Venus and Serena Williams will meet in the Wimbledon finals on Saturday. This may not seem like news, but the context of the Williams sisters domination of their sport is changing.
It’s no longer a matter of whether they are the best women’s tennis players in the world. Two years ago, they had only three rivals: Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Maria Sharapova. Since then, Henin and Clijsters have retired, and Sharapova has been slowed by injuries.
Neither Williams sister owns the No. 1 ranking simply because they don’t play often enough. They pass on many of the small tournaments in favor of the big stage and who can blame them? For one, it helps them avoid the burnout that led to Henin’s and Clijster’s retirement. (Neither woman was 26 when they put away their rackets; they left many millions in future earnings on the table.) And only hard-core tennis devotees remember who won the (fill in name of corporate sponsor) tournament in (sunny part of the country during the winter months). Win a Grand Slam Tournament like the French Open, the Australian Open or Wimbledon, and you get a piece of history.
In addition, the current top echelon in the women’s game is full of young Serbs and Russians who haven’t established the consistency to be considered great yet. Recent No. 1s, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, fell during the first week of action at Wimbledon this year. Current No. 1, Dinara Safina, has never won a Grand Slam tournament, and her quarterfinal win over Sabine Lisicki, the 41st-ranked player in the world, inspired little confidence that this would be her first. Safina double faulted 15 times and was warned by the chair after throwing her first set temper tantrum during her 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-1 win.
By contrast, Venus demolished her quarterfinal opponent, Agnieszka Radwanska, 6-1, 6-2 and hit 29 winners in the process. She has yet to lose a set at Wimbledon this year, and with each passing victory the tournament becomes that much closer to being the Venus Williams Invitational. Big sister has a better career record in singles at the All-England Tennis Club than even Roger Federer who owned the men’s bracket with a similar iron hand until last summer’s epic upset by Rafael Nadal.
Venus is usually self-effacing, but in the press conference after her win on Tuesday she allowed that she’s feeling invincible. But, she hastened to add, “I work really hard at it.”
Wimbledon’s fast surface grass courts are the perfect fit for Venus’ power game. Her serve is utterly ferocious; it’s typically well over 100 mph and has topped out at 129 mph. She has averaged nearly 120 mph on first serves in several of her matches during this fortnight. (Nadal, in his epic win last summer, served at an average of 110 mph.) In addition, Williams’ serve slices away from the court forcing her opponent to lunge for a return, leaving Venus the entire court to put away a winner. Opponents back so far off the baseline that at times the cameras have struggled to keep them in the shot. During Venus’ third-round win over Carla Suarez-Navarro, the woman who ousted Williams in Melbourne early this year, I kept confusing the Spaniard for a ball girl who couldn’t stay out of the frame. With opponents so far from the baseline, Venus can easily rush the net and use her enormous wingspan to put away easy winners.
Serena has been nearly as dominant during the fortnight. Her 6-2, 6-3 quarterfinal win over Victoria Azarenka featured nine aces from Serena and 26 winners. While not as powerful on serve as her sister, Serena’s game involves enormous grit drive and athleticism. She runs down every shot from side to side until opponents begin to wilt at the thought of ever putting the ball by her. It seems like a game Serena may have learned from playing Venus as a youth.
The all-Williams final marks their 21st tournament match against each other. Presently, the rivalry stands tied at 10 wins each. Venus is vying to be the first woman to win three straight Wimbledon titles since Steffi Graf 1991-’93. She is also in search of her sixth Wimbledon title overall. While Serena should be favored against her sister on other surfaces, especially the hard courts of the U.S Open and the Australian Open, Venus owns grass. It’s as if her game was built for it.
Only once in the last 10 years has a Wimbledon final not featured one of the Williams sisters, and it has often featured both. This year is no exception. With most of their peers on a training table or gone from the game, we should settle in for another era of Williams dominance in women’s tennis. When not facing each other, Venus and Serena are playing for the record books. Graf, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova—the greatest living female tennis players—need to make room for two more.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.