A “trial run” is what Serena Williams is calling this: Travelling with husband and baby. Tennis without self-judgment.
But some things never change.
“I really abhor every time we play,” she says of her long-running series against sister Venus, a 28-match history that began when Serena was 8, Venus, 10, and ended with little sister in a bad way.
“She beat me, beat me good,” Serena recalls. “But she was really nice. She gave me the trophy because I was so upset. I have always been a sore loser, but she’s been really amazing. I can really learn from her.”
Serena has won the last three matches between the sisters, and eight of the last nine, the most recent a 6-4, 6-4 result in the 2017 Australian Open final, the last tour stop for Serena until Indian Wells. But it is against an entirely unfamiliar backdrop that the two will meet again Monday in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open, with both likely learning from the other.
For starters, this is the earliest stage of a tournament in which they will meet since their very first professional match, a 7-6(4), 6-1 win for Venus in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open.
“It’s a huge difference to play her in the semifinals or even the quarterfinals or a final, as opposed to the third round,” Serena says. “We can always stay in the tournament longer if both of us are in the tournament. And having to play each other in the third round, one of us is going to be gone. So it’s definitely a lot easier to play later on.”
Ready or not, Serena, at 36, is working herself back into form after childbirth and resulting complications six months ago, and cautions against anyone expecting too much. “All of this is just so new to me,” she says.
The biggest challenge is not to be too critical of herself, she says.
“Olympia has tons of footage of me not being kind to myself,” she says of her baby daughter. “So I’m like, OK, I need to not be so negative, even though it’s hard…There were moments, literally, when I’m in the hospital bed and I just think about that. And I go, ‘Serena, you’re doing good, you’re doing good no matter what.’”
Meanwhile, Venus, 37, has experienced a career renaissance over the last year, returning to the Top 10 and reaching the finals in Melbourne, Wimbledon and the WTA Finals, as well as the semifinals of the US Open.
Serena never watched a single match.
“I get too nervous,” Serena said. “If she makes a mistake, a little bit of me dies. So, I didn’t watch any.”
Venus watches Serena though, and approves.
“She’s playing really well and just honing her game,” she said. “When she’s missing, it’s not by much. Obviously, I have to play better than her and see how the match goes.”
For all those who have foolishly underestimated Serena, 18-time Grand Slam singles champ and Tennis Channel analyst Martina Navratilova says she’s not one of them.
“I still have to think that Serena is the favorite,” she says. “In a way, it’s different pressure. They played each other so many times, but the expectations are different now for both of them…If [Serena] loses, no big deal, she’s happy for sis. At the same time she wants to win the tournament. She wouldn’t be playing if she didn’t think she could win and she can win. The whole thing. Absolutely. I wouldn’t be betting against her.”