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How the Williams sisters changed an entire sport – but always remained ahead of it

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USA's Serena Williams and Venus Williams celebrate winning

Image credit: Reuters

ByTumaini Carayol
27/01/2017 at 15:54 | Updated 27/01/2017 at 17:20

As Serena and Venus prepare for their ninth Grand Slam final, Tumaini Carayol reflects on their mixture of confidence, self-belief and unbridled stubbornness that saw them conquer the game.

Under the blinding afternoon sun of Rod Laver Arena on Thursday, Venus Williams reckoned with the monster she was half responsible for creating. It was the Williams clan who arrived in the women’s game during a 90s era still occasionally overtaken by interminable moonball rallies, transforming the sport into the power-dominated arms race it is defined as today. Across the net, directly in their image, stood Coco Vandeweghe, an American who navigated her route to her first Slam semi-final hitting bigger than any other player in the draw.

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Where it was once assumed that the result of any Williams match was decided solely on their racquets, here Venus spent her Thursday afternoon firmly on the back foot, desperately locating, retrieving and deflecting Vandeweghe bullets. The 36-year-old with over 22 seasons in her legs was forced to rely on her movement and physical form against a fresh 25-year-old, relegated from the boss of any given match to the one on the back foot, desperately looking for the precise moment to wrestle control of the point.

As the Williams sisters stare down a surreal 28th meeting and ninth Slam final, 19 years after their first meeting in the second round of this very tournament and 16 years after their first Slam final would spur the first primetime women’s US Open final, Venus’ 6-7 6-2 6-3 victory over Vandeweghe to reach her first final in eight years seemed a perfect representation of what it took for the pair to return to this point together.

It has always been clear that behind the Williams sisters’ success, aside from their unique tennis talents, is the confidence that radiates through every bone and has always underlined each success. It’s the mixture of confidence, self-belief and unbridled stubbornness imprinted on them by their father, Richard Williams, whose legendary predictions of their greatness have been realised even more than he could have imagined. And it was a belief that was reflected in their audacity to arrive on the tour and refuse to allow anyone else a say in the outcome of their matches.

Confidence may seem like an arbitrary attribute that all champions share in common, but not everyone possesses it so freely. Rafael Nadal, when asked about his self-belief, constantly speaks of the doubts that dog him. “I’m not arrogant person, so of course I have doubts,” he said this week. While Nadal has become a 14-time slam champion by living amongst his doubts and working to better them, the Williams clan simply reject the concept of doubt. The Williams level of unwavering self-assuredness regardless of the point and regardless of the situation has never been seen before in tennis.

Venus explained this very point last year as she reached the Wimbledon semi-finals.

The first time you win, nobody picks you; the last time you win, nobody picks you. You’ve just got to pick yourself.

Very few other people picked Serena when she arose from her near-death experience with a pulmonary embolism in 2011. Even fewer still picked Venus during her more visible struggles throughout the darkest years of her incurable autoimmune illness, Sjogren's Syndrome. Throughout this time, between 2011 and 2014, there were plenty of moments when to watch Venus Williams was to put oneself through excruciating pain of seeing such a great champion appear such a sad shadow of herself. The widespread hope and expectation that Williams would soon retire didn’t spread from malice or ignorance, it simply seemed that there was no light at the end of the tunnel and so even her fans hoped she’d put herself out of her misery.

But, as the Williams sisters face each other in an Australian Open final for the first time since 2003, one of the defining factors leading to this meeting has been the manner in which they have supplemented their core confidence and stubbornness by adapting so late in their career. For Serena, her adaptability stems from many sources, not least her partnership with Patrick Mouratoglou. Though his impact is both disrespectfully overstated and understated at regular intervals, the transformation of her entire setup undeniably had a profound effect on the results that have driven her to be considered the greatest of all time.

Meanwhile, on Rod Laver Arena, Venus seemed to have an epiphany in the 23rd season of her career. The elder Williams’ stubbornness was always more deeply ingrained: one of the greatest elements in her success, but also one of the most prominent materials of the transparent ceiling separating herself from the all-time great success of her sister. But as she stared down the most important moment of her post-30 career, it seemed she had never been more tactically prepared for a specific opponent, and more prepared to separate herself from that idea that every match rests on her racquet.

Ultimately, neither Williams sister was ever meant to be here in this final. For most of their careers, the sisters were characterised as being unfaithful to their sport, too preoccupied with their countless outside interests to fully commit to tennis. Their love of the game was always allegedly questionable, particularly compared to their original rivals who, it turns out, have all now been retired for more than half a decade. But their confidence has been a guiding light through the early days, and their unusual willingness to adapt late in the twilight of their careers is why they will stand before each other in a major final at least one more time. Together they changed an entire sport, but they have always remained ahead of it.

-- by Tumaini Carayol

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