The 2001 US Open women’s final was groundbreaking on a number of levels. It was the first time in the Open Era that two siblings contested a major final, the first time two African American players had ever reached that ultimate stage and the first time the women’s final appeared on primetime television.
All of those elements, seen through the lens of CBS on a Saturday night, served to raise the profile of women’s tennis.
“What I remember smiling over was the scoreboard. It just said: Venus and Serena. That was very cool,” broadcaster Mary Carillo said.
The match itself -- older sister Venus was a 6-2, 6-4 winner, ripping off seven straight games after trailing 2-1 -- was anticlimactic. Still, Arthur Ashe, for whom the stadium was named, would have been thrilled. Certainly, the television executives were. The match drew an impressive rating of 6.8 -- higher than the Nebraska-Notre Dame college football game that ran opposite them.
“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.”
Certainly, it was a rare occurrence at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. In 20 appearances at the US Open, Serena has won 106 of 120 matches and six titles, including three straight from 2012-14.
After winning her first-round match against Danka Kovinic -- and as she prepares for Wednesday’s anticipated match with No.2 seed Anett Kontaveit -- we look back at the championship moments, starting with her first in 1999.
All things considered, the first of Williams’ 23 Grand Slam singles titles might have been the most impressive.
Serena, at 17, beat five consecutive players who one day would be enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame: Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martinez, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport (all in three sets) and, in the final, Martina Hingis.
The 18-year-old from Switzerland had won five of the previous 11 majors -- and had beaten Venus earlier in the semifinals -- but Serena took her out in straight sets. She became the second African American woman, after Althea Gibson in 1958, to win a Grand Slam singles tournament and first of Open Era.
Carillo: “That is probably the toughest possible draw a teenager could have gotten. And she worked her way through it. That’s where you felt the heft of Richard Williams’ words. He used to tell his kids, `There is no ball you can’t run down.’ The fact that they believed him, that they trusted his words: `You’re both going to be champions, Serena, you’re going to be greatest of all time.’ It was like preordained.”
Serena had already won at Roland Garros and Wimbledon and was contemplating a third consecutive major victory at the US Open. It might have been four -- and a calendar-year Grand Slam -- if she hadn’t sprained her right ankle in Sydney and been forced to miss the Australian Open.
Her opponent in the final was again sister Venus, who was working on a 19-match winning streak -- and a 20-win streak at the US Open, where she was looking for a third straight title.
With the No.1 ranking in play, Serena won 6-4, 6-3, defeating her sister in their third consecutive major final. When she won the title at the 2003 Australian Open, Serena would simultaneously hold all four major trophies.
Carillo: “These matches were events in themselves. You could make a list of the celebrities who became tennis fans because of Serena Williams. Your Beyonces, your Spike Lees, your Ben Stillers -- these were faces we weren’t used to seeing at any major. In terms of celebrities, I think it beats the Royal Box [at Wimbledon].
“I was in the bowels of the stadium and Serena’s agent, Jill Smoller, was walking by and she had a huge tangle of credentials for all of these world-famous people. It was the day of a Serena final. Jill saw me smile and said, `Living the dream.’”
Williams didn’t have an impressive run-up to this one, retiring from a semifinal match at the Bank of the West Classic against qualifier Aleksandra Wozniak and falling in the quarterfinals of the Olympics, losing to eventual gold medalist Elena Dementieva.
She was ranked No.3 when she arrived in New York -- and started to play like it. But lurking in the quarterfinals was sister Venus, and they played a magnificent match. It went (barely) to Serena, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (7).
Dinara Safina fell in a straight-sets semifinal match and No.2-ranked Jelena Jankovic also went quietly in the final. Serena bested three top-10 players at the end, winning the third of her six US Open titles.
It had been 13 years since a 17-year-old Californian had become the fourth-youngest US Open champion of the Open Era. On this occasion, a few weeks before her 31st birthday, Williams became the second-oldest woman to win the event.
She defeated No.1 seed Victoria Azarenka 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 -- and that 13 years in between major titles were the most in history. Pete Sampras, whose first and last major titles came in New York in 1990 and 2002, had the biggest previous gap.
“Three decades? The 90s, the 2000s, the 2010s?” Serena said afterward. “That’s kind of cool.”
Carillo: “Very cool. It was another example of her staying power. A new generation of players had come along, but like her opponents in her early days, they too fell.”
Before that 2012 final, 16 consecutive US Open championship matches had been decided in straight sets, going back to 1995, when Steffi Graf went the distance to beat Monica Seles.
But Azarenka pushed Serena to the limit -- and then it happened again. The No.1-seeded Williams beat the two-time Australian Open champion 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1 for her fifth US Open title and 17th major overall. Serena also became the first woman to clear $50 million in career earnings.
“She’s a champion, and she knows how to repeat that,” Azarenka said. “She knows what it takes to get there. I know that feeling, too. And when two people who want that feeling so bad meet, it’s like a clash."
Carillo: “And they were very good friends. Same thing the next year. She and Caroline Wozniacki were good buddies, too.”
It had been a relatively disappointing year by Serena’s glorious standards; she failed to reach the quarterfinals of the three previous majors.
But at the US Open, she came alive to win her third consecutive title and sixth overall. The final was 6-3, 6-3 over Wozniacki and it punctuated seven straight matches without dropping a set -- or losing more than three games. In a larger context, it was her 18th Grand Slam singles title, tying Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert for the most by a woman in the Open Era. They joined her on court for the trophy ceremony.
“It is a pleasure for me to win my first Grand Slam here and then this No.18,” Serena said. “So I’m really emotional. I couldn’t ask to do it at a better place.”
Carillo: Tell me about it. I did the post-match ceremony. I was told beforehand, and Serena did not know it, that Martina and Chrissie were going to be on hand if she won it. And I have to tell you, the look on Serena’s face when she saw those two coming out there, was so … well, almost wondrous. She understood that moment so well. And Chrissie and Martina loved that moment, too. It was a very gracious triumvirate.