Serena vs Venus - An extraordinary rivalry continues at the US Open

Hannah Wilks in Features 31 Aug 2018
  • Serena and Venus Williams face off for the 30th time in the third round of the US Open on Friday
  • Serena leads the head-to-head 17-12 as the sisters prepare for their earliest meeting at a Grand Slam in 20 years
Venus and Serena Williams in 2018 (Photo by Richard Shiro/Getty Images)

The most incredible family story in sports gets another chapter on Friday as Serena and Venus Williams face off for the 30th time in the third round of the 2018 US Open.

Serena and Venus Williams are among the two most extraordinary players that tennis has ever produced - and both remain forces at the top of the game, 20 years after their very first meeting at the 1998 Australian Open.

The two meet for the 30th time in the third round of the US Open on Friday - their earliest meeting at a major since that first clash in Melbourne. Serena is continuing her journey to get back to the very top of the game in the wake of giving birth to her first daughter Alexis Olympia last September, a journey which has already contained dizzying highs and lows - her run to the Wimbledon final in the former column, the most lopsided defeat of her career to Johanna Konta in San Jose in the latter. Venus, who made two Grand Slam finals last year, has been having a patchy season, but has reliably found her best tennis on American hard courts in 2018 and has already come through very tough opponents just to reach the third round.

It will be the biggest show in town when Serena and Venus take to the Arthur Ashe Stadium on Friday night under the lights. Ahead of this intriguing clash, we take this chance to look back at the extraordinary rivalry of Venus and Serena Williams.

Serena (left) and Venus as children
Serena and Venus Williams were born in Michigan to Richard Williams and Oracene Price before growing up in Compton, a deprived area of L.A.

From such unlikely beginnings, the two women rose to become exceptional champions who reshaped women's tennis and became global superstars. 

Venus Ebony Starr Williams (b. 1980) and Serena Jameka Williams (b. 1981), the youngest of five sisters, have 30 Grand Slam singles titles between them as well as eight Olympic gold medals (one each in singles, three in doubles as a team). Both women have been ranked world no. 1, Venus in 2002 and Serena for 319 weeks throughout her career, most recently in 2017.

They have played 29 times since their first meeting in 1998, with Serena leading the head-to-head 17-12. 

Venus and Serena played for the first time in the second round of the Australian Open in 1998, when Venus won 7-6(4), 6-1. Both sisters saluted the crowd after the match.

Venus would win the first three matches they played as professionals, defeating Serena in Rome in 1998 and Miami in 1999. 

Little sister Serena got her first win over Venus in the final of the Munich Grand Slam Cup in 1999, prevailing 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.

Venus and Serena Williams after they played at the Australian Open in 1998 (GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
'I'd never actually beaten Venus, I didn't know how it feels,' Serena said afterwards. 'It's kind of tough to take this win.'

With Venus leading the overall head-to-head 3-1, the sisters faced off for the first time at Wimbledon in the semifinals in 2000. Venus had beaten world no. 1 Martina Hingis in the quarterfinals despite returning from a long injury lay-off due to tendonitis, and she won 6-2, 7-6(3), going on to beat Lindsay Davenport in the final.

The sisters also teamed up to win the first of five women's doubles titles at Wimbledon. 'One of our goals is to see our name alongside the number one ranking [in singles and doubles]. That's something we both want to accomplish,' Serena said afterwards.

'We're both out to get all we can. We're really greedy, but we're not playing our best tennis. There is a lot of room for improvement.'

The result sparked the first of many unsubstantiated allegations that matches between the sisters were fixed. 'Serena may not be permitted to win. Richard may have something to say about this,' John McEnroe said at the time.

Venus and Serena played for the first time at the US Open in the final in 2001. Both were already champions in New York: Serena had taken the title in 1999, beating Martina Hingis; Venus followed suit in 2000, beating Lindsay Davenport. The final between them was the first time that sisters had faced off in a Grand Slam final since 1884, and drew the highest TV ratings for a women's final for over 20 years. Venus, who won 6-2, 6-4, was congratulated by then President Bill Clinton via phone afterwards. 

