Australian Open 2017

Australian Open: Finally, it's back to where it began

Venus Williams (left) hitting a return against Coco Vandeweghe of the US during their women's singles semi-final match and Serena Williams (right) hitting a return against Croatia's Mirjana Lucic-Baroni during their women's singles semi-final match o
Venus Williams (left) hitting a return against Coco Vandeweghe of the US during their women's singles semi-final match and Serena Williams (right) hitting a return against Croatia's Mirjana Lucic-Baroni during their women's singles semi-final match on day 11 of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, on Jan 26, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

On the court where they first met in 1998, the Williams sisters face each other once again

MELBOURNE • The sibling rivalry, at least on the tennis tour, started here at the Australian Open for the Williams sisters.

It was 1998, and older sister Venus beat younger sister Serena, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, in a second-round match that surely drew more attention than any second-round match in history between a pair of Australian Open debutantes.

The fascination in their dynamic and their futures was there from the start at Melbourne Park, known then as Flinders Park when it had only one stadium with a retractable roof instead of three.

Though it would be tempting to label their Australian Open final today as a full-circle moment and to speculate that it might be their last meeting at this late a stage of a Grand Slam tournament, it seems best to resist the temptation.

The Williams sisters have taught us a lot about the limits of conventional tennis wisdom through the years. And so, even if 19 years have passed and Serena is 35 and Venus 36, it is wise to avoid fencing them in again after they have run roughshod over so many preconceptions.

"I watched Venus celebrating after she won the semi-final like she was a six-year-old girl, and it made you want to cry for joy just watching her," said Marion Bartoli, a former Wimbledon champion.

  • Melbourne Park Snippets


    STAT OF THE DAY

    120

    Professional titles won between Venus and Serena Williams.

CONTEST WITH NO REAL LOSER

I never lost hope of us being able to play each other in a final. It's the one time that I really genuinely feel like, no matter what happens, I can't lose, she can't lose.

SERENA WILLIAMS, on playing a Grand Slam final with sister Venus again

"Such a powerful image, and it makes you think about all those questions she was getting, 'When are you retiring? Have you thought about retiring? How much longer?'

"You must let the champions decide when the right moment comes."

The sisters are great champions, even if Serena is clearly the greater player, with her 22 Grand Slam singles titles and long run at No. 1, a spot she can reclaim from Angelique Kerber with a win today.

Serena is back in rare form again after another extended break at the end of last year. She disconnected completely from the game and physical training initially and had to push hard to get back in shape in November and December.

It worked. She has not dropped a set here despite a challenging draw, nor has she even been pushed to a tie-breaker. She deserves to be the favourite to win her 23rd major singles title and break her tie with Steffi Graf for the highest total in the Open era.

Venus' draw has been soft by comparison, devoid of top-10 players - past or present.

Yet, she is viewed as a more sympathetic figure: The older sister who has handled the younger's greater tennis success unselfishly and with dignity. Though both sisters have had to cope with major health problems, Venus is the one whose tennis fortunes dipped most dramatically, largely because of an autoimmune disorder that sapped her strength and endurance.

"She never even thought of the word retire," said David Witt, her coach and hitting partner of 10 years.

"There are days she can't work as hard as she wants to work. Some days it's maybe not smart to do it because it will then hurt you for two or three more days."

This will be Venus' first major singles final since she lost to Serena in straight sets in the 2009 Wimbledon final, and her first match against Serena in Melbourne since the 2003 final which Serena won.

And the story is not finished until they say it is.

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AUSTRALIAN OPEN

Day 13: Singtel TV Ch114/115 & StarHub Ch208/209, 4pm & 6pm

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2017, with the headline 'Finally, it's back to where it began'. Print Edition | Subscribe