It has been more than 20 years since Venus and Serena Williams first reluctantly faced each other on tour, the unavoidable result of their father’s far-fetched but ultimately successful plan for both of them to reach the top. Across the decades, sport’s first sisters have dueled through their mixed emotions on four continents and in the finals of all four Grand Slam tournaments. They have played in brilliant sunshine and under closed roofs. They have played on grass, on red and green clay and on hard courts of varying speeds.
But there has never been an all-Williams occasion quite like Monday night’s in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open, in which Venus put an end to Serena’s comeback tournament from maternity leave with a 6-3, 6-4 victory.
It was odd enough to see them playing in the third round at all. This was their earliest meeting in a regular tour event since their first professional encounter in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open, during the beads-and-braces phase of their teenage years.
“Obviously I didn’t want to play Venus so early on, but it can happen,” Serena said on Monday.
But it was also poignant to see the sisters finally facing off in Indian Wells. The match between them here that failed to materialize in 2001 led to a long family boycott of the most prestigious tournament in California, a mere two hour’s drive — traffic willing — from the hardscrabble, gang-controlled courts in Compton where they began playing the tricky game that would make them rich and famous.
So much has changed in 17 years. When Serena, now 36, took the court on Monday night, she did so as a new mother, while Venus, 37, walked out as a new aunt — and as the favorite, which has not been her customary role as this increasingly lopsided rivalry has evolved.
Serena is the one with 23 Grand Slam singles titles, one short of the record held by Margaret Court. Venus has had to make do with a very respectable seven, although she twice came close to an eighth during her resurgent 2017 season, when she reached the finals of the Australian Open and Wimbledon.
Serena, as so often, played the spoiler on one of those occasions, defeating her in Australia when, unbeknown to the general public, she was already two months pregnant.
She did not play again for the rest of 2017, giving birth to a daughter, Olympia, in September, recovering from traumatic postnatal medical issues and then marrying Alexis Ohanian in November, before resuming training in earnest.
This was the first singles tournament of her comeback, and though it showed, she was hardly far off the pace, winning two matches and then giving Venus cause for concern as she tried to close her out.
“I just feel it’s never over until it’s over, and she just came right back,” said Venus, who faltered in her first attempt to serve out her victory at 5-2 in the second set. “You know, I’m just lucky I played more matches than her right now.”
Serena still leads their sibling rivalry, 17-12, and has won eight of their last 10 matches. But Venus now has her first victory over Serena since 2014 and a place in the fourth round, where she will face Anastasija Sevastova, a Latvian with a game brimming with spin and guile, on Tuesday.
“I definitely know her well,” said Serena of Venus. “But she definitely played a little better than she normally does today.”
Venus was certainly the more reliable power player: making 19 unforced errors to Serena’s 41, and not because she was taking fewer risks from the baseline. Although Venus has sometimes struggled to find her service rhythm early in her matches against Serena, she was at close-to-full strength from the start, hitting a first serve of 121 miles per hour at her sister’s body during the tense opening game.