For tennis fans, this past weekend’s Australian Open finals offered two dream matchups: throwback pairings between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the men’s final, and between Venus and Serena Williams in the women’s final. It was the women’s match that really captured my attention. I can’t say that I’ve ever been a hard-core tennis fan, but the sibling rivalry at tennis’ highest level has always fascinated me. Venus and Serena are sisters born only fifteen months apart. Both of them are now senior stateswomen on the pro circuit, at ages thirty-six and thirty-five, respectively. Both have had hall-of-fame careers, in doubles and singles competition. Competing together, they’ve won fourteen grand slam doubles titles and three gold medals. But competing individually, Serena has risen to higher heights than her sister, with twenty-three Grand Slam singles titles to Venus’ seven. They have faced each other twenty-eight times in pro tournaments, Serena winning seventeen of them. At this point, Venus is considered one of the greatest of her era, but when Serena retires she will be universally recognized as the GOAT (that’s Greatest Of All Time, natch).
It’s not particularly uncommon for multiple children raised in the same family to experience wild success in life. In fact, Time magazine devoted an issue to this phenomenon last August, featuring nine “superfamilies” with siblings that have enjoyed enormous success in, for example, medicine, politics, and Hollywood (the Emanuel brothers); science, business, and tech (the Wojcicki sisters); and the arts (the Simmons brothers). What’s different about the Williams sisters, though, is that they’ve become the world’s best in the very same profession, somehow cheering on each other’s successes while in direct competition. Venus and Serena are famously close, but I’ve often wondered what it would be like to spend so much time and energy fighting to be the best, only to be blocked from your goals by your own sister. In the case of siblings like the Emanuels, Wojcickis, and Simmons, they are competing in different spheres, where success for one is in no way a barrier to success for another. But I have to wonder if Venus Williams ever asks herself how many more Grand Slam titles she could have won if her sister wasn’t the main obstacle in her path. At one point, the Williams sisters faced each other in four straight Grand Slam titles—and Serena won all of them. If I were Venus, wouldn’t I feel more than just a tinge of jealously?
These are the kinds of questions I was asking myself when I watched the highlights from Serena’s win over Venus in Saturday’s final in Melbourne. Venus had the microphone after the match, which saw Serena break a tie with Steffi Graf for the most Grand Slam titles ever. I waited for the veiled frustration at losing to her sister yet again. But there was none to be found. “That’s my little sister, guys!” said Venus, looking every bit the proud older sis. “Congratulations, Serena, on number twenty-three. I have been right there with you. Some of them I have lost right there against you. Your win has always been my win, you know that.” Goodness, what an incredibly gracious reply from an athlete who was minutes away from losing her shot at a title. And in return, Serena replied: “There’s no way I’d be at twenty-three without her; there’s no way I’d be at one. She’s my inspiration, the only way the Williams sisters could exist.” Serena’s statement suggests that instead of asking how many titles each could have won if it wasn’t for her sister, perhaps Venus and Serena wonder how many more titles each has won because of her sister. I was wiping away tears at the beauty of this, not just the words themselves, but the unmistakable genuineness with which they were spoken. Out of sibling rivalry emerges sisterly love, of the type that drives both to greater success than would otherwise be the case. Inspiring indeed.