This was early 1999, on center court on Key Biscayne, a short hop from Miami. Neither sister had won a major yet. Serena and big sis Venus were meeting in a tournament championship match for the first time. The girls were then 17 and 19. Proud father Richard held up a hand-drawn sign that day. It read:
“Welcome to the Williams Show!”
I remember when Serena first played what now is the Miami Open in ‘98, the backyard tournament for the girl who grew up in Palm Beach. She wore multicolored plastic beads on the braids of her hair. You could sometimes hear them clackety-clack during a point.
We had no idea what we were beginning to see. Tennis had no idea. Sports had no idea.
There might be a future Hall of Famer in tomorrow’s Single A minor-league baseball game. LeBron James was dominating a middle-school game once, before the cameras discovered him. Tom Brady might not have even been the best player on his Pop Warner team.
Venus Williams, now 39, has won seven majors, the last in 2008. She has had a great career.
Serena, 37, another birthday in two months, has won 23.
On Saturday, at Wimbledon, she was playing for history.
And, for the sixth straight attempt, she was denied a record-tying 24th.
“I’m going to keep fighting,” she told the Wimbledon crowd afterward. “Keep trying.”
Simona Halep, former world No. 1 and 10 years younger, crushed Serena in the women’s championship match, 6-2, 6-2, denying Williams a share of the all-time record for most major wins set by Margaret Court in a career that ended in 1977.
Court’s record has stood impenetrable for 46 years, since her final major in ‘73. One week after the U.S. women won a record fourth World Cup, Saturday might have seen another American woman rise to the top.
Instead Court’s record will continue to stand alone at least until Serena tries -- again -- in the U.S. Open starting Aug. 26.
Maternity leave in 2017 took away three chances. Her last major win to this point, the ‘17 Australian Open, came just before her pregnancy. After the birth of her daughter Serena suffered a pulmonary embolism that kept her in bed for some six weeks. She has been trying since, while balancing the demands of motherhood, to prove she has another major — or two — in her.
Saturday’s uncommonly lopsided loss was partly by her own hand -- Williams had 26 unforced errors -- but mostly because Halep had extraordinary court coverage in chasing down Serena’s best shorts. Williams didn’t give away the match as much as Halep took it for her second career major after the 2018 French.
“She literally played out of her mind,” said Serena of Halep, graciously. “It was a little bit of deer in the headlights for me.”
Serena has always downplayed her pursuit of Court’s record, of tennis history, but her coach since 2012, Patrick Mouratoglou, hinted to reporters in London this week how much it means to her.
“Twenty-four means she will equal the record of all time. That’s why she came back to playing tennis after having a baby and so many medical complications,” he said. “The effort she has put in, I have never seen something like this. You have no idea how hard she worked to come back, and she came back for that record.”
Serena’s race against time to achieve her sport’s greatest record is analogous to Tiger Woods trying to catch Jack Nicklaus record of 18 golf majors. Tiger, at 43, won his elusive 15th in the Masters in April — his first major win in 11 years.
His chase unfolds gradually. So does Williams’.
You wonder if ether will do it. Williams seems a lot likelier. But days like Saturday give you pause.
Serena was 9-1 head-to-head in her career against Halep entering the match. Serena’s 23 major crowns include seven at Wimbledon, where she is a fan favorite, accentuated Saturday by the record she was after and the clock working against her.
But Halep had all of the answers.
“I can’t match her power,” Halep had said of Serena. “But I have legs.”
Twenty-one years. All that time since a teenage girl wearing clackety-clack beads introduced herself to Miami, and to tennis.
And we had no idea.
Twenty-one years and still fighting. Still chasing tennis history.