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Serena Williams' victory sets up another chapter in greatest sibling rivalry in sports

Serena Williams' victory sets up another chapter in greatest sibling rivalry in sports
Serena Williams chases a shot by Carina Witthoeft, of Germany, during the second round of the U.S. Open. (Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

This sibling rivalry never gets old. Not for Venus and Serena Williams, not for a generation of players who have drawn inspiration from their resolve and their skill, and not for fans who consider each occasion as increasingly precious as the two women move deeper into their 30s.

As Serena recalled earlier this year, the Compton-raised sisters first competed against each other in a junior tournament when Serena was 8 and Venus was 10. Serena was so upset over losing that Venus gave her the winner’s trophy as consolation. Their initial meeting as professionals occurred in 1998 in the second round of the Australian Open, and Venus won again.

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“I think that part is really remarkable. I never would have thought that we would still be playing professional,” Serena said.

Serena eventually took the upper hand in head-to-head wins (17-12) and Grand Slam titles (23-7) but their next matchup promises to be as intriguing as any they’ve had. “We make each other better,” Serena said. “We bring out the best when we play each other.”

When they meet Friday it will be in the third round of the U.S. Open, not the final. And Serena, still regaining her form after giving birth to daughter Alexis Olympia last Sept. 1, is seeded 17th here and ranks 26th in the world, far from the top spot she has occupied for 319 weeks of her career. But Serena’s steady serve, 30 winners and sharp performance in a 6-2, 6-2 rout of Carina Witthoeft on Wednesday under the lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium suggested she’s getting closer to achieving consistent excellence. Venus, who held off Camila Giorgi 6-4, 7-5 a few hours earlier, again showed she has conceded little to age at 38.

Altogether, the timing is right for another classic.

“I know when I play her I have to play some of my best tennis. She does too,” Serena said. “It propels us to continue to play that way for the tournament. It sets a tone for us.”

They last faced each other in March at Indian Wells, also in the third round. It was Serena’s first tournament after taking maternity leave and she was rusty; Venus prevailed, 6-3, 6-4. Their most recent meeting in a Grand Slam tournament was in the 2017 Australian Open final, which Serena — then a few weeks’ pregnant — won 6-4, 6-4. Venus joked Wednesday that Serena had enjoyed an unfair edge there because it was two — Serena and her baby — against one. “Seeing that I don’t have that advantage this time it’s going to be hard for me,” Serena said. “It’s obviously going to be a tough match.”

Sisters Serena, left, and Venus Williams shake hands after a game 1991 in Compton.
Sisters Serena, left, and Venus Williams shake hands after a game 1991 in Compton. (Paul Harris / Getty Images)

Venus, usually guarded about her emotions, brushed off questions about what she thinks when she plays her sister. “It’s early in the tournament so both of us are going to be looking forward to continuing to play better,” she said. “It’s definitely a tough draw.”

Serena, more open than Venus about her feelings and experiences — she admitted to having “severe mom brain” when she couldn’t think of a word in responding to a question — freely acknowledged she’s conflicted when she plays Venus. “I never root against her, no matter what. So I think that's the toughest part for me, when you always want someone to win, to have to beat them,” Serena said. “I know the same thing is for her.”

Their rivals plan to watch this renewal of their sibling rivalry. “It's always big clash of two legends. I have lots of respect for both of them,” said No. 7 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, a 6-2, 6-3 winner over Tatjana Maria earlier Wednesday. “What they do in their career and they come back, Serena after having a child and Venus, playing for so many years in such a high level, it's very rare that you can see that in sports. That’s why I'm very lucky to play in the same time as they are.”

Male players share that admiration. “They inspire me, in a way. They are great athletes and they achieve so much in tennis,” said No. 15 men’s seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece. “I'll have to respect them because what they have done, both of them in tennis, is simply amazing.”

And they’re not done yet.

“I'm sure they will hate it, both of them hate this,” two-time Grand Slam winner Victoria Azarenka said of their matchup, “but I think it's going to be beautiful for tennis.”

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