The disappointing (but not unexpected) news came Wednesday via Instagram.
“After careful consideration and following the advice of my doctors and medical team,” Serena Williams posted, “I have decided to withdraw from the US Open to allow my body to heal completely from a torn hamstring.”
Serena, who turns 40 at the end of September, is ranked No.22, and hasn’t played a match since suffering that injury in the first round at Wimbledon. A 24th major title, which would tie her with Margaret Court for the all-time record, will have to wait until at least 2022.
Sister Venus, at 41, is ranked No.147 and has won only a single match since the Australian Open. She initially accepted a wildcard into the main draw, but got in via direct acceptance when Kirsten Flipkens withdrew.
This, of course, is not how we see the Williams sisters in our mind’s eye. We view them dominating, playing a dashing style of tennis and breaking down barriers. We see them on opposite sides of the court in the 2001 US Open final – an historic happening 20 years ago.
When 21-year-old Venus met Serena, 19, in the final, it was the first Grand Slam singles championship match between African Americans and the first major women’s final televised in primetime.
Arthur Ashe, for whom the stadium was named, would have been over the moon. The last time two siblings met in a Grand Slam final? That would be 1884, when Maud Watson defeated sister Lillian in three sets.
Serena had broken through with her first major singles title at the National Tennis Center in 1999, and Venus, who watched from the stands that day with her mother and father, Richard and Oracene, followed with her second Slam crown at the 2000 US Open. But this one felt different – bigger, like the shifting of tectonic plates creating a new world order.
It was the younger sister, oddly enough, who provided the example, the path to greatness, for the older sister.
“This was like in ‘98 in Sydney,” Venus said that fortnight. “Serena was playing a top player, was down 1-6, love-five. She was fighting like there was no tomorrow, like it was her last day on earth. After that, I reconsidered. I wasn’t such a fighter.
“After that, I became a fighter, too. That’s what I took from her game.”
Today, they are the most decorated siblings in the history of tennis and, quite possibly, all of sports. Serena is first among all active players in Grand Slam singles titles (23), titles (73) and prize money ($94 million). Venus (7 majors, 49 titles, $42 million) is second.
The Williams sisters had met five times before, but never in a Grand Slam final. The rivalry that unfolded that evening, seen in part by 23 million viewers, would captivate the tennis world for the better part of the next two decades.
An amazing anticipation
Pam Shriver, a 22-time Grand Slam winner in doubles, was working the match as a courtside analyst for CBS.
“The leadup to that match was incredible,” Shriver, an ESPN analyst, said. “We were hustling to get every bit of film possible: Serena getting out of the car, Venus getting out of the car, where they were practicing, who they were practicing with. The anticipation, it was such an amazing thing.
“Primetime, obviously, was planned well in advance, and to have the highest-profile match you could have in women’s tennis actually happen, well, that was a lot of fun.”
Jennifer Capriati won the first two majors of 2001, the Australian Open and French Open. Martina Hingis had been ranked No.1 for much of four years running. Monica Seles had already won nine Grand Slam singles titles, Lindsay Davenport three and the young Belgians, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, were ranked in the Top 10.
Venus Williams was No.4 at the time, but she had beaten all of them that season – Capriati and Davenport three times each. Venus and Serena had been scheduled to meet in the Indian Wells semifinal but, citing knee tendinitis, Venus granted Serena a walkover. Before that, Venus had beaten Serena four of five times, including the 2000 Wimbledon semifinal on the way to her first major singles title.
After winning tournaments in San Diego and New Haven, Venus came into New York with nine consecutive match-wins and had won 23 of 24. She was unquestionably the hardest hitter on tour and, with her long legs, covered the most ground.
According to Serena, the key to Venus’ success that year was actually toning it down a bit.
“I think Venus actually has taken a lot of power off her ball,” Serena said, “and she’s actually making less mistakes, using more tactics in her game. So power-wise, I think she’s definitely taken a lot off. She tried something different this year.”
Serena, for a teenager, was having a spectacular year, too. She reached the quarterfinals in the three previous Grand Slams (losing to Hingis and Capriati twice) and won titles in Indian Wells and Toronto.
Serena lost her opening set of the tournament to Ana Barna but rallied to win 4-6, 6-1, 6-2. Henin fell to Serena in the fourth round (losing the second set 6-0) before Davenport pushed Serena to three sets, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 5-7. Hingis was the third consecutive multiple major champion to depart, losing 6-3, 6-2.
Meanwhile, Venus raced through the draw, never losing a set, never yielding more than four games in a frame. Clijsters and Capriati were dispatched in the quarterfinals and semifinals, leaving the two Williams sisters and only one trophy.
The match itself was anticlimactic. How could it not be?
Serena was more aggressive, swinging hard but missing more; 36 unforced errors were ultimately the difference. Venus’s approach was more prudent, saving her power for the critical moments.
The score was 6-2, 6-4, and it was over in 69 minutes.
The sisters slapped hands at net, and while they hugged, Venus said in Serena’s ear, “I love you.”
It was the 10th US Open match between female siblings – and all 10 went to the older sister.
“I feel OK,” Venus said afterward. “I don’t exactly feel like I’ve won. If I was playing another opponent, I’d probably feel more joyful.
“I just hate to see Serena lose, even against me.”
Later, Serena recounted their conversation as they waited for the awards ceremony.
“She said she didn’t feel like she really won because she said she always wanted to kind of protect me,” Serena said. “I told her, `Well, you won. Take it. You know, it’s your win. It’s your victory. If I would have won, I won. You won. You need it – it’s yours.’”
A cut above
The match between two sisters from Compton, California, posted a 6.8 television rating, a massive number for tennis. And, remarkably, drew a bigger audience than No.5 Nebraska’s 27-10 victory over No.17 Notre Dame.
Venus had now won back-to-back US Open titles, to go with back-to-back Wimbledon titles – easily the best streak of her entire career. Despite her ranking, was she a cut above the rest of the field?
“Well,” answered Serena, “winning four out of the last six, I guess you could say she is.”
Not for long.
The next year, the sisters met in three consecutive Grand Slam finals – the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open – and Serena won them all. Today she holds a 19-12 head-to-head advantage, 7-2 in major finals. The last time it happened was the 2017 Australian Open, when Serena – already pregnant with her daughter Olympia – won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title.
“Looking back on it now, 20 years later, you never could have imagined that they’d play as often as they did,” Shriver said. “That first time, and then 16 years later in Melbourne they’re still there, standing.
“It’s one of the great sports stories of all time.”