Why the upcoming Serena-Venus match at Indian Wells means more than a tennis result

Venus and Serena Williams speak on gearing up to face one another in the third round of the Indian Wells Open.

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- From the moment the draw was released, we knew this matchup was possible. After watching an unseeded Serena Williams will herself to a first-round win at Indian Wells on Thursday, improving her game with each groundstroke, it seemed even more likely. Then on Saturday, Venus and Serena won back-to-back second-round matches and set up the inevitable: the 29th Williams sister matchup since their first meeting 20 years ago.

"Obviously, I wish it was anybody else in the draw," Serena said after her win against Kiki Bertens. "I think it's a huge difference to play [Venus] in the semifinals or a final as opposed to the third round. Having to play each other in the third round, one of us is going to be gone."

 The moment Serena won the final point to finish off Bertens 7-6 (5), 7-5, the tennis world was abuzz with what the win meant: that only three matches into her return to tennis after a nearly 14-month maternity leave, she would face Venus in the earliest round the sisters have played each other since their very first matchup, in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open.

  But the meaning in Monday's encounter is more than a box score. Its significance, instead, is symbolic. The sisters will walk onto center court at Indian Wells on Monday night, 17 years after their semifinal match that never took place here and only a few years after finding the strength to forgive and forget and return to this tournament.

"That's, you know, totally gone out of my mind," Serena said Saturday. "Seventeen years seems like forever ago."

  It's difficult to believe an event Serena has called "one of the darkest moments of my career" is not on her mind each time she walks onto the court at Indian Wells. In 2001, Serena and Venus were slated to play in the semifinals, but four minutes before the match, Venus withdrew, citing tendinitis in her knee. When Venus and her father, Richard Williams, returned to watch Serena play Kim Clijsters in the final, they were met with boos from the crowd, and according to Richard, they also were attacked with racial slurs. Serena was booed throughout the match, which she eventually won. 

Mike Nelson/EPA

Serena Williams will meet her sister Venus for the 29th time Monday at Indian Wells.

  It took 14 years for Serena to return to play at Indian Wells; Venus returned a year later, in 2016, heartened by the reception her sister received a year earlier. This year, each time the sisters walk onto center court, an announcer greets them by saying, "Welcome home, Serena!" and "Welcome home, Venus!" Fans shout the same greeting from the stands. Everyone is aware of what it took for the Williams sisters to return here and what it means for them to play in this tournament. 

  "Now it's come full circle," ESPN tennis analyst Pam Shriver said. "It's meant to be."

  Just talking tennis, this match holds far less significance, especially when compared to their greatest head-to-head matchups. Venus and Serena have faced each other nine times in Grand Slam finals. When Serena won four straight Slams from 2002 to 2003, a feat coined a "Serena Slam," she beat her sister in all four of those finals. (In fact, Serena beat Venus in five straight Slam finals from 2002 to 2003.) Serena beat Venus to win the 2017 Australian Open and her record 23rd Grand Slam. 

  Two years after their first career matchup, Venus beat Serena again, this time in the semifinals at Wimbledon on the way to her first Grand Slam title. That same year, Venus also won their first meeting in a Grand Slam final, the 2000 US Open.

So many of each woman's greatest achievements have come at the collateral cost of beating her sister. They are two of the greatest champions and arguably represent the greatest rivalry women's tennis has ever seen, but without the other, who knows what either woman would have become. That they are still playing each other at all, at 36 and 37 years old, in any round of any tournament is a remarkable feat on its own.

  "Who else has played each other over 20 years in the professional game?" Shriver said. "To have one player have a 20-year career is crazy, but to have two players from the same family born 15 months apart do what they've done is mind-boggling. At first, I was disappointed [this matchup] was coming so soon, but now I think it's obviously fate."

  It's also an incredible surprise.

"I had no expectations for Serena in this tournament, especially after watching her play in the exhibition and the Fed Cup," Shriver said. "It's already been an amazing first week of a comeback for her, and Venus is the favorite [on Monday]. But Serena is famous for playing her way into shape during tournaments, and how can you ever be surprised by anything she does?"

  Even if she wins on Monday, Serena still has a long road ahead to playing the level of tennis that won her a 23rd Grand Slam title a little more than a year ago. Serena has said multiple times since arriving at Indian Wells that she's not putting much pressure on herself to win matches here, and she's being kind to herself when she makes mistakes.

"I'm going with the flow," she said after her first-round win. "I've never done this before and I know I'm going to make mistakes, and I'm OK with that."

If Monday's match means anything, it proves mistakes are meant to be forgiven.


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