It wasn’t their best, but then no one expected it to be.
It wasn’t the most consequential, but then it had no real chance for that.
In the long and storied history of the Williams sisters rivalry, only once has an earlier-round match been played and that was back when Venus was 17 and Serena 16.
But what Monday’s third round of the BNP Paribas Open lacked in importance, it provided what it almost always has in sheer entertainment, in historical significance and the feeling that something special was happening.
And when it was over, Venus Williams’ 6-3, 6-4 victory over sister Serena proved a few things as well.
First, believe Serena when she tells us that after 14 months away from the tour, which included the birth of her first child and life-threatening complications six months ago, she still isn’t close to her peak.
Joking after her first match that on a Serena scale of ‘S’ to ‘A,’ she was at ‘S,’ the 23-time Grand Slam champion said she is “definitely” still there.
“Just missing shots that I never miss, and so close,” she said. “At least they’re in the margin. You know, I’m getting there. It’s not exactly where I want to be, but, I mean, I’ll get there eventually.”
However long it takes, her three matches in Indian Wells as an unseeded player showed us that her competitive fire is still intact. Evidence her break of serve at 5-2 in the second Monday night, as well as timely passing shots and her fourth ace to hold to get to 5-4.
“She played so well, I’m sure it was a treat for everyone to see this match so early in her comeback,” Venus said. “I always know its not over ‘til it’s over (with her). She just came roaring back, I had chances for the match to be over but it wasn’t. I’m just lucky I’ve played more than her right now. Otherwise, yeah… “
Serena had no business playing the No. 8 seed in the third round, just like Venus should not have had to face a player of Serena’s caliber this early. But mom and aunt faced off, regardless. And Venus, at 37, showed with what was once the best serve in women’s tennis, that she can still win matches with both that and her ever-reliant backhand.
As Serena, at 36, fights to re-find her old body and old form, Venus gives us no reason these days to ask about an auto-immune disorder that once seemed a precursor to retirement and in this tournament, as at all the others, is a very real threat to win the title.
“I think this is the best she’s played in a while,” Serena said. “She didn’t make a lot of errors. She served very consistently. You know, she just did everything great.”
And then, in a subtle sisterly dig, she added, “She definitely played a little bit better than she normally does today.”
She couldn’t help herself. Clearly, Serena is not retiring anytime soon either, this last week in the desert only confirming what she seems to know for sure.
“It’s good that I don’t have to say that this is the best tennis I have ever played and I lost,” she said. “My room for improvement is incredible.”