When they were young, they would dream about the future, and they would tell each other which Grand Slam tennis championship they wanted to win.
Venus Williams would always say Wimbledon. Her younger sister, Serena, would always say the U.S. Open.
As they reached their mid-teen years, they had emerged as two of the nation's top players. After turning pro, Serena, two years younger than Venus, made a swift climb up the rankings. In 1997, she moved from 453rd to 99th. The next year, she won a pair of Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. Then, in the spring of 1999, she went on a dizzying 16-match rampage in which she won titles in Paris and Indian Wells, Calif., and advanced to an all-Williams sisters final at the Lipton Championships.
But neither sister had captured any of the "big" tournaments, the Grand Slam events. They would advance deep into tournaments. They would display their sheer power and athleticism. They illustrated how they were soon going to dominate the circuit. But that time had not arrived.
Until September 11, 1999.
The U.S Open, Flushing Meadow, New York, Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Venus and Serena are breezing along toward another all-sister final. It was always assumed that Venus, the older sister, would be the one to capture a Grand Slam title first, before her younger sister. But Venus gets bumped out of the tournament in the semifinals by No. 1 ranked Martina Hingis. Serena, however, dethrones the Open's defending champion, Lindsay Davenport, in the semis to advance to the championship match of the tournament she wants to capture more than any other on the Grand Slam circuit.
The title match begins, Serena Williams vs. Martina Hingis. The seventh-seeded Williams dominates from the start, using her racquet like a hammer to stun and paralyze Hingis. Williams plays a dynamic first set, winning the set 6-3.
"I was always on the defensive," Hingis would tell the media later.
As Williams moves toward history at Arthur Ashe Stadium, fans of every race, age and gender are screaming, waving their fists and jumping up and down.
At 5-3 in the second set, Williams is ready to secure the title. But she tenses up and blows her first match point with a wild backhand that veers wide. Then she nets a backhand return, losing a second match point.
"After I lost those two match points, I was very upset with myself," Williams would say afterwards to the media. "I thought for sure I was going to hold serve. I was like, 'Serena, this can't happen. Think positive.' There comes a time when you just have to stop caving. I told myself, 'You're going to have to perform, period.'"
The momentum in the match is now drastically changing. Williams' legs suddenly become weak. Her serve begins to misfire. She begins to lose her composure and her confidence. Meanwhile, Hingis feels reborn. She starts keeping the ball in play, prolonging rallies as she realizes that the closer Williams gets to the title, the more nervous and mistake prone she becomes.
Hingis, who at age 18 is already a Grand Slam veteran, pushes the match to an emotional tiebreaker. Up in the stands, Williams' mother drops her head, dejectedly. "She looked more down than I've ever seen her before," Serena would say later.
As the two young titans battle furiously in the tiebreaker, matching wills and wits, the stadium goes wild on each and every point. Stadium workers leave their stations behind the stands to watch the match, sitting in the aisles.
"It was a test of willpower," Hingis would say later. "We were so tired, we were on our knees. We were almost too tired to come to the net."
Williams takes a 6-4 lead in the tiebreaker, giving her two more match points. On the first one, Hingis attempts a two-handed backhand. Williams senses the ball is going long, but not taking any chances, she races back with her racket in front of her, urging the ball to go long. Preparing to pounce on the ball, Williams hesitates. The ball drops out. The match is over. Williams is the U.S. Open champion. She immediately buckles over, stunned by the enormity of her accomplishment. She has become the only African American woman to win this championship besides Althea Gibson, who won in 1957 and '58.
Williams begins screaming, "Oh my God, Oh my God!" She clasps her face in her hands then on her heart and looks around the jam-packed stadium in shock and amazement. "I'm thinking, 'Should I scream? Should I cry? What should I do?'" She ends up doing both.
She then hops on a chair to kiss her mother in the stands. Serena's father, Richard, his eyes closed and his arms raised to the heavens, is speechless. He dashes out of his seat in his private box. "This is my proudest moment," he would later tell the media in an emotional interview, his eyes red from tears. "Words cannot express how I'm feeling."
Tears stream down the face of former top-10 player Zina Garrison, who had long carried the burden of being one of few African Americans in tennis. Standing in their uniforms and grease-stained smocks, the stadium's workers begin hugging and high-fiving each other, as Williams accepts the championship trophy.