—Serena blandly told me, “I hate Venus when I’m playing her. It’s nothing personal,” it felt like the kind of thing only someone bedrock secure in a relationship could say.

“I hate, and I did,” Serena said. She was talking about that Montreal loss, the last time her sister beat her. “I was so mad every time she hits those winners and she gets those balls. It’s like, ‘Oh, I can’t stand her right now.’ I think it can be easier to hate a sister, actually, right?”

When I related that to Oracene Sunday, she said, “She’s messing with your head.”

Maybe. Let’s face it. The whole family has messed with our heads for nearly two decades now, keeping the world guessing and amazed. Stands taken on race and religion and women’s pay. The Spirlea bump. The first prime time final in Flushing Meadows in 2001. The Serena Slam. The "----ing ball and shove it down your ----ing throat" and "give her a big ol’ hug" and father Richard dancing on the Wimbledon broadcast booth. Think you have them figured out? Don’t even try. Just know that the family, like any other, has never grown accustomed to these showdowns.

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“It ain’t fun,” said their sister Isha Price. “I’m even reconsidering whether I’ll be coming. Knowing Venus is having an incredible year and what it means for Serena, both have something at stake. So would be a dream to win—for either of them. But there’s always going to be one who loses.”

Venus, indeed, has had a good run this summer, including a payback win over 12th-seed Belinda Bencic—one of the two women to beat Serena this year—in the third round, and Sunday’s unexpected speedy, 6–2, 6–1 win over Estonian qualifier Anett Kontaveit on Ashe. She admitted to no “joy and wonder, per se,” in the idea of facing Serena again. She talks like any other opponent walking into that buzzsaw.

“What else can you do,” Venus said, “except try to win the point and hope she doesn’t hit an ace?”

It’s a valid fear, now that Serena seems to have her serve in the groove again. Mouratoglou, who predicted after Montreal that Venus would never beat Serena again, didn’t recant Sunday. He is sure he will have her prepared for the match of the tournament, maybe the year—the match, indeed, that encapsulates just what the Williams sisters have meant to the game.

Serena on the cusp of greatness, in the place where the sisters’ tale took flight. Venus here to push her, or stop the great one cold. Accept the cosmic nature of this one. It had to be. And it may well never happen again.

“Both can’t win, so that makes it really tough,” Isha said. “But we definitely feel like winners, anyway, because they’re both here. They’re still here, and at the top of their game. When you consider where they are, like, in terms of space and time? It’s amazing. You know what I mean?”

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