Venus beats Serena 6-3, 6-4 in the third round at Indian Wells

 Five years ago at what was then known as the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, S.C., I watched Serena Williams utterly dominate her older sister Venus, 6-1, 6-2. The semifinal was played on green clay, but it could have been played on cheesy grits and Serena would have still found a way to power the ball through the court.

Both Williamses won two matches in one day to set up that match, but from there, things would diverge. Serena was in the midst of putting together a 22-match win streak that would continue through Roland Garros; Venus, dealing with the effects of Sjogren’s Syndrome, would soon slide outside the Top 50. At the time, I remember saying that I believed we had all witnessed the last, and potentially saddest, chapter in the Williams vs. Williams rivalry.

How wrong I was, thankfully. I’ve been reminded of that every time Venus and Serena have squared off since—I’ve had four servings of crow, with a fifth being prepared just in time for Monday night’s marquee third-rounder (to be shown live on Tennis Channel, with the call from Lindsay Davenport and Ted Robinson, at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT). Their four subsequent contests haven’t been classics, but they’ve all been compelling in their own ways, with varying degrees of stakes.

venus williams

What can we expect from Venus and Serena in their first-ever meeting at Indian Wells? Given the history these two have at this tournament—which they boycotted after the 2001 edition, where Venus withdrew from her 2001 semifinal against Serena, who was later booed during the final—this might feel different than any other match they’ve played. I would expect nerves from both Williamses early on, particularly Serena, who is still just two matches into a comeback after a 14-month absence. But as she’s shown in her two wins in Indian Wells, Serena doesn’t need much to start going her way to feel confident again. More often than not, that’s worked against Venus, who is just 11-17 against her little sister.

Serena’s movement is the most surprising positive I’ve seen from her so far. The timing of her shots is innate, but her speed could have been expected to drop considering what she went through during childbirth, as well as her extended time away from the tour. Her opening win over Zarina Diyas assuaged many fears, and she answered the challenges posed by Kiki Bertens in the second round with the kind of baseline tennis that is her signature. I will say this: if Serena manages to lock down her first serve (which was the weakest of all her shots against Diyas), even Venus won’t be able to combat it. It remains the vexing question Serena’s opponents must solve, and the ultimate answer to any trouble she encounters.

While I see this match as an opportunity for Serena to truly announce her return to the sport, I also view it as an opportunity for Venus to get a significant win over her sister. In the time Serena was out, Venus was playing turn-back-the-clock tennis; it still surprises me that she wasn’t able to snag a Grand Slam title in 2017. Her forehand is still a rally-terminating stroke. Her focus remains unflappable. And at Indian Wells, Venus looked quite comfortable in taking out Sorana Cirstea in straight sets, after a bye into the second round. All of the evidence over the past 14 months suggest that Venus should have a clear edge over a just-returning-to-the-game Serena.

All that said, many observers will always give Serena the edge in this match-up, and that’s understandable. As physical as Serena has made tennis over the years, she’s required her opponents to surpass her mentally in order to succeed, which is an even greater task. Even Venus, despite some massive victories over Serena in her career, has succumbed—the Charleston match one such example.

Hopefully, Venus and Serena will enjoy this match—and you should, too. Who knows, it very well could be the last one they play against each other. But I think Venus would enjoy it a lot more if she comes out on the winning end. Maybe it’s the older brother in me, but I think she’ll be extremely motivated to make that happen.

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