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Without big sister Venus, the Serena Williams story could never be told

Venus Williams lost her first-round singles match Tuesday but is looking ahead to doubles with Serena later this week. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
5 min

NEW YORK — Venus Williams walked onto the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium wearing an emerald green tennis set Tuesday, no cape. It sure didn’t look like there were diamonds encrusting her shoes. Gayle King was nowhere near the post-match interview.

Williams’s first-round loss to Belgium’s Alison Van Uytvanck, 6-1, 7-6 (7-5), rightfully lacked all the glitz and pomp of her younger sister’s opening match of the U.S. Open the night prior. After nearly 28 years as a pro featuring seven major singles titles, Venus has offered no indication that she will move on from tennis anytime soon, unlike her sister.

But throwing a little ceremony Venus’s way is necessary as her sister’s legacy is analyzed in the coming days because of one thing: No retrospective on Serena’s career is complete without her.

“… If I hadn’t been in Venus’s shadow, I would never be who I am,” Serena wrote in this month’s Vogue article announcing her impending retirement. “When someone said I was just the little sister, that’s when I got really fired up.”

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Venus, 42, and Serena, 40, have long credited a healthy portion of their success to growing up on the court together. As dictated by their 15-month age gap, Venus made her pro debut first, showing Serena the way of the WTA after she helped mold her revolutionary power game. If you were tasked with beating Venus in practice for your entire childhood, you might have a better chance to win 23 Grand Slam championships, too.

They also share credit for opening the sport to a new generation of Black and Brown players. Their success as Black women in a majority-White sport made them icons. That they were a sister act made them all the more powerful.

Sports reporter Cindy Boren explains why 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams plans to move on from her tennis career. (Video: Julie Yoon, Neeti Upadhye, Jackson Barton/The Washington Post)

Teenage prodigies can age quickly under the pressure of an adult world. With Venus there to bolster Serena and vice versa — and with father Richard Williams and mother Oracene Price insulating their daughters from outsiders — the sisters got to giggle with each other, got to be young.

That left a mark for those watching.

To Angela Rye, a social commentator and political strategist, the Williams sisters were among the first women who looked like her that she saw in magazines and on TV. That they both reflected her family unit and showed the world a positive example of a Black household was extra special.

“Their posture on the court was full of swag, full of confidence, full of all of the things that we’re taught that we deserve but don’t always have the ability to implement,” Rye said. “To see that in girls, kids, my age, that was amazing. And then to always see them with their father — I know the stereotypes. … For their dad to be the one to instill that level of confidence in them, that felt relatable to me because that’s how it was in my house, with my mom and my dad.”

What Serena Williams means to Black women

The sisters’ mutual support continued as they grew. Serena had no equivalent of the “Big Three” of men’s tennis, no generational rival to nudge her toward history.

Long before Margaret Court’s record of 24 major singles championships came into view, the only one who could hang with her climb up the record books was Venus. Serena not only had a ruler by which she could judge herself as a young player, she also depended on her sister emotionally, relishing in the presence of an earnest cheerleader well after she surpassed Venus’s success — all the way up to this point near retirement.

“I feel like it’s been very important for her to be a part of this,” Serena said Monday of Venus’s role in her decision to step away from tennis. “She’s my rock.”

Venus has tried hard to be objective as her sister ponders the end of her career. She wants to provide as little influence as possible, offering nothing but unconditional support and a doubles partner, when asked. The pair will play their first-round doubles match Thursday, an extra treat during Serena’s farewell tour.

“It was Serena’s idea,” Venus said, smiling. “She’s the boss, so I do whatever she tells me to do.”

When and if Venus decides to announce her retirement, she will receive a full-throated feting of her career, as Serena is getting now. Her spot on the Mount Rushmore of tennis was reserved in 2007 when she successfully led the charge for equal pay at Wimbledon, then became the first woman to collect said equal paycheck. She has continued to crusade for equality — sometimes quietly, sometimes through magazine interviews — and is the closest thing to Billie Jean King this generation of women’s tennis has.

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On the court, no woman in the past 30 years, Serena excepting, has surpassed her seven Grand Slam titles. Still, the final matches of her career may not look like Serena’s. Venus has always been quieter and more stoic than her fiery sister; the glitz and pomp may not be there. For now, her mind is far from the end of her own career.

With her singles tournament over, Venus said her sole focus is playing doubles with Serena on Thursday — perhaps for the last time.

“More than anything,” Venus said, “I just want to hold my side of the court up and be a good sister.”