While all pens are pointed at Serena Williams, big sister Venus remains a story of her own at the US Open.
Always the one to whom the top seed looks up, the No. 23 seed did exactly what she was supposed to do on Friday. She took out Belinda Bencic, 6-3, 6-4.
Seeded almost twice as low as the young Swiss, the veteran was not deterred by youth or records. She wanted to eliminate Bencic before she got to the quarterfinals, where she could have likely met her sister — who we all know is seeking the Grand Slam.
“I just wanted to be aggressive, which is my style of game,” she told the press. “[Bencic] definitely picked up her level, leading a break and pretty poised for taking the second. But it’s not over till it’s over.”
At the Rogers Cup, Bencic upset the World No. 1 in the semifinals, denying her of a title defense. On top of that, the Swiss sensation went on to capture her first WTA Premier 5 title, gaining confidence as the last major tournament of the year quickly approached.
“Whoever is across the net, I want to win,” the two-time champion continues, when asked if the victory over Bencic was at all “sweet.”
“Whoever that person is, that’s the day I want to win.”
Now 4-0 against Bencic, the elder Williams is yet to drop a set to the WTA Rising Star.
Venus Williams is 35, and has been on tour for over 20 years. Bencic was born six months after Williams made her New York debut in 1997, where she lost in the final to Martina Hingis, whose family went on to coach Bencic herself.
“At that point it’s pretty fun because you don’t think so much,” the former No. 1 said, comparing the level of fun then and now. “You just go for it — for everything. You mess up a lot, so that’s frustrating, too. But it’s all new.”
Not much is new these days, at least as far as her tennis career is concerned. Yet she’s advanced to the round of 16 for the first time in New York since 2010 — when she was edged out of the tournament in the semifinal.
When asked about her progress at the US Open: “It’s not new. It’s always exciting.”
She’s self-deprecating — a wonderful quality to see unfold. She makes herself laugh about her age, her career, and her impact on tennis.
“I used to always win in the early days!”
And about playing her sister, she smiled: “Yeah, first match was probably in 1990, so it’s been a minute.”
And about their impact on the game? “It’s not something I think about every day. Wake up, brush my teeth, look in the mirror, like, What has my impact been?”
Yet she remains very aware of her influence.
“You try and live in the moment and do your best,” she said. “It’s sometimes hard to step out of yourself and see a bigger picture. But clearly, yes, it’s thrilling and it’s an honor to be part of something bigger than your own self.”
Althea Gibson lead the way for women of color in tennis. Gibson won the French Open in 1956 — the first black woman to do so. She won Wimbledon and the US Open the next year, and repeated these victories in 1958. In total, she won 11 Grand Slam titles. She is also a venerated member of The International Tennis Hall of Fame.
“For me, it’s not necessarily about progress, men or women,” Williams said.
Her grasp of the expanse of multi-cultural tennis is obviously beyond notions raised in the decades during and after Gibson’s breakthrough. She seems to have transformed the discussion of black versus white in tennis, to one of a sporting universe populated by diverse nationalities and skin tones.
We’ve come a long way baby.
The tennis ball is neutral. It doesn’t know who’s hitting it. And with matches won on the narrowest of margins, a winner can raise the level of competition and awareness in a heart beat. Belinda Bencic is an example of that. And the fact that this year’s women’s singles final sold out in advance of the men’s singles final is yet another example.
Williams does, though, show her age. Her movement has slowed and her knowledge of how to navigate the electronic universe may not be as sharp as, let’s say, Benicic’s.
Asked if she watches footage from her early years, she said, “Obviously, I haven’t seen a lot or a ton of footage from that time. I don’t know how easy it is to find.”
Regardless, her experience has helped develop strategies and tactics, and a keen mental attitude on court. Against Bencic, it probably was as a simple as finish the match in two sets. To meet that goal, she rattled off the last five games to win.
In her previous two rounds, she’d played three-set matches. At 35, it’s best to save some energy for next week.
Another teenager, at 19, awaits wise Venus on Sunday — Anett Kontaveit. A qualifier from Estonia ranked No. 152, she is playing in her very first US Open main draw. She upset No. 31 seed, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 7-5, 6-4, as well as American Madison Brengle, 6-2, 3-6, 6-0,
If she does progress to the quarterfinal, her sister could be waiting. They have met 26 times.
The first meeting was in 1998 at the Australian Open, which she won.
But their 2001 final at the US Open will forever remain a benchmark. As the defending champion, elder sister repeated her victory in front of a packed night crowd on Arthur Ashe Stadium. The popularity of the sisters forced CBS to schedule the women’s final for the first time in prime time — 8 PM, Saturday.
It was the first US Open final between sisters and the first anywhere since Wimbledon in 1884.
“If I was the younger sister, maybe I’d feel more joyful,” she said at the time. “If I was playing a different opponent, I’d probably be a lot more joyful. But, I’m happy to have won the US Open again.”
With two US Opens to her sister’s six, after 26 head-to-heads, can either completely put out of their mind who’s across the net? Probably not. But we will never know. They are the consummate competitors that lead the sport for both genders.
Ask yourself: what would Venus do?
Her courage would block the mess the occasion could become in her mind. She’s a professional. This is her 20th US Open.