Serena Takes Place as Tennis' Greatest Ever Thanks to Unique Rivalry with Venus

Greg CouchNational ColumnistJanuary 28, 2017

Runner up Venus Williams of the US (L) laughs with winner Serena Williams of the US during the awards ceremony following the women's singles final on day 13 of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 28, 2017. / AFP / PAUL CROCK / IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE        (Photo credit should read PAUL CROCK/AFP/Getty Images)
PAUL CROCK/Getty Images

The last hurdle of greatness wasn't the hardest one for Serena Williams, but it did include stress and nerves, discomfort and doubts. On Saturday at the Australian Open, she easily beat sister Venus 6-4, 6-4 to win the year's first major and wipe away any last question about her spot in history.

Serena is the greatest player ever. Her 23rd major singles title, moving her past Steffi Graf for the most in tennis' modern era, was the last obstacle to clear.

It was a shaky past year or so trying to get there for Serena. She has gotten tense in recent finals. But Saturday, somehow mixed through a sibling dynamic and all that comes with it, she found calm on the court. She didn't find it in spite of that dynamic but because of it.

It was the perfect moment, with Serena's breaking the record on the court with Venus. You could say "against Venus," but that doesn't seem right.

"Serena Williams. That's my little sister, guys," Venus said in her post-match speech to the crowd, standing in front of Serena. "Congratulations, Serena, on No. 23. I have been right there with you; some of them I lost right there against you. I guess that's weird, but it's true.

"But it's been an awesome thing. Your win has always been my win; I think you know that. And all the times that I couldn't be there, wouldn't be there, didn't get there, you were there."

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When it was Serena's turn on the microphone, she was just as gracious about Venus: "There's no way I would be at 23 without her. There's no way I would be at 1 [in the world rankings] without her. She's my inspiration. She's the only reason I'm standing here today.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 28:  Serena Williams of the United States plays a forehand a point in her Women's Singles Final match against Venus Williams of the United States on day 13 of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 28, 2017 in
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"She's the only reason the Williams sisters exist."

Both players were a little tense in what started as a rocky match. But after both had their serves broken in each of the first four games, Serena found her calmand her serveand rolled.

It wasn't the highest quality tennis. When Venus plays Serena, it never is. It's partly because of the sibling thing, though it's also related to the fact they play such similar styles that it's hard for one to exploit flaws in the other.

Serena turned out to be the better player. Still, as Venus put it the other day when talking with reporters, "I don't think I'm chump change, either."

It has been going on 20 years with these two leading women's tennis, changing women's sports. Men's tennis gets its great rivalry again Sunday, when Roger Federer plays Rafael Nadal in the final, and that has such a different vibe than when the Williams sisters play each other.

While Roger-Rafa is about epic matches with one pushing the other to reach his best in the moment, the Williams sisters reach something much higher.

"From the new level of power," Chris Evert, all-time great and current ESPN analyst, said after the match, "to just trying to get girls to believe in themselves, to believe in their own power."

I've been lucky enough to travel around the world to see tennis, but the most beautiful thing I've seen on a court was Venus and Serena playing doubles together at the French Open on the court they called the Bull Ring. It was just something about how together they were, how they acted and moved as one, how Venus seemed to be taking care of her little sister.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 28:  Venus Williams of the United States plays a backhand in her Women's Singles Final match against Serena Williams of the United States on day 13 of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 28, 2017 in Melbour
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In fact, for whatever challenges the Williams sisters faced in changing the worldtwo powerful African-American girls coming up through Compton, California, into a sport that wasn't used to those thingsVenus was always there first. She paved the way for Serena.

"One thing Venus did in juniors was when she was 10, 11, 12, 13, every news outlet, every newspapernot just in the United States, but globallydid something on Venus," said Rick Macci, who coached the Williams sisters when they were kids after their father Richard did.

Macci spoke with Bleacher Report during the match Saturday while he drove to the courts in Florida to start another day of teaching.

"Serena would be in the background," Macci said. "She could sit there in the back seat while her sister drove the car and see how she handled pressure or whatever. Eventually, Serena had to learn to handle it on her own."

Macci saw the sibling dynamic when it was just finding its way into Venus' and Serena's tennis.

"With these two, it's a whole other level," he said. "With both of them, they [are] so fiercely competitive; there's so much intensity they bring to the table. But it's hard to go there when they play their best friend and sister. For so many years [as pros], they traveled together, lived in the same house.

"Their matches are erratic, and they aren't usually stellar performances for either player when they play each other. I think people understand that now. But they're the greatest thing that ever happened to women's tennis, and people should just embrace it because they're not going to be around forever."

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 28:  Serena Williams of the United States is congratulated by Venus Williams of the United States after winning the Women's Singles Final match against  on day 13 of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 28,
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

At the same time, Macci said he wouldn't be surprised if they played until they're 40. Serena is 35 and Venus 36, which is ancient for tennis. But with Serena now set to move back to No. 1 in the world rankings and Venus solidly in the top 20, they're not going to be irrelevant anytime soon.

This was Venus' first major final in more than seven years, and the match did have a feel of a curtain call for her. She managed to get through the tournament without having to play any top players—until the final. But who knows? Venus says she isn't ready to go.

For Serena, there remains only one target left: Margaret Court's 24 titles. But in the modern era of tennis, that is more of a bonus than the ultimate goal. In tennis' Open era, which started in 1968, when pros were allowed to play on tour, 23 has been the magic number ever since Graf won 22 and stamped herself as perhaps the best player ever.

Not any more. Thanks to the power of two, Serena now stands alone.