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GOAT debate over: Serena Williams and everyone else

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Serena on the significance of 23rd title (1:23)

Serena Williams discusses how bad she wanted to win her 23rd Grand Slam singles title to pass Steffi Graf for the most in the Open era. (1:23)

MELBOURNE, Australia -- If anyone still dared to argue anymore, even in private company, that Serena Williams and Steffi Graf both remained in the running for best female tennis player ever before this match, this history-making night at the Australian Open should quash any whisper of that debate, from the barbershops in Compton, California, all the way to the beer halls lining the town squares in Graf's German hometown of Mannheim, and everywhere in between. That discussion is over. Now and forever.

Williams made that unimpeachably official Saturday night in Melbourne, when she broke a tie with Graf and seized the 23rd Grand Slam singles title of her career, a record for men or women in the Open era. And there was something fitting about the way Williams accomplished it, with her 36-year-old sister, Venus, across the net for the ninth Slam finals meeting of their career. It drove Serena to yet another pinnacle -- making Venus feel she was never able to relax -- on the way to an emotional 6-4, 6-4 win that also restored 35-year-old Serena to the No. 1 ranking in the world and established her as the oldest woman ever to win a major.

"We're both 30-fun, in our mid-30-funs," Serena said jokingly about herself and Venus in an ESPN television interview after the match, adding that she'd like the two of them to reconvene here same time next year, because this is where their Slam encounters started.

Serena noted that so much extra seemed to be on the line in this match. Venus was trying for her eighth Slam title, but her first since 2008, while Serena was trying to break that tie with Graf. Yet this 28th meeting of theirs still felt somehow different and less fraught.

"I felt like it was more just a celebration for everything we've done in sports, everything we've done for women, everything we've tried to do to inspire people," Serena said of the 19 years she and Venus have now been on tour together. "This was my first Slam. My first big match against Venus was right here on this stadium court. ... I felt like everything had really come full circle."

Sports have been made better by the remarkable things the Williams sisters have accomplished as a duo, not just individually. But it would be wrong to confine their influence to just tennis. On their way to elevating the game in every way -- with their brains and power and athleticism, their enduring class and varied offcourt interests, their groundbreaking status as African-American champions -- the Williams sisters have written a story that strains belief.

"I don't think we're going for the greatest story in sports; we're just going for some dreams," Venus said Saturday night. "In the case that we are [among the greatest stories in sports history], what an honor, what an honor."

Like the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal title match that will follow on Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night in Melbourne, nobody expected another of these all-Williams encounters when the Australian Open started a fortnight ago.

Serena's presence in any final is never a surprise. But 13th-ranked Venus arrived nursing a right elbow injury. She hadn't been in a major final since 2009 and hadn't won a Slam since beating Serena for the 2008 Wimbledon crown. Since 2011, when she first revealed she'd been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called Sjogren's Syndrome, which forced her to withdraw from the US Open, she's gone through some lean times by her previous standards. It's easy to forget now just how monumental of a climb back it's been for Venus after she took a seven-month layoff at the time.

Serena said here that there was a time when Venus wasn't even sure she'd be able to stay on tour. Once back, Venus still battled unpredictable symptoms like chronic fatigue and joint pain. She not only had to accept Serena was quickly better than her, she had to accept she wasn't even her old self, either. She lost in the first week of every major she played between 2012 and 2014. But she never gave up. She was once No. 1 in the world but didn't even crack the top 10 again until 2015, four years after her diagnosis. She adjusted by deciding to celebrate every victory like it was a final.

Serena -- who frequently reminds everyone, "I was there for all of it" -- says Venus continues to astound her, even if Venus is less impressed with herself.

She'll admit she had to change some of her thinking. But she insists she never changed her ambitions.

"Who goes into the year and says, 'Oh, my God, it's not going to be a good year?' Who says that? Not me," Venus said almost defiantly Saturday night. "I feel I played very well this week, pulled a lot of things out of my pocket.

"I got more stuff in my pocket," she promised.

Serena does, too.

When asked about those 20 weeks she didn't spend at No. 1 after Angelique Kerber took over the top spot by winning last year's Open, Serena laughed and said, "Something about not being top dog gives me [a feeling] like, 'Ugh, I gotta get there again. ... It just makes me even hungrier. I love that."

A hungrier, better, more determined Serena? And a rejuvenated Venus?

"That's my little sister, you guys," Venus proudly told the crowd after she and Serena shared a long postmatch hug at the net and received their trophies.

"Playing Venus, it's stuff legends are made of," Serena said. "There's no way I would be at 23 without her. There's no way I'd have won one without her. Tonight, it really didn't matter who won.

"The name Williams is on the trophy."