Who could have imagined that when Venus Williams, then 17, met sister Serena, 16, in the round of 64 at the 1998 Australian Open, it was the beginning of two decades of legendary careers.
And who could have imagined those careers could still be in full flight 20 years later and they would be meeting each other again for a 30th time.
The two sisters, Venus, now 38, and Serena, 36, take the stage on Friday night in Ashe Stadium in a third-round match of the U.S. Open that will have as much glamour as an Open final. They have defeated time as soundly as they have defeated their opponents.
“I think that part is really remarkable,” Serena said on Wednesday night after she defeated Carina Witthoeft. “I never would have thought that we would still be playing professional.”
Serena has 23 Grand Slam titles and Venus seven. Serena’s last Slam title was the 2017 Australian Open, where she beat Venus in the final. Venus said the newly pregnant Serena had an advantage, that “it was two against one.”
The sisters are usually taciturn when asked about a rivalry, and Venus skipped over the topic after she defeated Camila Giorgi on Wednesday. Serena, who returned to the game in March at Indian Wells after a 14-month maternity leave (losing to Venus), was fairly expansive.
“The best part is we bring out the best in each other,” Serena said. “I know when I play her, I have to play some of my best tennis. She does, too. It propels us to continue to play that for the tournament. It sets a tone for us. 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.”
This will be the 16th time the sisters have met in a Grand Slam, where Serena holds a 10-5 advantage. The last time Venus beat her in a Slam final was Wimbledon in 2008, which is also the last time Venus won a Slam. It’s the sixth time they’ve met at Flushing Meadows, where Serena holds a 3-2 advantage, and she holds the overall advantage at 17-12.
They first met at the Open in the 2001 final that Venus won, 6-2, 6-4, the second of her two consecutive Open victories. Serena beat Venus in the final the next year. Venus won in the round of 16 in 2005 and Serena won the last two, in the quarterfinals in 2008 and 2015.
This is the earliest the two have met in a Grand Slam since that 1998 Australian, a product of the fact that Venus is seeded 16th and Serena was given a 17th seed by the USTA even though she is 26th in the world rankings.
Not all of their matches have been stellar, but Serena proffered that they brought out the best in each other. “We make each other better,” she said. “We bring out the best when we play each other. It's what we do.”
For Serena, familiarity requires a bit of reinvention. “She also knows my game really well. It's really interesting to play someone that knows,” she said. “You have to almost become a different player, which is another challenge, as well. I think that's also something that helps her.”
They will have the tennis world watching, particularly their peers.
“Definitely I'm going to watch this match,” Elina Svitolina said. “It's always, you know, big clash of two legends. I have lots of respect for both of them.”
“I think everybody loves to watch them playing each other,” Juan Martin del Potro said. “They create a special atmosphere every time. When I was a kid, I loved to watch both of them playing for finals of Grand Slams.”
The Ashe Stadium crowd will root for the rivalry as much as the player.
“I never root against her, no matter what,” Serena said. “So I think that's the toughest part 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. I think that's just the hardest part.”
Serena has a 3-2 advantage on Venus in their five U.S. Open matches:
Year Round Result
2001 Final Venus, 6-2, 6-4
2002 Final Serena, 6-4, 6-3
2005 R16 Venus, 7-6 (5), 6-2
2008 Quarters Serena, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (7)
2015 Quarters Serena, 6-2, 1-6, 6-3