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Venus and Serena Williams: It's time to get sentimental

Simon Barnes
January 26, 2015
The Williams sisters are on course to meet at a slam for the first time since the 2009 Wimbledon final © Getty Images

Two skinny little girls. Hair in beads and braids. It was 1991, and I was at Bradenton in Florida. I had been invited to the Bollettieri Tennis Academy to see Nick B himself in action. Coaching the stars of the future.

Bollettieri comes alive when he's coaching. Like all great teachers, the buzz of his life comes when he sees the lights go on in a pupil's eyes: got it, by God! He was fizzing like a champagne bottle on a Formula One podium.

"They're both gonna be champions," Bollettieri told me in that throaty voice that always makes you feel that he is overacting the part of himself. "The big one's gonna be great. The little one's gonna be even better."

The Williamses made sure tennis was never entirely relaxed about them. They never backed down from a controversy

And though the knee-jerk, yeah-right cynicism of the professional sports journo kicked in at once - I've seen a million world champions who failed before puberty - something told me to curb the doubts here. Bollettieri has spent his life trying to make talented kids play better. And if he thought he had something really special … well, perhaps he did.

Those two little girls were named Venus and Serena: the Williams sisters. Now, in their sporting dotage - Venus is 34, Serena a year younger - they are both through to the quarter-finals of the singles in the Australian Open. If they each win one more match, they will face each other. There hasn't been a Williams vs. Williams match in a slam since the Wimbledon final of 2009; Serena won 7-6 6-2.

It's time to get sentimental about the Williamses. People get soft and forgiving about all old champions; their battles against time become oddly touching, oddly like our own. The Williamses have been with us a long time: Venus turned professional at 14, in 1994, Serena a year later. Since then they've won 25 grand-slam singles titles, 18 to Serena (Nick B was right) and 13 grand-slam doubles.

And never entirely without resentment. The Williamses made sure that tennis was never entirely relaxed about them. They never backed down from a controversy. At times that seemed unnecessary, but I don't think it was now. It was their job to teach us stuff, even though many didn't really want to learn.

They are both physically overwhelming: Venus in height, Serena in shoulder and arm strength. They both base their game on power. They play tennis like a fast bowler softening up a batsman. They may have contributed to Martina Hingis - as smart a player as ever lifted a racket - going into early retirement because, though she could often beat a Williams and had separate problems of her own, she hardly managed to beat two in a row.

Renowned coach Nick Bollettieri told Simon Barnes in 1991 that the Williams sisters would conquer women's tennis © Getty Images

That was part of the mystique: that team-handedness, that sister thing. They were bold enough to take on tennis - traditionally a white middle-class sport - on their own terms because they were many. Only two of them actually playing, but they were backed by a formidable family well used to sticking up for themselves.

So they came and they saw and they conquered tennis; and you'd have thought, job done. Particularly as they have both suffered injury and illness. But now, with retirement the easy option stretching invitingly before them, and both with career earnings to make your nose bleed with envy, they're still hard at it.

They're not sated. They've always been encouraged to see the world in wider terms than tennis: to stay in school, to pursue other interests. That annoyed a lot of people too; you're supposed to be dedicated to your sport to the point of monomania. Now we can see the point.

They both still love the struggle - and how splendid it was to see Venus reach her first grand-slam singles quarter-final for five years, with a three-set win over Agnieszka Radwanska at the Australian Open on Monday: there she was, as ever playing that backhand like an enforcer with a two-handed mace.

It's not like it used to be. They no longer leave behind a collection of players thankful only to avoid the double-bagel. Both were extended to three sets; even Serena regularly gives signs of vulnerability. Serena has become one of the great sporting mysteries: one day she is a world-beater - she is still ranked No.1 - the next she is consumed by saucy doubts and fears. She of all people.

Strange how women's tennis can't really cope with this situation: with the Williamses being neither quite gone nor quite the default champions of old. Women's tennis is used to a stable dominance hierarchy, with the same one or two players picking up all the big titles. But with the Williamses in relative decline, there is no one bold enough to take over. Last year the four slams were won by four different players.

And still opinion on the Williamses is divided. Last year the president of the Russian federation, Shamil Tarpischev, talked preposterously about "the Williams brothers" on a chat-show. He was suspended for a year and fined.

The fact is that tennis is a game that celebrates female strength, no matter how you try and disguise that fact in twirls and nice frocks. Martina Navratilova brought new levels of fitness and strength to the game; the Williamses new levels of power and strength.

The Williamses have been fierce competitors who taught us fierce lessons about race and setback and hardship, and forced us to ask hard questions not just of others but of ourselves.

Tennis, and all sport, has been vastly the richer for their contribution, and I hope we have an all-Williams semi as scheduled. And don't worry: these days they have no problem with knocking seven bells out of each other. It'd be one of those occasions that only a Williams can win: but a lot of tennis has been like that over the years.

Venus Williams beat Agnieszka Radwanska on Monday to reach her first grand slam quarter-final since 2010 © Getty Images
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