Venus had won five of their six matches at that point - but Serena was on her way. She would win the next six matches they played, including two Wimbledon finals, a French Open final, an Australian Open final and the 2003 US Open final, completing a 'Serena Slam' in 2002-3.

Tragedy struck the family a few months later, however, when Venus and Serena's older sister Yetunde was shot dead in September 2003. Injuries and depression for Serena contributed to some long absences from the WTA Tour and her ranking dropped to world no. 139 in 2006. 

Venus and Serena after they played at the US Open in 2008  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Between Wimbledon 2003 and Wimbledon 2008, Serena won the Australian Open twice while Venus took two more Wimbledon titles in 2005 and 2007. After two meetings in 2005 which left their head-to-head poised at 7-6, Venus and Serena did not play each other on the WTA Tour for three years.

When they met again in 2008, in the Wimbledon final, it was the first Grand Slam final between the two that Venus had won since the US Open in 2001. Venus recovered from an early breal to win 7-5, 6-4 in a high-quality final. It was her fifth - and last - Wimbledon title, and the last Grand Slam match between the two when Venus beat Serena.

'I can't believe that it's five. When you're in the final against Serena, five seems so far away. She played so awesome so it was really a task,' Venus said. 'It's unbelievable that I have won five, especially with some of the injuries that I've had. To know every time I come back I have the chance to make history... I love this place.'

Serena credited Venus as 'a little better', but the younger sister seemed extremely frustrated to have been defeated and it marked a turning-point in her career.

At the US Open a few months later, they met in the quarterfinals and Serena won 7-6(6), 7-6(7), going on to claim the title when she beat Jelena Jankovic in the final. Then she avenged her 2008 defeat in the 2009 Wimbledon final. Her knee heavily strapped, Venus was outdone in the final and Serena claimed her third Wimbledon title with a 7-5, 6-2 victory after a mesmerising classic against Elena Dementieva in the semifinals.

Serena's wins at the 2008 US Open, the 2009 Australian Open and Wimbledon 2009 can be seen as marking the second phase of her career, in which she has become increasingly dominant over women's tennis while Venus's challenge has faded - although it has revived in recent years, with Venus reaching two Grand Slam finals in 2017.

Since the 2009 Wimbledon final, Venus has not won another Grand Slam title. Diagnosed with an autoimmune condition called Sjogren's Syndrome and suffering from a back injury in 2013, Williams has had some long absences from the tour as she tries to manage her health. 

The American's extraordinary resilience, however, has seen her learn to manage the autoimmune condition, her schedule and her health and return to the top of the game. Venus made her first Grand Slam semifinal since 2010 at Wimbledon in 2016 (losing to Kerber) and returned to the top 10 the same year. In 2017, she was the only WTA player to make multiple Grand Slam finals, finishing runner-up to Serena at the Australian Open and to Garbine Muguruza at Wimbledon.

Venus got her first win over Serena in five years in Montreal in 2014 when the elder sister won 6-7(2), 6-2, 6-3 win left the head-to-head at 14-11 in Serena's favour.

'Big sister taught little sister a lesson,' Serena Tweeted afterwards.

Venus and Serena after the 2017 Australian Open final (PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)
Serena and Venus next met at Wimbledon in 2015 in the fourth round. It was their first Grand Slam encounter in six years. Serena was two points from defeat against Heather Watson in the previous round, but lifted her game against her sister. Hitting 10 aces and zero double faults, 36 winners (21 in baseline rallies) for 13 unforced errors and winning eight of the last nine points, Serena recorded an impressive 6-4, 6-3 victory. 

'I knew that playing someone like Venus that's beaten me the most, I have to be solid,' Serena said afterwards. 'I had to cut down on my unforced errors. I had to take a lot of chances. I was able to do that.'

'I thought, "I'm 33 and she's 35, I don't know how many more moments like this you're going to have".' Serena added. She would go on to win her sixth Wimbledon title, defeating Garbine Muguruza in the final, and complete her second 'Serena Slam'.

The Williams sisters squared off for the 27th time in the quarterfinals of the 2015 US Open as Serena continued her quest for the calendar-year Grand Slam and a 22nd Slam title, which would tie Steffi Graf's Open Era record.

