MELBOURNE – Five quick thoughts on Serena Williams’s 6-4, 6-4 defeat of her sister Venus to win the 2017 Australian Open women’s singles title, her 23rd career major.
• Did you hear about Usain Bolt’s brother, Carl? He’s the world’s second fastest man. Catch wind of Lin Manuel Miranda’s brother, Winston? He’s the genius behind the second most successful show on Broadway. And not just for one race or for one season; but for a 20-year interval.
We jest, of course. But before even considering tonight’s match, just pause to reflect on the context, the sheer statistical unlikelihood, the extraordinary achievement of the women’s final. Two sisters who once shared a bunk bed, coming to dominate a global workforce for decades? Williams-Williams XXVIII coming 19 years after the first matchup? Who writes this stuff?
What makes for an exceptional story doesn't make for exceptional competition. Understandably so. Consider this from Venus’ standpoint: she stares across the net and sees her sister—age 35, having won “only” one of her last five majors—chasing history, only two short of the all-time record for Slams. And she needs to thwart her? And consider this from Serena’s standpoint: she stares across the net and sees her sister—age 36; having recovered from her autoimmune disease; in her first Slam final since 2009. And she needs to thwart her?
All this freight impacted tonight’s match. It was not a classic match. It was not maximum theater.
• The tennis lore. It’s the mid-1990s and Richard Williams is approached after the success of young Venus.
“Congratulations. You have the next Michael Jordan.”
“Wrong. I got the next two Michael Jordans. And the younger one is meaner.”
For all that Richard Williams got right—and there’s plenty—this may have been his ultimate bit of prescience. Serena has always had a dimension that’s escaped Venus (and every single other player.) “Meanness” doesn't quite get us there. But there is a mental impregnability that, hard as it is to quantify, might be her real virtue.
It was in full form tonight. It was Serena who broke a racket—code violation!—in the third game. It was Serena who served an ace on the last two points of the second set. It was Serena who pumped her fist. It was Serena who brought her furious ball-striking to bear when it mattered. Serena did not play her best tennis tonight. But she simply would not lose.
• The extended ovation for Venus Williams on Saturday night who could not be more well-deserved. She played rewind-the-clock tennis for six rounds. While she didn’t face the toughest opposition along the way, she beat the players put before her—which is all you can ask. At 36, she is still a remarkable athlete. She carried herself with a mixture of dignity and childlike joie de vivre here. On Saturday she simply ran into a better-serving, more determined player who happened to be her kid sister. Venus is back near the top ten. And she won the popular vote.
• Forgive the self-reference. At around 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, I ran into Venus in downtown Melbourne. (After some chitchat, it was like seeing a bride before a wedding.) She was alone, wearing sunglasses, returning from a walk to clear her mind before one of the biggest matches of her career. Yesterday I talked to Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, and asked how he prepared his charge to play Venus. “Even though Serena knows Venus very well, she would like me to scout,” he said. “[Serena told me] ‘Please scout and talk to me before the match like you do all the time.’” So he watched video of Venus’ first six matches here and developed a game plan.
The point: yes, Venus and Serena are sisters. But in part because the stakes are so high, both sisters treat these inter-family affairs as business. Early in their careers, they practiced together before matches and shared coaches and even an apartment. Their sororal bond might be just as strong. But as athletes, in their 30s, they approach these matches seriously and as normally as possible. No moral victories. Both sisters have said that if they are going to lose, it might as well be to another Williams in the final. But this was no exhibition.
• “Grand Slam singles titles won” have become the coin of the realm in tennis, the benchmark by which we judge players. At some level, it’s silly. How do we account for tennis before the Open Era, when the best players didn’t enter the majors? And what do we make of the Australian Open, an event that everyone loves today but was considered optional until the late 1980s? (Martina Navratilova skipped it more years than she played it.) One beneficiary of this: Margaret Court, whose record 24 majors include 11 Australian Opens, many won in the era when it was glorified national event.
Nevertheless, Serena now has 23 majors, moving ahead of Steffi Graf and one behind Court. You could have made the case years ago, that Serena is the best ever. But now? Case closed. She gets bonus points for longevity—she’s now won majors spanning 18 years and six presidential terms.
But enough about the past. What about the present/future? She’s No.1 in the rankings. She hasn’t lost before the semifinals at a major in three years. If she’s not still in her prime, she ain’t far off. And, you suspect, she ain't done winning.