Serena Williams stands at the gate of history and, once again, the only impediment is Serena Williams.
If she can unlock any mental block and get out of her own way, Williams will become the first tennis player to win a calendar-year Grand Slam since 1988. She will tie Steffi Graf as champion of 22 Grand Slam tournaments, second-best in women’s tennis behind Margaret Court’s 24. Williams needs two more victories at the U.S. Open in New York.
Williams faces Italy’s Roberta Vinci in Friday’s semifinal. If she doesn’t get frazzled by the array of offspeed shots from the quiver of a doubles specialist, the match could be over in less time than it takes to bake a cake.
Williams overcame the closest thing to her mirror image when she defeated sister Venus 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 in the quarters on Wednesday in the 27th chapter of the on-court sibling rivalry that never lives up to the melodramatic hype because it can’t. No match could ever encapsulate the wondrous family saga of the Williams sisters.
At least they both played at near peak form during stretches of this one, smashing winners and serving superbly. Serena retrieved her concentration from lost and found in the third set, but in the second, Venus pounced on every error, although the outcome was never in doubt. Serena won for the seventh time in their past eight matches, and rose to 16-11 overall against Venus.
“She’s the toughest player I’ve ever played in my life, and the best person I know,” Serena said. “So it’s going against your best friend and at the same time for me going against the greatest competitor in women’s tennis.”
They attempted to play bloodlessly, sisters born 15 months apart, Venus on June 17, 1980 in Lynwood, California, Serena on Sept. 26, 1981 in Saginaw, Michigan. Often inseparable, they still live together in Palm Beach Gardens.
When they compete against each other, they try to wring out emotion. Stone-faced, stone-hearted: That’s how to blunt the tension of possibly derailing a sister’s dreams. A Venus victory would have ended Serena’s pursuit of the Grand Slam steps from the finish line. Serena’s victory ended Venus’ great chance at one more Slam title as her career ebbs. Everyone who watched who has a sibling felt the discomfort and squirmed when Serena suppressed her typical exultation on a backhand winner that broke Venus’ serve in the second game of the third set. She bent over as if to hide her clenched fist and let out a semi-roar. After the bad toss that preceded her match-winning ace, she called out meekly, “Sorry.”
But soulless play doesn’t win championships. Muhammad Ali would have outdueled any steel-chinned robot. When Venus and Serena embraced at the net — a smiling Venus wrapping her arms around little sis and whispering in her ear while Serena appeared to hold back shedding tears on Venus’ shoulder — it was clear how much love and pride they felt for each other.
There was a sense that part of the history being made was in the concluding stage of Serena’s most captivating rivalry.
Whoever thought they’d still be playing at ages 33 and 35? Not their father, Richard, who taught the girls to play at a gang-infested park in Compton, California, after he watched a tournament winner on TV collect a check for $30,000. Venus and Serena’s combined prize money is at $104 million and counting.
Richard intended for his “Cinderellas of the ghetto” to get rich, get out of the sport and become entrepreneurs by age 25. Their mother, Oracene Price, worried about their growing fame and preferred that they become Jehovah’s Witnesses missionaries.
“To be a commentator, now that’s a fool. I don’t want my kids to be one-dimensional,” Richard told me in 1997 when I spent a day with the Williamses at their house in Palm Beach County.
Venus, 16, and Serena, 15, were studying French but also reading a guide entitled How to Form and Operate a Limited Liability Company so they could learn how to buy a house with no money down. In their bedroom and bathroom, Richard had posted notes that said, “You are a professional tennis player. You are the most polite and gracious person in the world.”
Later, they practiced on their private court with hitting partners who had been mowing the lawn. Richard, eating a Big Mac, gave serving instructions. His entire plan for making the girls No. 1 was unorthodox. Everyone in tennis doubted him. Yet the aura he created has endured.
“Who can coach Venus better than me?” he said during one of his monologues. “I don’t want somebody telling her what to do like she’s a zombie. What if she said she’d rather go surfing than go to Wimbledon? I’d let her.”
And Venus said: “People ask, ‘What is that family doing?’ We keep them wondering. Maybe I’ll run the Kentucky Derby next.”
“You ought to be a politician, girl,” Richard said.
“Thank you, Daddy,” she replied.
It was an interesting day at the Williams house, followed by two of the most interesting careers in sports. Back then, they wore beaded cornrows that clicked and clacked when they laughed or slammed forehands. Remember?
Eighteen years later, Serena is very close to cementing herself as the best ever. She relies on the advice of Billie Jean King, who told her that pressure is a privilege.
Venus, sweetnatured, has helped leaven the reputation of Serena, the diva, who can intimidate linespeople as well as opponents. Richard was right all along. He predicted that Serena, “the mean one,” would be better than Venus.
Serena beat her big sister again. Now, only Serena can block Serena’s way.