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Column: We’re all winners when we get a Williams sisters matchup

There were no TV cameras on hand to capture the first time Venus and Serena Williams competed against each other, no reporters present to chronicle their every stroke and point for posterity. As Serena remembered it, she was 8 years old and Venus was 10 when they faced each other in a junior match. Serena also remembered the outcome wasn’t remotely close.

“She beat me. Beat me good. But she was really nice,” Serena said. “She gave me the trophy because I was so upset. I have always been a sore loser, but she’s been really amazing. I can really learn from her.”

The respect they forged when they were kids playing on public courts near their home in Compton has been a constant throughout the years, an unshakeable foundation while they grew up and went on to enjoy unimaginable success. They thrive on competition, but not against each other. Serena, 36, feels so close to Venus, 37, that when Serena was pregnant she discovered she loved watching every match except those that involved Venus. “If she makes a mistake, a little bit of me dies,” Serena explained.

And so when they meet on Monday at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open, it will be emotional for both women, grand theater as riveting as any Grand Slam. It will be the 29th professional matchup — Serena has a 17-11 edge, including each of the last three tournaments and five of the last six going back to 2009 — but it will be their first match since Serena defeated Venus in the 2017 Australian Open final while in the early weeks of her pregnancy.

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It also will be their earliest encounter in a tournament since their first professional matchup, in the round of 64 at the 1998 Australian Open. They are meeting so soon this time because Serena, making her competitive return after 14 months, isn’t seeded here. Venus is seeded No. 8 and, unlike Serena, had a first-round bye.

“Obviously I wish it was anybody else in the draw, literally anybody, but that’s OK,” Serena said on Saturday after defeating persistent No. 29 seed Kiki Bertens 7-6 (5), 7-5 in a second round match at Stadium 1, shortly after Venus had dismissed Sorana Cirstea 6-3, 6-4. “I just have to go out there and see how I am and do my best.”

So far, in defeating Zarina Diyas on Thursday and outslugging Bertens on Saturday, Serena has shown flashes of her old powerful groundstrokes and an ability to find the corners of the court with unreturnable shots. Progress manifests itself in different forms for her now: Before her first match she became teary because she so badly missed her daughter, Alexis Ohanian, Jr. On Saturday she made it through the match dry-eyed and realistic about her lack of sharpness.

“I have a long way to go. I have such a long way to go,” she said, smiling. “It definitely felt better than the first round, but, I mean, I’m still a little rusty. I’m still making errors that I don’t normally make.

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“But I call this a trial run, you know. Even with the baby, like, a trial run of traveling with the baby and all of this is just so new to me. Yeah, I’m getting there.”

But to the ever-loyal Venus, Serena looked just fine. “She’s playing really well and just honing her game. When she’s missing, it’s not by much,” Venus said. Speaking about Serena’s match against Diyas, Venus added, “I mean, she looked like she never lost a step, really, and was controlling the match. Her opponent played really, really, really well, to be honest. Probably produced maybe the best tennis of her career. For Serena to win against someone that inspired and free is a great, great way to come back.”

The sisters have never faced each other at Indian Wells. They were scheduled to meet in the semifinals in 2001 but Venus withdrew shortly before the match, citing a knee injury. Deprived of an anticipated spectacle, fans booed; some aimed their dislike at Serena when she faced Kim Clijsters in the final. Richard Williams, their father, said he heard racist comments. Both sisters stayed away from the tournament for years a silent but loud protest. Serena returned in 2015 but had to withdraw from her semifinal match because of an injured right knee, and Venus came back a year later.

Both have been warmly received, drawing applause and encouraging shouts while on the court. Serena, asked about the 2001 match that never happened, brushed the question aside. “I literally didn’t even think about it. That’s, you know, totally gone out of my mind. First of all, 17 years ago seems like forever ago. Yikes,” she said. “I honestly never thought about it. So, again, I would prefer to play someone else, anybody else, literally anybody else, but it has to happen now. So it is what it is.”

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And it will be one to remember.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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