NEW YORK -- It was 1992 and Venus Williams was at least a head taller than her 11-year-old sister Serena. The camera crew from Trans World Sport asked her what she wanted to do if she couldn't play tennis. Venus said she wanted to be an archaeologist because she liked dinosaur bones and Indian civilizations.
The family had already moved to Florida at the Rick Macci Tennis Academy, but there was nothing guarded about any of them, not even their father, Richard Williams. Interviewers asked him about his daughters. He said someday his daughters will play in a Grand Slam final. He described them as champions, adding that Serena was like a pit bull.
"Serena probably is the better player than Venus," Richard said. "That's not to compare my girls, but she probably will be."
There you are, age 12 and still with a dreamy interest in paleontology, and the man who knows your game best has already declared your little sister the better player for all time. In the early years after they turned pro, the results didn't match the father's prediction. Venus won four out of the first five matches they played on the WTA Tour. Venus even won the first Grand Slam final matchup when it came at the 2001 US Open.
Venus did become a great champion, but soon it was clear to everyone even outside the circle of trust that her little sister was better. That's where it stands now, as No. 23 Venus and No. 1 Serena prepare to meet in a US Open quarterfinal on Tuesday, and this time Venus will be standing between her little sister and a calendar Grand Slam, her 22nd Grand Slam title and a few more notes in the US Open record book.
"Even though you're playing your sister you have to be prepared and focus," Venus said joylessly. "The preparation doesn't change."
Were 35-year-old Venus any other tennis player, one unattached to the powerful apocryphal story of her family's emergence from poverty to success, she would have been a formidable name in her own right. Venus Jones or Venus Smith or Venus Rasmussen might have a legacy of her own, not one that comes in a package, or worse as footnote to her younger sister's greatness.
*Oh, and the other one was pretty good, too.
"The thing I always admire about her is the gracious way she stepped aside and let her little sister soak up the attention," former tennis champion and current analyst Chris Evert said. "Soaking in the fact that her little sister is more successful and being proud of her and supportive of her. When it's not the normal pecking order, every older sibling feels they should be better than their younger sibling. I respect that a lot."
It could not have been easy. After losing that 2001 US Open, Serena reeled off six straight wins in meetings against Venus -- including beating her in the final of four consecutive Grand Slam event from 2002 to 2003. That Serena Slam? Venus has the runner-up hardware from the French Open to the Australian.
"Venus deserves a lot of credit because she emotionally accepted this way better than I would've, I'm sure," John McEnroe said.
(We're all sure, John.)
Their matches can be boring, or their matches have all the wrong kind of tension -- the tension between family connections and competitive rigor. And as much as comparing a person to an animal is unpalatable, that's probably what Richard Williams was talking about when she said Serena just doesn't let go once she has something, like those tenacious terriers.
Serena has won six of the past eight matches against Venus, but on Tuesday the top seed can't take anything for granted. Venus played well against Anett Kontaveit on Sunday, while Serena has had moments when she struggled at this year's tournament.
"I'm playing, for me, the best player in the tournament, and that's never easy," Serena said. "She's beaten me so many times. I've taken a lot of losses off of her -- more than anybody. Yeah, she's a player that knows how to win, knows how to beat me, and knows my weaknesses better than anyone. So it's not an easy match at all."
The most recent match was at Wimbledon. Although it wasn't a final, Venus has had a hand in this Serena Slam as well. These matches have not been walkovers. There are tie-breaks and third sets among them, and it would be difficult to tarnish their matches with the accusation that they aren't each trying to win. They just might not revel in the process.
"We both know the draw so we are both prepared to play each other in case we both play well," Venus said. "It doesn't always happen, but sometimes it does. Then we go."
And now, for the 27th time in their careers, they go.