Serena, Venus and the Williams movement

This story appears in the Feb. 27 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

You watch the protests. You hear them outside your window in your small town and watch them on TV, millions marching across the globe on Jan. 21.

You talk with a man you've known since the 11th grade -- white, respectable, of unremarkable wealth or accomplishment yet carrying a learned smugness, completely secure in the legitimacy of his status -- who you discover is offended more by the vulgarity of the protest signs than the vulgarity that created them. Fortified by the protections and perks of maleness in perpetuity, he speaks of the women as a minor inconvenience, a moth on his tweed.

"It was a moment, not a movement," he tells you. "It changed nothing."

You know this comment, after a lifetime of diminishment, should carry no value, and yet it remains inside you, eats at you. During this same conversation, he tells you of his "loss of respect" for civil rights icon John Lewis, and you know then that this person you've known for decades is not only talking about the women marching. He's talking about you too.

You watch the Australian Open championship final between Venus and Serena Williams with this tumult in mind, and when Venus' ball lands in the doubles alley and Serena becomes a champion again, "It was a moment, not a movement" rises up like bile, and you wonder if the day will ever come when the presence of Venus and Serena will not feel like defiance. But you know better. It will not.

You see the hug at the net and the tears of the fans. The humanity of it all. You want to trust that this breathtaking show of respect for these two champions is part of the natural ritual of sports -- swords falling as the twilight nears, ceremonial respect for the athlete's journey becoming a final, unifying act -- but you cannot shake the slights. The latest occurred during her second-round match against Stefanie Voegele, with the way ESPN commentator Doug Adler described Venus' strategy in attacking the second serve. Adler said he was referring to the word "guerrilla" when talking about how she moved to the net, but after all the years when Venus and Serena have had their looks and sexuality questioned, the clarification is unconvincing. Gorillas charge, guerrillas sneak-attack.

You watch the final, and if you have eyes and a heart, you see just how different and difficult and brilliant these matches really are. You see Serena turn her back to her sister after a point to show her emotion; against any other opponent, that emotion would not be so cloaked. She will scream "COME ON!" at Victoria Azarenka, but she will not embarrass her sister. You see Venus, overmatched but knowing she is playing at a championship level against any other opponent but her sister, flashing the resolve of a legend but resigned to grace in defeat --partially. During her runner-up speech, she reminds the audience of her pride of family. "Serena Williams, that's my little sister, guys," Venus says. She receives compliments for being gracious and elegant; she is both elegant and protective. Even in their finals, it was never one against the other, but two against everyone.

You see the enormous pressure the sisters put on each other with their serves because they know a weak serve will be a pummeled one. As you watch the 24-shot second-set rally, you realize the legacy of Venus and Serena cannot be located in either of their trophy cases or in the tired, confining narratives of mentioning their influence only when a new young black girl hits the scene. Their legacy is in 6-foot-2, all-legs-and-power Maria Sharapova; 6-foot, all-legs-and-power Garbine Muguruza; in the devastating cross-court forehand of 6-1 CoCo Vandeweghe. Their legacy stands in all of the athletic big hitters who now define the women's game. The Williams sisters are the measure of the women's game, and if you can't hit with them, you can't play. Venus and Serena, somewhat sadly, have forever diminished the championship hopes of the waifish and the crafty, the Agnieszka Radwanskas and Carla Suarez Navarros, who before the arrival of the sisters might very well have held up multiple Grand Slam trophies. There will be youngsters weeded out of the game earlier because they lack the power unnecessary in 1987 but critical in 2017. You see a sport revolutionized; you see not just generations of black girls but the wealth of Eastern Europeans who now inhabit the sport. You see legacy in action.

You also see the patriarchy step on the Williamses even when it wants to share the sunshine. Even when it blows them kisses. Serena, in victory, thanked the crowd for its fervor, the tournament for its professionalism, her sister for their blood and her team for their commitment -- but not her new fiancé, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, an omission that was mentioned often by broadcasters. In your mind, you flip through the victory speeches you've heard and try to remember a moment when Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray was chastised for not mentioning his spouse or girlfriend by name. You can find none.

Throughout the fortnight, as the prospect of an all-Williams final creeps toward reality, you hear only one person, the legend Chris Evert, give credit to Richard Williams, the father who had a vision for his daughters that was ridiculed for the overwhelming majority of their story. Richard was the lens through which the sisters were viewed inside and out of the game, the head of the family that didn't belong, until the championship trophies and gold medals were piled so high the critics finally had to surrender.

You remember the first time you really spoke to Richard Williams, in June 2012, at Wimbledon, when he smoked those skinny cigarettes, when it was just the two of you on the deck between the players area and media center, when he told you players should spend less time on the court and more time learning geometry because tennis really is a game of angles, as every opponent of Serena's has discovered the hard way. He talked about his daughters, and about the family not being wanted by the blue bloods of tennis, and you knew by the way his eyes drew sharper, fixed on you -- older black man to younger one in the United Kingdom -- that he was really talking about the American blueprint for anyone who isn't white, how you don't get to be smug because you're not protected by perks in perpetuity, that you never get to be so secure in the legitimacy of your status that you can determine for other people what is a movement and what is a moment.

"There was only one way: Win," Richard Williams said, and when the sisters are standing on the podium in Melbourne, you see their excellence triumph once again, their blood vindicated, as a family. "Win and make them deal with us. Win and they have to give you a seat at the table, even if they don't want you there."