From here, it’s almost always tomorrow in Australia, 16 hours in the future. But through to the magic of the DVR, it was possible to repeatedly retrieve yesterdays throughout the two weeks of the Australian Open tennis championships, during which events seemed to pass along a continuum, back and forth, from the day after through the past to the present.
Both the men’s and women’s title matches offered a glimpse of ancient history recycled and updated—the Williams sisters crossing swords for the 28th time in their careers, the 15th time in a Grand Slam tournament and the eighth time in a major final, followed by a 35th revival of Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal, further creating the sensation of being unstuck in time.
These are the acts you’ve known for all these years, especially the Serena Williams-Venus Williams show. The first time they dueled in a Slam final, at the 2001 U.S. Open, Federer was still two years away from the first of his 18 major titles, with Nadal’s first of 14 Slam trophies four years in the future.
In 2001, the Williamses already were the biggest news in tennis, Venus at 21 and Serena about to turn 20, their Open showdown timed perfectly with the first scheduled prime-time television coverage of a major tennis championship final.
The packed house of 23,023 in Arthur Ashe Stadium included a raft of entertainment and sports celebrities, among them Spike Lee, Robert Redford, New York Yankees manager Joe Torre and Diana Ross, who sang “God Bless America,” then offered a pre-match handshake and hug to both sisters. Also in attendance that night was Mary Tyler Moore; how’s that for a then-and-now reflection?
It was three days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, so the Big Town had no trouble throwing massive attention into a tennis match, which proved to demonstrate that a sibling rivalry is not necessarily a spectator sport. Not since 1884 had sisters played each other in a major tennis championship—19-year-old Maud Watson defeated older sister Lilian for the Wimbledon title back when the sport was contested by amateurs and both Watsons played in white corsets and petticoats.
The Williamses, once down to business, were caught in what Serena called a “weird atmosphere,” the crowd unsure about taking sides and the players bumbling around in a disorienting psychological study, at turns overaggressive and cautious.
“Sisters are rivals,” Serena said after losing in straight sets. “A lot of people in families fight, and I guess our fighting is done out on the court, because we never fight. Maybe older sisters and older brothers wanted to see Venus win, and younger sisters and younger brothers wanted to see me win. Right now, I have zero difficulty with that.”
That was Venus’ fourth major crown, but Serena quickly turned the tables in their next four Slam finals matches—at the 2002 French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open and 2003 Australian—at which time Belgium’s perennial contender, Justine Henin, declared that “people are getting bored” by Williams-vs.-Williams championship matches. “Fans don’t know who to root for.”
Maybe. But there was not a single tournament director on the pro women’s tour who didn’t relish having the Williamses’ star power over the past decade and a half. Prior to this year’s Aussie final, the sisters had last played each other in a major at the 2015 U.S. quarterfinals, with Serena attempting a calendar sweep of the four Slams, and there was nothing subtle about the power and passion that both she and Venus brought to that battle.
That may have produced the most fascinating athletic narrative in their long rivalry, a three-set victory for Serena in a feisty, noisy combat. What the 2017 Australian Open reinforced is that Serena, at 35, remains the most dominant player in women’s tennis. And that Venus, at 36, still is capable of managing an autoimmune disorder well enough to occasionally compete at the highest level.
In 1997, when Venus, at 17, made her first Grand Slam splash by advancing to the U.S. final (a loss to then No. 1 Martina Hingis) while playing with 1,800 colored beads in her hair, she announced that she was “completely different. I’m tall, I’m black, everything’s different about me than what’s been around….Face the facts.”
The facts are that Althea Gibson was tall and black and completely different 40 years earlier, when she became the first black player to win the U.S. title in 1957. Between Gibson and Venus, there was a handful of other black women on the pro circuit—Renee Blount, Leslie Allen, Zina Garrison, Lori McNeil….
But there is no getting around the uniqueness of the sister act that continues to play out on the sport’s largest stages. And there’s no guarantee it won’t stay around a bit longer. That—and more of what Federer and Nadal offered in Melbourne—hints at some inextricable connection between the present, future and past.