Greg Cote

Overshadowed, underappreciated as ‘other’ Williams, time to finally give Venus her full due

Venus Williams returns a shot to Elena Vesnina, of Russia, at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, Thurs., March 16, 2017, in Indian Wells, Calif.
Venus Williams returns a shot to Elena Vesnina, of Russia, at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, Thurs., March 16, 2017, in Indian Wells, Calif. AP

The long tennis reign of the Williams sisters must end some day, maybe even soon. Like the long reign of Tom Brady, it feels like something we’ve been saying for a lot of years. But career mortality seemed on Serena’s mind at the recent Australian Open, where she collected her 23rd Grand Slam title — most of the Open era — by beating her sister in Venus’ first time in a major final since 2009.

Venus is 36 now and Serena 35. They have been at this profession more than 20 years and are still out there beating opponents who sometimes are now about half their age.

Their coach/mentor and father, Richard Williams, 75, last year suffered a stroke that erased him as a regular presence at their matches — something else to make one turn wistful, and reflect.

“There’s no way I’d be at 23 [Slam titles] without her,” said Serena of the big sis 15 months older. “There’s no way I’d be at 1 without her. There’s no way I’d be anything without her. She’s the only reason the Williams sisters exist.”

So the fortnight of the 31st Miami Open — home tournament for the sisters from Palm Beach Gardens — is underway on Key Biscayne at Crandon Park Tennis Center, with Serena skipping it because of a knee ailment but Venus here as usual and making her debut Friday vs. Brazil’s Beatriz Haddad Maia.

It is the only positive about a Miami Open without Serena Williams: that it invites an opportunity for the rest of us to appreciate the “other” Williams, the one constantly overshadowed and historically underappreciated, as much as her sister does.

No matter how long her Miami run might last, let South Florida show some love for the under-celebrated half of the most successful and remarkable duo of siblings in sports history.

There was a 2012 documentary made. They titled it, “Venus And Serena.” It wasn’t just chronological. Venus started this. She was older, bigger, stronger, and that gave Serena the competitive burn that would define her, allow her to surpass Venus ... allow her to surpass everybody.

“I used to always win in the early days,” a smiling Venus says in the film.

Admits Serena: “It was very difficult being in the shadow of Venus. I was never the one who was supposed to be a good player.”

Venus was the designated big star in the family solar system. Who could imagine it would be the younger daughter who would become the sun putting out all of the heat and searing everything in her path?

Venus’ career would turn out great: 49 WTA titles (thus far), including seven majors. That’s tied for 12th-most ever.

Serena’s would top her with 72 tournament wins, including a modern-era-record 23 majors.

While Serena makes clear there would not have been a her without Venus, one wonders about the opposite. What if there had never been a Serena?

It is safe to speculate that Venus’ total of seven career majors might have close to doubled, considering she was 2-7 head-to-head against her sister in Grand Slam finals.

It might be Venus being mentioned among the sport’s all-time greats, or at least higher than the 22nd overall spot she was given in a Tennis Channel ranking in 2012.

No worry, though. No complaints. Venus Ebony Starr Williams has had a remarkable career independent of inevitable sibling comparisons. She has appeared in 73 Grand Slam tournaments, more than any woman or man, ever.

She has done her family and her sport proud from the moment she turned pro on Halloween 1994 at age 14 through to when she walked onto Crandon Park practice court No. 4 on Thursday, an elder statesman in pink waving to the applause of fans.

There are some who might not care for Serena, who is a superstar and knows it, igniting every room she walks into with a diva’s glow. Ill words about the more modest Venus are harder to find. There is no indication Venus would change anything of the way the two sisters’ careers turned out.

One found the shadows a difficult place; the other appears comfortable in their shade.

“I’m the big sister. I want to make sure she has everything, even if I don’t have anything,” Venus once said. “It’s hard. I love her too much. That’s what counts.”

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