DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- When the tennis world was first introduced to the Williams sisters, they were two smiling kids barely into their teens.
They sported identical hairdos of endless rows of beads that clanked together as they moved along. It became their early signature style. The two youngest in the family (Serena was born 15 months after Venus), they were always together, always laughing, always bold beyond their years. They never shied away from attention and almost immediately issued an important message: They were on the verge of conquering the tennis world.
And although their serious intonation seemed out of place for a nascent tennis career, any doubts about the resolve of the Williams sisters were put to rest the minute we saw them hit balls. These two sisters, coming out of the most unlikely community of Compton, Calif., were about to embark on a glorious career.
They've more than lived up to their early promise, and they've dominated the game. The Williams era has thus far secured an impressive collection. At 32, Serena has collected 17 Grand Slam titles, and at 33, Venus' seven include five from Wimbledon. And both have been privileged to be ranked No. 1, which happens to be where Serena is currently situated.
From the minute they arrived, those around the game started to clump the inseparable sisters together as if they were the same person -- you never talked about Venus without speaking of Serena.
But as the years have gone by, they've blossomed into distinctly different personalities. And though there's no mistaking that the sisterly bond is intact, it's clear they do live separate lives. Nowadays, it's easy to see they come from the same garden, but they're indeed very different flowers.
"Our relationship has definitely changed," said Serena, sitting in the players lounge at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships last week. "I feel like we're a little bit more mature now. When we were younger, we talked about a lot of fun things and silly things. Now we talk about a lot of fun things and silly things, but we do a lot more business and serious things, as well."
Both seem to agree that the evolution of their relationship is more directly an outgrowth of Serena growing up. Natural changes were part of that, while another factor was Serena's life-threatening pulmonary embolism, suffered in April 2011.
"I think a big difference is that Serena's grown up a lot and has become more and more of her own person," said Venus while grabbing a late -- and light -- vegan-approved dinner after her match in Dubai. "She is the youngest of five, and when you're the youngest of five you want to be like all the oldest ones. Especially in the last two years, she's been able to become her own person and really be her own self. I'm really proud of her."
For Serena, the "little sister wanting to emulate an older sister" mentality came with a particularly difficult stress factor that she had no control over.
"I never wanted anything else but to be Venus, which I see now is kind of pathetic," said Serena, laughing. "When I didn't copy Venus, I copied my other sister Lyn. I'm just a copycat." This is where Serena became serious: "We didn't fight -- we weren't allowed to fight -- that was a rule in the house. But I remember the only thing I didn't like was my body image. We always used to be the same, same, same, same, and then I changed and she was always the same. It's not something I didn't like about her, but that I was definitely envious of as a teenager."
It took her time to get over, but Serena now accepts she's not a wiry 6-foot-1 figure like Venus.
"Oh yes, I'm happy now. Oh God, curvy is in. I'm in style now," she said, smiling. "She's out of style, and I'm in style."
The togetherness factor has also taken a hit as they've pursued different paths and lifestyles.
Although they still share a home base in Palm Beach, Fla., Venus spends the majority of her time off the tour at their residence. She also was there for a much more extended period of time when her battle with Sjogren's syndrome in the past few years kept her frequently sidelined.
Serena has properties in California and Paris, and she frequents the Paris pad most often since becoming attached to well-known tennis coach Patrick Mouratoglou after a 2012 French Open first-round upset.
Serena said she and Venus "used to spend a lot more time together. I think that's a little bit my fault since I'm training so much in France. When I am home [in Florida] she's living at her office [her V Starr Interiors company]. You've got to give a little, take a little. I do miss hanging out and being with her often. When we're home, we really like being together. We sit on the couch, watch TV, and I'm always trying to feed her because I love to cook."
Although Serena has no interest in partnering with Venus in her interior design firm, the younger sister does prefer to decorate her own homes without any help.
"I never use her because she doesn't like my style," Serena admitted. "I literally do it myself. My style, well, I would've lived great with Louis XIV -- super-old, super-traditional, super-classic. Venus says I'm so boring and yuck."
As for Venus, she's discovered as she's gotten older an affinity for more modern, sleek-lined styles.
Despite the fact they're no longer always together, Venus insisted, "I never feel far away from her."
Serena wanted to emphasize that no matter how they have developed into being their own people, she's confident they will always be nearby after their tennis days conclude.
"When we settle down -- if we settle down -- we'll still be close to each other," Serena said. "That's when I'll get to know my sister even better and get to spend even more time with her."