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Venus, Serena, and the Power of Believing

On Saturday, another chapter in the best story in the history of sports—no qualifiers necessary—will be written when Serena and Venus Williams face off in the final of the Australian Open.

by Lindsay Gibbs
Jan 27 2017, 3:10pm

Martin Richard/Presse Sports via USA TODAY NETWORK

On Saturday, another chapter in the best story in the history of sports—no qualifiers necessary—will be written when Serena and Venus Williams face off in the final of the Australian Open.

This meeting, which takes place 19 years after they first faced off as professionals in the second round of the same tournament, and approximately 31 years since their father, Richard Williams, started teaching them tennis on the public courts in Compton, will be their 28th.

By now, their story is familiar to almost everyone. After seeing a women's tennis tournament on television and noting the prize money available, Richard studied the sport, wrote up a 78-page training plan, and started crafting the games of two of the best champions tennis has ever seen. Long before either sister had ever earned a WTA ranking point, he famously predicted that they would both be No. 1 in the world and win many major titles, and he was right.

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That belief in their greatness—the unwavering trust that Serena and Venus both have the talent and the work ethic and the mental toughness to repeatedly win the most prestigious tournaments in the world—has carried the pair through the many inevitable injuries, rivalries, errors, and losses that have spotted their careers. It's the glue that holds them together, the bungee cord that keeps them tethered to the top of this unrelenting, unforgiving, unpredictable sport.

It's what allowed Serena to come back after a horrible foot injury and pulmonary embolism kept her off the tour for almost a year in 2010-11 to win nine more majors (and counting) in her 30s; and it's what kept Venus coming back to the sport after she was diagnosed with the energy-sapping autoimmune disease Sjogren's Syndrome in 2011. That year marked the first time in her 15-year career when Venus didn't reach at least the quarterfinals of a major; in 12 of those years, she'd reached at least the semis of a major.

It took Venus four years to make it back to the quarters of a Grand Slam, which she finally did at the 2015 U.S. Open, and five years to make it back to the semis, which she did last year at Wimbledon. Now, nine years after winning her seventh major and eight years making her last major final—both at Wimbledon, and, notably, against her sister—Venus has finally clawed her way back to the pinnacle at the age of 36. She is the oldest woman in the WTA top 100; Serena, a spry 35, is merely the third oldest.

There's something uncomfortable about watching great champions look like shadows of their former selves, and throughout the past six years, every single Venus press conference has echoed with thinly veiled exasperations of, Why are you still here?

Venus, tethered as she was, always knew exactly why.

Venus is here to win. Photo by Martin Richard/Presse Sports via USA TODAY NETWORK

"I want to win Grand Slams," she told the press after a heartbreakingly close loss to two-time champion Petra Kvitova in the third round of Wimbledon back in 2014. "Everybody does. You don't get 'em. Look at what happened today. No one gives it to you. They snatch it away and say, 'Mine.' That's what I'll have to do is snatch it, say, 'Mine,' too, growl if need be.

"That's what it takes."

At the Australian Open, she has done exactly that—in fact, I'm pretty sure there was a literal growl in the second set of her semifinal against CoCo Vandeweghe. To win it all, she's going to have to snatch it from her toughest rival and best friend, who just happens to be the greatest tennis player of all time.

There's no way to separate Venus and Serena's stories, and there's no way we would have gotten one without the other. There is no doubt that they pushed each other to far greater heights than they would have reached alone. But Serena has also been a constant thorn in her big sister's side in high-stakes matches.

Overall, Serena leads the head-to-head 16-11, and she has a 6-2 edge in Grand Slam finals. In 2015, when Venus looked to finally be recapturing her elite form, she ran into Serena at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and was defeated in tight matches in the fourth round and quarterfinals, respectively.

Serena is the favorite in this match as well. She's going for her 23rd major title, which will put her above Steffi Graf on the list of most majors in the Open Era, and one behind Margaret Court for the most majors in any era, period. She's also looking to win her seventh Australian Open and reclaim the No. 1 ranking that Angelique Kerber snatched away from her last fall. It's probable that Serena will leave Melbourne with as many Australian Open titles as Venus has Slams.

Of course, the beauty in sport is that we never truly know what is going to happen when the two players step on the court. And nobody understands that beauty more than Venus, who perhaps described it better than anyone ever has in her press conference on Thursday:

What I will say about sport, I think why people love sport so much, is because you see everything in a line. In that moment there is no do-over, there's no retake, there is no voice-over. It's triumph and disaster witnessed in real-time. This is why people live and die for sport, because you can't fake it. You can't. It's either you do it or you don't.

People relate to the champion. They also relate to the person also who didn't win because we all have those moments in our life.

Both Williams Sisters have achieved stratospheric levels of success that most of us will never be able to relate to. But Venus's results this fortnight and perseverance over the past few years serve as a beacon of hope for anyone who has lost a few more times than they've won, whose down moments have felt endless, who has watched those closest to them attract success like a magnet as you lingered in the background, going through the same motions without any of the same results. This is, perhaps, the most improbable and inspiring chapter of the story yet.

Yet on Saturday, the most constant thread in the narrative will still be present. When Serena and Venus walk onto the court, they'll both believe they deserve that trophy, and they'll both believe that they can win it. They'll both be right.

Their story has always been unbelievable, to everyone but them.

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