NEW YORK — Venus Williams may have beaten sister Serena into the world by 15 months, but she is not the one who came into this US Open having announced an “evolution” away from tennis or revealing an exit strategy from the game that has framed the family’s entire lives.
In fact, asked after her first-round singles loss what continues to motivate her on the court, the 42-year-old Venus shared the most predictable response to anyone paying attention to what these amazing athletes have accomplished across two-plus decades.
“Three letters,” Venus said in reply. “W-I-N. That’s it. Very simple.”
But there the Williams sisters were Thursday night, taking a hasty, brisk walk off Arthur Ashe Stadium court, their surprise entry into the doubles field ending not with a win, but with a straight set, first-round loss to the Czech pair of Lucie Hradecká and Linda Nosková, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4.
This was surely not their plan, not as they joined forces in a Grand Slam for the first time since 2018, not as they eyed what could have been a 15th Grand Slam doubles title together (including two at the US Open), not as they looked to wring every last drop of experience from a tournament that has turned, deservingly, into an ongoing conversation on everything they have done for the game.
But as they watched the final point fall in their opponents’ favor, as they fell into each other’s embrace near the baseline on their side of the court, as they walked to the net to shake hands with Hradecká and Nosková and then do the same with the chair umpire beside it, they did it all to the unique symphony the crowd made sure to conduct. Loud and long, on their feet and clapping, the fans made it clear this night was never about the W-I-N.
This night was about the T-H-A-N-K Y-O-U, about the appreciation for two players who have electrified tennis and the US Open for so long, but who might not ever be back to grace these courts again, about a chance to celebrate not just the individual accomplishments of two of the best players of all time, but two of the best friends, teammates, and sisters it has been a joy to watch.
Think about it — what other doubles team would have had its first-round match featured as the night session opener on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court?
That’s never happened before at the Open, but it did on Thursday. It did because the sport wants to take its chance to catch them before they’re gone, to revel in the artistry, athleticism, ferocity, and force that has driven their games since childhood, to pause for a moment and understand how exceptional it is that they did it all at the same time, at times competing against each other, at times competing alongside each other, and through it all, always supporting each other.
As Serena put it this week: “She’s my rock.”
And Venus responded: “We’re a huge influence on each other, and I’m a huge influence on her.”
Serena has relied on that rock more than ever this week, with the tournament opening under the shadow of her announcement three weeks ago that she is “evolving” away from tennis and all but certainly playing in her final Grand Slam tournament. She has been definitive in crediting how much her older sister helped make this all possible, pushing through the stuffy, lily-white barriers of tennis so Serena wouldn’t have to, laying the groundwork that Serena could follow, and staying just enough ahead to protect her until the younger sister was comfortable enough to move ahead and soar on her own.
As Serena described in that “retirement” essay she wrote in Vogue, it was Venus she mimicked from the moment she could hold a racket, Venus she studied to learn from mistakes, Venus she practiced against and Venus she emulated. “If I hadn’t been in Venus’s shadow, I would never be who I am,” she wrote. “When someone said I was just the little sister, that’s when I got really fired up.”
As that competitive fire burned, as it propelled Serena far beyond anything her sister had accomplished, to those 23 Grand Slam titles and international fame and fortune, it never frayed the familial bond. What a credit to them both.
Of course, this US Open goes on now for Serena — Venus lost an opening round singles match after accepting a wild card entry. In fact, the spotlight has only grown hotter on the younger sister, whose upcoming Friday night singles match against unseeded Ajla Tomljanovic of Croatia is the hottest ticket in sports.
At 40, five years after the birth of her daughter, Serena came to New York ostensibly to write a farewell tale, only to turn back time instead, advancing with two victories that, given her resumé in the game should come as no surprise, but given her current state in the game are as impressive as any she’s had. From a workmanlike opening win over unseeded Danka Kovinic Monday night to the scintillating three-set decision over No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit Wednesday, Williams has taken over the tournament.
On Thursday, ESPN announced it was bumping a college football game to move Williams’s match from ESPN2 to ESPN. Why wouldn’t they? The network said in a press release that the final 15 minutes of Serena’s Wednesday’s match, from 9:30-9:45 p.m. drew 5 million viewers, and that overall, the audience averaged 2.3 million viewers, an increase of 289 percent from last year’s Day Three prime-time telecast.
The match helped ESPN win the night among all broadcast or cable networks among men and adults in age brackets including 18-34, 18-49, and 25-54. Ticket prices for Friday’s match have soared on secondary markets, surpassing $5,000 for an unobstructed courtside view.
And they say women’s sports can’t draw a crowd.
When the last name is Williams, it sure can.