One simple hug between two sisters, lasting no more than 15 seconds on a tennis court, gave the sport in America more warmth, joy and life than any man has in the last 15 years. Warm enough to bring everyone from a presidential candidate (Donald Trump) in the first row of Arthur Ashe to the common voter in the upper reaches of the stadium to their feet.
But more than anything else, when Venus Williams, 35, held little sister Serena, 33, within her arms and whispered ‘I’m so happy for you’, it gave America hope. So much so that Serena would go on to sum up tonight’s contribution to the game in one, spectacular line. “I think it’s the greatest story in tennis,” she said.
Nothing short of that, perhaps, could even attempt to defibrillate this sport in America.
It’s no hot news that tennis has been on a terminal decline within these shores. No American man has won a Major since 2003 (Andy Roddick). And no woman outside the Williamses since 2002 (Jennifer Capriati). So when two girls, from the same household, with 28 singles Slams between them (58 across formats!) met on Tuesday night in their home Slam, on the very court where a teenage Serena became the first Williams to hoist a major trophy back in the previous century, even the Kardashians felt a need to show up.
In the build-up to it before Tuesday, everyone from Roger Federer to Novak Djokovic spent many press conference minutes speaking about what their rivalry meant to them and tennis.
Once it ended, everyone from Roger Federer to Novak Djokovic spent many press conference minutes being asked why one of them could just be the greatest tennis player the world has ever seen.
The match went the distance and had Serena playing ‘the toughest (opponent) I have played in a really, really, really, really long time’. Still, it ended 98 minutes after it had begun on expected lines. Serena won the third of the three one-sided sets (6-2, 1-6, 6-3) and put herself in the great Steffi Graf’s shadow.
She’s now two rounds away from Graf’s Open-era record of 22 singles Slams. And two rounds away from winning all four majors in the same calendar year (Serena holds all four the moment, having won the US Open last year). Again, last achieved in this sport by Graf in 1988.
The press of course probed Venus about it. “I think that (the Grand Slam) would be a huge,” she said. Then Venus paused and added: “But at the same time, if it doesn’t happen it’s not going to make or break her. She’s really the best ever, so what has she left to prove?”
The audience gasped. This wasn’t Venus, the sister, talking. This was Venus, the opponent, the professional, the rival, the competitor. But spare a thought for Venus here. Answering questions about Serena, immediately after losing to her, cannot be easy. Especially so considering she was the first of the two to shine on the pro stage. Especially so considering she’s been answering questions about their rivalry since they were in braids and braces, some twenty years ago. But the media, as always, was relentless.
Question. “Do you still feel like you’re the older sister taking care of her? Can you talk about that?”
Venus. “How can that ever change?”
Question. “Serena said after the match that when she’s playing against you she doesn’t think of you as her sister. What do you think of Serena during the match?”
Venus. “As Serena. I don’t separate it.”
Question. “If you have a chance to win against your sister, will you take it?”
Venus. “Were you even there (at the match)?”
Question. “Does it get emotional to see your sister across the net?”
Venus. “What? Seriously?”
Venus was at least kind enough to entertain the press. Serena, on the other hand, couldn’t care less. She walked in 45 minutes after the scheduled interaction time (not one journalist budged, by the way) and snapped after the first query on the rivalry.
“Honestly, I don’t want to be here,” she said, despite the presence of her personal documentary film-makers in the room. “I’m bored of these questions and you keep asking me the same thing over and over and over again. You’re not making it enjoyable.”
One Italian journalist, however, did his best to cheer her up. “You play Roberta Vinci in the next round, the semifinal,” he said. “Even in Italy we think she has no chance against you. But what is your opinion about it?”
Serena laughed a hearty one and explained that despite not having dropped a set to this unseeded Italian in any of their previous four encounters she would not be caught underestimating this vintage, single-handed backhand player. But just as she had begun lightening up, a mediaman cut in with one final question on, you guessed it, the sibling rivalry.
Question. “What was the most satisfying part of the experience of playing Venus?”
“We’ve been such inspirations for so many women across America and the globe, you know. I mean, it doesn’t get better than that,” Serena said. “But the most satisfying part, tonight and every other night we play, is walking off the court and it being over with.”
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