Indian Wells, California

March 5-18, 2018

Venus + Serena: Reluctant Rivals

by Melissa Isaacson

Serena Williams does not just “abhor” playing her sister Venus, she doesn’t even like watching her play. So she doesn’t.

“If she makes a mistake, a little bit of me dies,” Serena half-joked.

As painful as that sounds, the sibling rivalry, when it comes to actual athletic competition, can be even more unpleasant.

“It’s the worst thing that can happen,” Agnieszka Radwanska responded bluntly when asked about playing a sibling before the Williams’ sisters were to meet for the 26th time, in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2015.

On Monday night, Serena and Venus will play for the 29th time, in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open, the earliest they have met since the first time they played as pros in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open.

In that match, 17-year-old Venus defeated 16-year-old Serena, 7-6(4), 6-1.

Asked in a variety of ways last week about her fondest memories of the series, Venus finally shut down the topic: “I don’t really have a favorite. Let’s put it that way.”

“I definitely don’t have a favorite match,” Serena echoed. “I really abhor every time we play, but I do enjoy the battle when I’m out there. It’s just afterwards I don’t like it as much.”

Serena holds a 17-11 advantage when she plays her sister, 10-5 at the Grand Slam level and 7-6 in WTA Tour events.

So distasteful was it for the two to play each other that, for many years during the rivalry, their father Richard was accused of controlling the outcome or manipulating whether they’d meet each other in the first place, a charge both Venus and Serena have denied.

But they would not have been the first.

Maggie Maleeva, one of three sisters (Manuela and Katerina) who played professional tennis from the ‘80s through the early 2000s and the only set of three siblings in the sport to be ranked in the Top 10 at the same time, once called playing against one another “the most difficult thing we had to do.”

Of the 15 times the Maleevas faced off against each other – including five Grand Slam meetings – the older sister won 14 times. The lone exception is when Manuela defaulted against Katerina in the second set of the 1991 Canadian Open semifinal.

John McEnroe, with seven Grand Slam titles, was considerably more accomplished in pro tennis than his younger brother Patrick, but once the two brothers played in Chicago at the end of John’s career and with Patrick playing his best tennis.

“This was actually a time when I could have potentially won the match,” Patrick said. “And I remember thinking, really thinking during the match, ‘Do I really want to win this match?’

“John always talks about how, ‘God forbid he should lose to his little brother.’ Well, I actually didn’t really deep down want to beat my brother. It wasn’t something that drove me because, one, he was so much better than me, plus he was a lot older than me [by seven years], so I looked up to him in a lot of ways.”

Patrick also joked that if he had won, John “wouldn’t have talked to me for a year.”

Serena and Venus have said that they bring out the best in each other, and Serena was even trying to savor that 2015 Wimbledon meeting, saying “I don’t know how many more moments we’ll have.”

As it turns out, they would have at least two more, including the 2017 Australian Open final, which featured the oldest combined age of any Grand Slam final in the Open Era. Serena won that one, 6-4, 6-4, the 24th time that the sister who won the first set won the match.

Their rivalry has been filled with classic tennis, epic nerves and 10 three-setters.

“I think they both feel if they have to lose to anybody, they’d rather lose to their sister than anyone else, so in a way that takes the pressure off and they can just play tennis,” said Hall of Famer and Tennis Channel analyst Martina Navratilova.