Wednesday September 9th, 2015

NEW YORK – Figure this one out if you dare, if you think you’re smart or have an oracle’s grasp on the mysteries of the human heart. Late Tuesday night, one of the great competitive wills of our time cracked a sweet, spinning 107-mph ace, heard the chair umpire say the golden words, “Game, set and match, Serena Williams,” and looked as if she might weep. We don’t mean tears of joy. There she was, now two steps from history. Two more wins from tying up a lifetime of family striving into this rare and unassailably perfect box known as the calendar Grand Slam. Did you really expect mourning?

The grunt Serena unleashed on match point had been pure lethality, the “Unghgh!” you’d expect from the one who kills the bull. Serena had the 6–2, 1–6, 6–3 win over her sister Venus in hand and the first fully electrified crowd of the 2015 U.S. Open rose inside Arthur Ashe Stadium to do them justice. Serena took a step toward the net. Her face crumpled. She mashed her wristband against her mouth and that helped somehow; when she dropped her arm the mouth had hardened to a grim line. Her feet kept bringing her forward.

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The best part about the match? “Walking off the court,” she said later. “And it being over.”

Venus was waiting. From afar it looked, for a moment, like the end of the other 26 matches they’ve played. Serena had won most of those, too, and it’s true that against her older sister she has always produced a more subdued version of herself: None of the usual fist-pumps, no raging, “Come on!”s. But that was as far as she was willing to go. Serena wanted what Serena wanted, and there had been stretches over the years when she had rolled big sister so mercilessly—she’d won six of their previous seven meetings before Tuesday—that all that early, oh-so-savvy speculation about a family fix began to feel slightly insane.

In its place, the tennis world settled on a more comforting, relatable dynamic: Venus, the big sister who always sacrifices for Serena, and Serena “the spoiled one”—as their mom likes to say—who always gets her way. Venus has won seven major singles titles and Serena 21, and the gap seemed proof of little sister as the cooler, more remorseless force. Big sis? Somewhere along the way, perhaps when she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder in 2011, she had conceded something, too: Venus didn’t need major titles, or stardom, to be happy. She needed Serena to be happy to be happy.

So it was expected that, in the run-up to Tuesday’s quarterfinal showdown, with Serena’s chance to win the Grand Slam and tie Steffi Graf’s 22 titles on the line, few—if any—picked Venus to win. It wasn’t just that she was ranked 23rd. The very idea seemed impossible. She would just be too conflicted—half hoping, at 35, for a shot at one last major title, the other half loath to derail Serena’s historic run—to play well.

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“Older sister doesn’t want to spoil the party,” Mats Wilander, winner of seven majors, said before the match. “She’s going to try to, but it’s not easy to want to.

“It’s not logical: it’s here,” he added, jabbing a thumb into his chest. “And if you don’t have this? You can’t beat the No. 1 player in the world. Because you’ve got to make choices and if you don’t have your heart in it, it’s hard to make the right choice. I don’t see it. If it were my brother who had the chance to do what Serena is doing? I would throw it. I would just take an injury. I’m not going to play against my brother.”

Yet from the start, Venus was by far the most settled psyche in the building. Two older sisters came but stayed out of sight in the player’s lounge for fear of taking sides, and their mother Oracene never showed up at all. Celebrities arrived in force—Oprah, Trump, a Kardashian, a Jenner—for what may well be the Williams sisters' final meeting in the business end of a Grand Slam event. Venus’s strategy was simple and daring, her only chance: Hold serve, avoid long rallies, gun for the lines—and count on her sister to buckle, if only a bit. 

And for long stretches, the sisters produced some of the best tennis in the history of their rivalry. Early in the second set, it became clear that Venus’s forehand and serve had rounded into form, and Serena crumbled under the pelting. Down 1-2, break point, she double-faulted with a 68-mph puffball into the net, and hurried to her chair for a fresh racket. It didn’t help. Venus ran out the set and Serena threw up her hands at her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, and when the two women crossed paths for the changeover they acted as if they’d never met.

“When I’m playing her I don’t think of her as my sister,” Serena said after the match. She has been saying that a long time. Tuesday night is the last time anyone should believe it, along the notion that winning the Grand Slam somehow isn’t important to her.

When they walked out for the third set—with “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” piped through the loudspeakers— Serena unleashed her emotions like she never had in a match with Venus. She launched an ace and clenched her fist screaming. She cracked a backhand winner to break Venus in the second game and rolled her eyes and bent over in relief. She smacked her racket on the court, howled “Ai-yi-yi!” and somewhere in all that tumult righted her head, her serve and her game.

Yet Venus’s high level never dropped. “It was probably the toughest match I have played in really, really, really long time where I wasn’t actually beating myself,” Serena said. “I was out there facing an incredibly tough opponent….I think against any other player she, for sure, would have won.”

All true. But the fact is, Venus’s serve is not her sister’s stiletto and her groundstrokes are not nearly as solid. She was the No. 23 seed playing the No. 1 on Tuesday night, and well, even at her best she’s not in Serena’s league anymore. And she knows it.

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“She’s really the best ever, so what are you going to do?” Venus said after the match. “Just try to make it.” That may well be the first time that Venus has ever, publicly, placed that label on Serena.

“Well,” she said, “I think she is the best ever because of the level of competition that she’s faced. There have been some unbelievable players in the past, but I have played the best from different eras. I have seen the level of competitiveness go up, and I have seen players who are ranked 100 who didn’t believe they could win a match against you, to this point fight you tooth and nail to take you down. That didn’t happen when I started. Just to be able to win at this level, I think that’s what makes her the best.”

Yet reaching that level comes at a cost. Serena’s need to win is well known, of course, but Tuesday night’s match revealed how deeply it runs; by the time it was over, you could see that she has no choice in the matter. It’s simply Serena’s lot to run over anything in her path, and when that includes Venus she doesn’t like herself much. But with the Grand Slam now close enough to taste, Serena behaved as she would with any other player. Despite what she says, it was the very first time.

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“It’s really tough,” said Sascha Bajin, Serena’s former longtime hitting partner. “You saw towards the end, she let her emotions out a little more, started to fist-pump a little more—and the intensity definitely took a toll. She was trying to hold it in as much as she could, out of respect of course. But she is an emotional player, and all that is really hard. I don’t know what is harder than playing your own sister.”

Maybe nothing, at least in professional tennis. By the time Serena made it to the net Tuesday night, Venus had already begun to smile. Serena looked guilty, the only one conflicted. Venus wasn’t having it. Her face broke into this huge grin, and she reached out her right arm and pulled her little sister into an embrace that almost no one in the world could understand.

“I’m so happy for you,” Venus said. It felt like a benediction. Serena tried responding, but she could barely get the words out.

“Thank you,” she said.

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