Is it too early for fans of the Williams sisters to begin obsessing over a quarterfinal clash at Stanford between Venus and her baby sister, Serena? They’re one match removed from rekindling one of the weirdest, most frustrating, least loved (by them) and yet most historic rivalries in tennis.
The sisters have met only once since they clashed in the WTA tour championships back in 2009, and that was over a year ago at the modest green-clay tournament in Charleston. But each of the women faces a significant stumbling block before they would have to play a match neither of them has enjoyed despite having had two dozen opportunities to make their peace with it. Serena currently leads the sororal rivalry 14-10.
But for the sisters to meet, Serena will have to eliminate Ana Ivanovic, and Venus will need to get by resurgent German Andrea Petkovic. As recently as a year ago, you could reasonably expect Serena to overpower that former No. 1 Ivanovic, whose game lacks the heft of Serena’s.
But surprise, surprise -- Serena has had a tough year so far, particularly in Grand Slam events. And it was Ivanovic who launched the trend, taking top-seeded Serena down in the fourth round of the Australian Open. Both women have been ranked No. 1, and both are Grand Slam champs. (OK, Serena has 16 more than Ana, but never mind.) And Ivanovic will have even greater motivation because, with Li Na pulling the plug through at least the US Open, Ivanovic has a great shot at getting back into the top 10 for the first time since May 2009.
Venus’s obstacle is no Grand Slam champ. The closest Petkovic has come to a Grand Slam singles trophy was walking past the guy polishing it up in Paris a few months ago. But the injury-prone, free-spirited German has rocketed back up to No. 18, and besides making the semifinals of the French Open (losing to Simona Halep), she was a recent winner at Bad Gastein. Raw-boned, naturally strong and fit, Petkovic is blessed with a big personality as well as good intentions. Petkovic won’t be intimidated by the Williams aura, either, so expect Venus to have her hands full.
Going on the evidence Thursday night, it doesn’t appear that Serena would be a lock to win against her big sister, who in years past had been suspected of rolling over for her younger sibling. True, Venus is 34 years old now (roughly 2 years older than Serena), but she appears to have wrestled down whatever doubts, inhibitions or ailments had been cramping her style. Venus is having an excellent year. She won in Dubai, and at her beloved Wimbledon, Venus took eventual champ Petra Kvitova the full three-set distance in one of the best matches of the entire tournament.
Venus is not just playing well; she appears to be wholly committed to the effort. She’s ripping serves, running like a gazelle and blasting forehands with the kind of authority and consistency we haven’t witnessed in a long time. The remote stare and that curious state suggesting supreme disinterest that we sometimes saw in recent years isn’t evident now.
In her win over Victoria Azarenka on Thursday night, Venus did something that for her has been truly unusual in the recent past: She stepped up her game a notch late in the struggle, when it was vital for her to do so. Instead of watching her run out of energy, as we had time and again in the past, we saw her come on strong and yank the match out of Azarenka’s hands.
Serena has had a rough and, in some ways, strange year. The last thing she needs at this point, as she tries to rally for her last shot at a Grand Slam this year, is the complication of another match with Venus. But it may be just what she gets. And that should be enough to make you stay tuned.