The 2017 Australian Open feels like a tournament from another era, Rafa Nadal is one win away from meeting Roger Federer in a major final for the first time in six years, and if he does this year’s Australian Open finals will be an exact repeat of the 2008 Wimbledon finals. For, improbably, the Williams sisters are about to contest a ninth major final together, eight years after the last Williams-Williams final, nineteen years after their first professional tour match against each other, coincidentally also at Melbourne Park.
Venus and Serena Williams, two sisters who grew up in Compton, a working class suburb of Los Angeles, about as far away from the pristine lawns of the All England Club as one could imagine, have rewritten tennis history time and again. They have reached unimaginable highs on the court and faced potentially career-destroying lows of injury and personal tragedy, taking the tennis world along with them on their own private rollercoaster for the last twenty years. Often underappreciated, frequently disapproved of by the tennis establishment, held to a higher standard than other athletes, the Williams family relationship with the tennis world has been tempestuous, to say the least. But now, in their mid-thirties, after two decades of playing on tour, still battling long after their contemporaries have retired, for no reason other than their pure love for the game, they have finally won the respect they always deserved.
The Williams story has become the stuff of legend. Their eccentric father decided before they were born that he would raise his next two children to be tennis champions. As young children they would practice for hours every day on the public courts in Compton whilst gang warfare almost literally raged around them. They completely eschewed the traditional tennis route of the junior circuit, making their debut on the adult tour instead, after their father had proclaimed they would both be No.1 in the world one day. They quickly made an impact, Venus reaching the final of the 1997 US Open aged 17 in her first time playing the tournament, Serena winning the 1999 US Open at 17. Then came the early years of dominance, playing four consecutive grand slams finals against each other, before injury and personal tragedy intervened, when their older sister, still in Compton, was murdered. For a while they were the comets of the tennis universe, not often seen, but never inconsequential before their resurgence from 2007 onwards.
At the start of this decade the sisters were back at No.1 and 2 in the world, then Serena nearly died from a pulmonary embolism and Venus was diagnosed with the incurable auto-immune disease Sjögren’s syndrome. Serena recovered, and the last five years have seen her make tennis history as the greatest over-30 player the game has ever seen. For Venus the journey back has been much slower, the idea of her reaching another major final seemed inconceivable for much of the time, she frequently lost in the first round of tournaments and faced repeated calls to retire, as Sjögren’s wreaked havoc on her ability to train and affected her in unpredictable ways from day to day.
Playing in a record 73rd major tournament, the sun has risen on Venus once again, her perseverance has been rewarded. Her unbridled ecstasy after winning the match point today over fellow big-serving American Coco Vandeweghe said it all, the years of slogging away struggling to find her game again, had finally been rewarded. At 36 she becomes the second oldest major finalist of the open era, has reached her first major final in eight years, another open era record, and her first final at Melbourne Park in fourteen (fourteen!) years. No one, not even Venus herself, would have predicted this two weeks ago when she arrived in Australia having pulled out of her last tournament in Auckland with an elbow injury untested and untried.
The Cinderella story of a tournament of fairy tales now sees the greatest women’s rivalry of the modern era revived one more time. Logic says this will be the last time they contest a major final, but with these two extraordinary lionhearted champions, who can be sure of that? If Serena wins she will surpass Steffi Graf as the greatest major champion of the open era and return to No.1 at 35, if Venus wins her eighth major title she will break her younger sister’s record as the oldest open era major champion and complete an inspirational return to the winner’s circle. Whatever happens, on Saturday night the Williams sisters will leave Melbourne Park with thirty major single titles between them, having written yet another golden chapter in the greatest story in the history of sports. Their influence has revolutionised the modern game, they have played long enough to compete regularly against players born after they turned professional and who grew up idolising them, the one-time punks of the game are now its elder stateswomen. They have transcended the sport into mainstream popular culture, with multiple films and songs written about them, global superstars instantly recognisable by their first names. We will truly never see their like again.