Serena conquered Venus for the 16th time, winning their quarter-final showdown 6-2 1-6 6-3, however her push for a historic calendar-year Grand Slam was stopped in the following round, with Roberta Vinci causing one of the biggest shocks in US Open history when she ousted Serena in three sets.

The Williams sisters faced off in a Grand Slam final for the first time since Wimbledon 2009 and the ninth time overall as they battled for the Australian Open title.

Venus was trying to break the record for the longest gap between grand slam wins, and had enjoyed a pretty smooth run to the final, dropping just one set against Coco Vandeweghe in the semifinals. Her unfettered joy at being back in a Grand Slam final after seven years was plain to see. 

The sisters hug after their most recent meeting, at Indian Wells in 2008 (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Serena, meanwhile, was playing for history. Having tied Steffi Graf at 23 majors by winning Wimbledon in 2016, she knew she could break the record for most Open Era slams - and move within one of Margaret Court's all-time record of 24 - by winning the title in Melbourne.

Serena won 6-4, 6-4 despite some early nerves, and paid tribute to Venus afterwards.

'There's no way I would be at 23 without her. There's no way I'd be at one without her. She's my inspiration,' Serena told the Rod Laver Arena crowd.

'She's the only reason I'm standing here today. She's the only reason the Williams sisters exist. Thank you for inspiring me. Every time you won this week, I felt like I got a win too.'

But there was another thing that made Serena's Australian Open 2017 win remarkable, although this wasn't revealed until some time later: She was eight weeks pregnant at the time.

Serena would sit out the rest of the 2017 season on maternity leave, giving birth to daughter Alexis Olympia at the beginning of September. But she was always intent on returning: 'I felt like my story wasn't over.'

Venus, meanwhile, rose as high as world no. 5 throughout a very successful season. She was a more consistent performer at Grand Slam level than anyone else, reaching the finals of the Australian Open and Wimbledon and the semifinals of the US Open, and was a semifinalist in Miami and runner-up at the WTA Finals Singapore.

But she fell agonizingly short of the Grand Slam title she so desperately wants - falling apart after holding set points against Muguruza at Wimbledon, and edged by Sloane Stephens in the third set of the US Open semifinals.

Serena returned to tennis in March 2018 at Indian Wells - and who would she face in the third round? None other than Venus. 

Venus was trying to bounce back from a poor start to the year which had seen her go 0-2 in Australia, while Serena's first-round match against Zarina Diyas had been her first for 404 days. 'I really abhor every time we play, but I do enjoy the battle when I’m out there,' Serena said ahead of the match. 'It’s just afterwards I don’t like it as much.'

In the end, Venus won 6-3, 6-4, with a significantly more rusty Serena making 41 unforced errors.

The two meet again at the US Open on Friday in an early third-round encounter. Serena's ranking has risen to world no. 26 (she was unranked when they met at Indian Wells) after her run to the final at Wimbledon, and her seeding was bumped up to 17th in an unusual move for the US Open organizers - but not high enough to avoid this third-round meeting with Venus, seeded 16th. 

Serena is pursuing her seventh US Open title, while Venus has semifinal points to defend in New York. Venus has had to beat two very tough opponents so far, battling past former champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and Wimbledon quarterfinalist Camila Giorgi to reach the third round, while Serena has cruised past Magda Linette and Carina Witthoeft, losing just four games in each match. 

'I never root against her, no matter what. So I think that's the toughest part for me. When you always want someone to win, to have to beat them. I know the same thing is for her. When she beats me, she always roots for me as well. I think that's just the hardest part,' Serena said ahead of Friday's clash.

'The best part is we bring out the best in each other. I know when I play her, I have to play some of my best tennis. She does, too. It propels us to continue to play that for the tournament. It sets a tone for us. I feel like throughout our career, we have pushed each other to be the best that we can be, and be Venus and Serena Williams.'

Venus and Serena Williams face off in the third round of the US Open on Friday 31 August at 7pm local/12am BST.

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Serena vs Venus - An extraordinary rivalry continues at the US Open

The Williams sisters take centre stage once again when they face off in the third round of the 2018 US Open on Friday - we take a detailed look at the most incredible family rivalry in sport

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