From the wee American hours, it grew hard to process all the meaning packed into the goings-on from a Saturday night on a hard tennis court in Australia. Not only had one of the longest, profoundest stories in sports found its loftiest chapter, but women’s tennis had found its finest Open era player.
First, Venus and Serena Williams, all the way into these late 2010s at ages 36 and 35, played the 28th installment of their enduring and groundbreaking rivalry — their 15th in Grand Slam tournaments — in an Australian Open final, giving them the rare chance to extol each other eloquently to a warm crowd in the aftermath. In between, when Serena Williams watched one last, dying ball fall into the doubles lane and harmlessly wide for a 6-4, 6-4 win, she both crumpled to the court and ascended to the top of the 49-year-old Open era. Yes, there was all of that.
Venus Williams would hug her for a long time and then get to tell the audience, “That’s my little sister, guys.” Serena Williams would amass her 23rd Grand Slam title, beyond all the teeming horde of players who have tried the sport since it shed its amateurs-only status in 1968. She exceeded Steffi Graf’s 22, just as she had exceeded the 18 of both Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and the nine of Monica Seles. Only Margaret Court’s 24, gathered mainly in the years before the Open era, remains ahead of Williams, who has seven Australian Open titles, seven Wimbledon titles, six U.S. Open titles, three French Open titles and a fresh, new stay at the No. 1 ranking she lost in September to Angelique Kerber.
Was it the meeting of the two or the feat of the one?
In the middle of the night, it was hard to parse it all.
For two players whose commitment to the game once was questioned at some murky times in the past decade, they met with a longevity that could count as staggering. It came 19 years after their second-round meeting in the Australian Open at ages 17 and 16, which Venus Williams won, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1; 15 years after Serena Williams began turning their rivalry with a French Open final win after which Venus Williams joined the photographers capturing her sister; 14 years after their best match, a smashing Australian Open final which Serena Williams won, 7-6 (7-4), 3-6, 6-4; and eight years after their last Grand Slam final together, which was their second of two straight Wimbledon finals together, with one win each.
The very presence of Venus Williams in a final brought quite a question: How does a person with a large Grand Slam title total of seven become a big-surprise finalist? Answers: when she hasn’t reached one since 2008, when she spent 2011 to 2014 never reaching a Grand Slam quarterfinal, when she battled an autoimmune condition and became an afterthought, when she arrived in Melbourne coming off an arm injury in New Zealand and told reporters of reaching a final, “I mean, honestly, all the signs didn’t look that way in Auckland.”
It meant that after a match Serena Williams controlled narrowly but firmly, Venus Williams got to stand behind her as the younger sibling said, “There’s no way I would be at 23 without her; there’s no way I would be at one without her,” and, “She’s the only reason that I’m standing here today,” and, “Every time you won this week, I felt like I got a win, too.” From their hair beads as the teenage daughters of clever parents who overcame the absence of tennis backgrounds, they had surpassed all the way to an extended post-match hug everyone could understand.
Still, groggy American heads had more to mull, because this match changed the order of the sport. For the five decades since the sport opened up to all, and Nancy Richey won the 1968 French Open, then Billie Jean King won Wimbledon and Virginia Wade won the U.S. Open, the sport had found its peerless player. She was the one her father, Richard Williams, forecasted would be the better of his two daughters, even when Venus Williams became the first sensation. Nineteen near-eternal years after Serena Williams turned up as a 16-year-old and beat No. 6 seed Irina Spirlea after losing the first set, she had sailed through another Australian Open in 14 spotless sets.
Finally, after all the millions of shots, she ran down a short forehand and shoved it into the opponent’s backhand corner, where it would be hard to counter. When the reply did what so many have done through the years and floated out — did better than many, actually — it was remarkable, and then remarkable all over again that it came from the winner’s sister. Just processing that kind of thing could keep you up into the night.
Third-seeded Bob and Mike Bryan of the United States lost the men’s doubles final, 7-5, 7-5, to fourth-seeded Henri Kontinen of Finland and John Peers of Australia.
The twins were trying to win a record-equaling 17th Grand Slam doubles title.
On Sunday, Roger Federer will aim to increase his all-time men’s record to 18 Slam crowns when he takes on 14-time major winner Rafael Nadal in the men’s final.
— Associated Press