Australia isn’t particularly wet around this time of the year. Melbourne Park is turning out to be an exception though, soaked in a wet romanticism that is drenching the 105th Australian Open. We are set for a weekend of poignant revelry inside the Rod Laver Arena.
Nineteen years after their first professional meeting, Venus Williams and Serena Williams are set for a showdown in the finals for the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.
The Williams sisters first competed against each other at Melbourne in 1998, bright and beaded, teenagers on a voyage to conquer the tennis world. Venus and Serena were a source of inspiration even as wet behind the ear professionals. Their father had proclaimed them world beaters very early in their childhood. The two girls from Compton, a poverty riddled neighbourhood in California, embraced the work ethic needed to fulfil his prophecy.
The two have gone on to meet and defy all expectations over the past two decades, nearly defining the sport through their glittering careers. But even Venus and Serena might have found it hard to believe that they might contest a ninth Grand Slam final this weekend.
Since that fine summer in Australia when they played their first ever professional tennis match against each other, Venus and Serena have defined tennis by their conquests. While the elder sister left an indelible impression at Wimbledon, Serena has gone on to conquer several tennis peaks, amassing an incredible 22 Grand Slam titles.
At a combined age of 71, this is the oldest women’s grand slam final ever — Venus is a sprightly 36, and Serena an indefatigable 35. It is incredible that three generations of tennis stars have come and gone during the careers of these two legends.
“When I’m playing on the court with her, I think I’m playing the best competitor in the game,” said Venus, sounding the bugle to her 28th battle against Serena. “I don’t think I’m chump change either, you know. I can compete against any odds. No matter what, I can get out there, and I compete.”
The rise of the Williams sisters coincided with the final stages of the German great Steffi Graf and Lindsay Davenport. Justine Henin, Martina Hingis and Kim Clijsters followed that phase, seeing out their careers, even as the two Williams sisters persisted with their quest for greatness.
A third generation of stars — Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska — just to name a few, have seen their careers blighted by the unquenchable thirst of the Williams.
Even as they decimated the field time and again, Venus and Serena have shaped the fortunes of women’s tennis these past two decades. The 2001 US Open final between the two sisters – their first in a major — took television ratings through the roof. The telecast did even better than an American football game at the same time, bringing women’s tennis to prime time slots.
Since then the two sisters have endured personal tragedy, physical duress and loss of motivation. Yet each time they faced a hurdle, the two have worked their backsides off to reinvent their game. It is the simple secret to the endearing longevity and persistent success of the two sisters.
“I think people realise this is an amazing job, so it's best to keep it," said Venus, explaining her exuberance and joy at reaching the Australian Open final, 14 long years after her first.
“You could really see the happiness on her face,” echoed Serena. “I’ve been there when she was down and out of it, and back and in it. I’ve been there for all those moments, so I just really was oh so happy.”
The journey of Venus is made even more remarkable when viewed through the prism of her battle against Sjogren’s syndrome. Since being diagnosed with it in 2011, Venus had to learn to deal with its debilitating physical affects even as she remained steadfast in her love for tennis.
The past two years have seen a gradual improvement in her game, with the results most evident at Melbourne this fortnight. It could be a mesmerising end if she could somehow stave off the physicality of Serena’s game. If Venus manages to dance on the court like a gazelle and weave her way past Serena, it could perhaps be remembered as one of the most memorable fairy tales of tennis.
In reality though, Serena is the clear favourite for Saturday’s blockbuster finale. The younger sister has won six of their eight grand slam finals, the last of them at Wimbledon in 2009.
Serena also has a clear 16-11 advantage in their career meetings. Perhaps that made it easier for her to romanticise their clash on Saturday.
"She's my toughest opponent — nobody has ever beaten me as much as Venus has," said the 35-year-old.
"This is a story. This is something that I couldn't write a better ending. This is a great opportunity for us to start our new beginning."
Venus’s fluidity around the court and Serena’s thundering serve and ground strokes redefined the standards of tennis for women. The two sisters have inspired scores of young girls across the world into embracing tennis.
Even though tennis remains predominantly white, there have been an increasing number of children with African and Hispanic heritage taking to the sport. More importantly, they have pushed the boundaries of the sport to newer realms.
Serena, and to an extent Venus, have thrown the gauntlet down to a younger generation to pursue the lofty heights that they have accomplished. On Saturday, they will look to stretch those boundaries farther, pushing beyond the reach of ordinary mortals.
At the doorstep of history, Serena could be ushered into her own world of greatness, by a warm-hearted elder sister. Victory in the final will earn Serena her 23rd Grand Slam title, one more than the collection of Steffi Graf.
Updated Date: Jan 28, 2017 12:07 PM