MELBOURNE, Australia — When a euphoric Venus Williams picked up the pace of her celebratory pirouette and the crowd responded with thunderous applause, Serena Williams waited quietly in the adjacent corridor for the buzz to subside.
She was thrilled that her older sister beat CoCo Vandeweghe and was returning to a Grand Slam final for the first time since their Wimbledon decider in 2009, but couldn’t really react because she had a job to do, too.
When one Williams walked out the exit, the other entered for her semifinal against Mirjana Lucic-Baroni and the sisters barely exchanged glances. An hour later, Serena ensured had there’d be a ninth all-Williams Grand Slam final — and first in Australia since 2003.
It couldn’t have been easy, surely, just to look away from a sibling who had been through so much coming back from illness and being written off as a Grand Slam contender?
“It’s a semifinal of a Grand Slam, and I was playing someone that is really good,” Serena said. “So it’s just a moment.
“In sport, you have to focus. It’s also a great moment because you realize that we’re so close, we’re family. But it’s that focus that you have to have, and the discipline.”
The Williams sisters often travel together and practice together, just as they have on tour for two decades.
And so Friday, the eve of the Australian Open women’s final, the sisters practiced together again at Melbourne Park.
Serena finalizing her bid for an Open-era record 23rd Grand Slam. Venus targeting her eighth major title — and first since Wimbledon in 2008.
“We definitely talk. I think now more so than anything,” Serena said. “Nothing can break our family. If anything, this will definitely bring us closer together, knowing that I want to see her do the best that she can possibly do. I know that she definitely wants to see me do the best that I can do.
“This is a story. This is something that I couldn’t write a better ending. This is a great opportunity for us to start our new beginning.”
Serena is on the cusp of all-time greatness. She tied Steffi Graf’s mark of 22 Grand Slam singles titles in the Open era by winning Wimbledon last year. She missed her chance to break Graf’s record with an upset semifinal loss at the U.S. Open — for the second year running — and hasn’t wanted to talk about the number 23 since arriving in Australia. Margaret Court, who has a show stadium named in her honour at Melbourne Park, has the all-time record of 24 major titles, but 13 of those were before the Open era.
Since losing the 2008 Wimbledon final to Venus, Serena has won 14 more majors. One of those, at Wimbledon the following year, was the last all-Williams final and gave Serena a 6-2 cushion over her sister at that stage of a Grand Slam.
Until this trip, Venus hadn’t reached another major final in seven years. She didn’t make the second week for a few years as she came to terms with an energy-sapping illness since being diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome in 2011, and made her comeback to the semifinals at Wimbledon last year.
“I just really feel fortunate to have been there for the highs and the lows and everything,” Serena said. “I never lost hope of us being able to play each other in a final.
“This probably is the moment of our careers so far. For me, I can definitely say for me.”
The odds are stacked in favour of six-time Australian Open champion Serena, who can also regain the No. 1 ranking from Angelique Kerber by winning the title. She’s 16-11 in the Williams head-to-head meetings at tour-level, including 9-5 at Grand Slam tournaments and 6-2 in major finals. She’s 22-6 in major finals against all-comers.
They’ll also set some age records, for oldest combined age of a final in the Open era, and the winner will be the oldest champion. Serena set that mark at 34 years, 287 days when she won Wimbledon last year. Navratilova remains the oldest Grand Slam finalist in the modern era, reaching the 1994 Wimbledon final at 37, 258 days — more than a year older than Venus is now.
Venus was asked if there was a flaw in her sister’s game she could expose in the final.
“I don’t think there’s necessarily anything to exploit,” Venus said. “She doesn’t have too many weaknesses.”
That doesn’t mean she has no hope of winning.
“It would be beautiful. I have to earn it, so… It’s not a given,” she said. “I’m going to do what I can to earn it. I’m not thinking about, ‘Oh, what would it be like to win?’ I’m thinking about, ‘What do I have to do to earn that?’ That’s my mentality right now.”
Serena’s mentality is that no matter what, a Williams will win.
“After everything that Venus has been through with her illness and stuff, I just can’t help but feel like it’s a win-win situation.
“It’s the one time that I really genuinely feel like no matter what happens, I can’t lose, she can’t lose. It is definitely 100 per cent the best-case scenario that I could have ever dreamt of.”