Having first faced off in 1998, the Williams sisters’ head-to-head battles have stretched over 23 years. But what rises above their storied rivalry? Friendship, of course.
Few sports rivalries stretch into two decades in length. Even fewer involve two siblings who call one another “best friend.”
But both of those things (and much more) ring true for tennis megastars Venus and Serena Williams, the pair of sisters who have captured 30 Grand Slam singles titles between them, as well as nine Olympic medals.
“The best part is (that) we bring out the best in each other,” Serena told reporters during the US Open in 2018. “I know when I play her, I have to play some of my best tennis. She does, too. … I feel like throughout our career, we have pushed each other to be the best that we can be… and be Venus and Serena Williams.”
In August of 2020, the Williams sisters went head-to-head for a 31st time at the WTA stop in Lexington, Kentucky, a match that Serena won 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. It was a first even for the Williams sisters: Playing in front of no fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic. "It's never easy," Serena told reporters about facing her sister after the win.
Here are five things you may not have known about their rivalry, which started way back in January of 1998, when they met in the second round of the Australian Open – when both were still teens.
It’s Serena who leads their head-to-head 19-12 in their 31 clashes, but the first belonged to older sister Venus, 7-6(4), 6-1, back in the day when the sisters still wore beads in their hair during matches. (Remember that?!)
“Today would have been great fun if it were a final, but it wasn’t so fun to eliminate my little sister in the second round,” Venus said in 1998.
They haven’t slowed down since, meeting throughout the 2000s and 2010s. Their busiest period was 2008-09, when they played nine times in two years, including in two Wimbledon finals.
While many argue their story is one of the most compelling in all of sports, the Compton, California-raised sisters became the first siblings to meet for a Grand Slam singles title in the Open Era when they played in the 2001 US Open championship match.
Between 2002 and 2003, they would clash in four consecutive major finals, including the French Open, Wimbledon, US and Australian Opens, becoming the first two women to meet back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Serena won all four of those matches, marking her first of two “Serena Slam” runs.
Their numbers are mind-boggling:
While tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert have met on the singles court more than any other duo in the Open Era (80 times!), Venus has never played anyone more than Serena – and the same goes for Serena with Venus.
“I want to play the best players and I think I got my wish in playing Serena,” Venus said this week. “So here we go.”
While Serena maintains the head-to-head edge, they’ve produced some classics, going toe-to-toe in nine major finals. Their 2003 Australian Open final was particularly close, Serena winning 7-6(4), 3-6, 6-4. But many fans point to their 2008 US Open quarter-final as their most compelling, a high-quality 7-6(6), 7-6(7) triumph for Serena. She’d go on to hoist the trophy that fortnight.
While their rivalry has carried through on the singles court, they’ve maintained just as long-lasting of a doubles partnership, as well, most notably on the Olympic stage.
In 2000, the sisters made their Olympic debut with resounding success, Venus winning the singles and then teaming up with Serena for the doubles. It was the first time since 1924 that a woman had won both the singles and doubles (Helen Wills Moody did it back in the day) in tennis. Serena would match her sis in 2012, going golden in both singles and doubles on the courts of Wimbledon in London.
If all goes according to plan, the two say they’d like to play alongside one another again for Tokyo 2020 next summer.
“(We’ve) had a lot of success in doubles. That's been a real highlight in my career,” Venus said during the 2020 Australian Open. “In a perfect world, I would play (doubles) every time. I love it.”
Their most recent of major doubles titles came at Wimbledon 2016, when they captured No.14 in preparation for Rio (where they lost in the first round).
While plenty can be said about their rivalry, their respective greatness and their success on court, off the court they remain the very best of friends.
“V was my guiding light,” Serena said in a Wimbledon video this year about their childhood together, seen as prodigies from a young age.
Serena said in 2018 she’s even cheering for Venus when they play one another, though she’s trying to focus on winning: “I never root against her, no matter what. I think that's the toughest part (of playing her) for me. When you always want someone to win, to have to beat them. I know the same thing is for her. When she beats me, she always roots for me as well.”
After beating Serena to win Wimbledon in 2008, Venus put it simply:
“My first job is big sister and I take that very seriously.”