Serena and Venus are the best siblings in sports history
No one else has come so far and dominated so completely
Venus and Serena Williams broke the record long ago for sibling supremacy in sports. Between where they came from, the privileged sport they dominate, and how long and fabulously they have played, we will never see the likes of the Williams sisters again – in any athletic discipline.
Sad but true: We almost take for granted the grinding consistency of both – in matching braids and white beads during their teens, now seen-it-all worldly at 35 and 36. But just step back and marvel at their 30 combined Grand Slam singles titles after Saturday in Melbourne, Australia. Or the consistent drama of minute-long, tiebreak volleys against yet another pigtailed European or Canadian upstart whose parents would die happy if their tennis-academy-schooled scorpions could only once break Serena’s service or Venus’ will, preferably in Paris or Flushing Meadows in New York.
Crazy, no? Serena with 23 singles titles and Venus with seven, have combined for almost half of the 67 Grand Slam titles they’ve both competed in since 1997. Two sisters have kept all that hardware and prize money (more than $100 million between them over their careers) in-house for two decades and counting.
What kind of train transports two little African-American sisters from the ‘hood to the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club? And what’s the chance of anything like that happening again? Platform 9-3/4 at London’s King’s Cross station can take you to Hogwarts; it can’t get you to wear-only-white Wimbledon from Compton, California.
That’s why Venus and Serena are the greatest siblings in all of athletic competition, their shared accomplishments grander and harder to come by than any of the rest.
Better than every set of biological brothers (or six, like Darryl Sutter and his hockey-lifer brethren), who played many years and won many championships; every brother-and-sister tandem like Reggie and Cheryl Miller who rose, released and fired from 20 feet and beyond; every Felipe, Matty and Jesus Alou, who overcame poverty in the Dominican Republic to thrive as Major League ballplayers; even Vince, Dominic and Joe DiMaggio, who shared 4,853 hits and, heroically, six years of World War II military service.
For social impact, the only pair who come close are Jackie Robinson and his older brother Mack, who many forget blazed around the oval in Berlin, winning a 200-meter silver medal in the same 1936 Olympics that Jesse Owens shamed Adolf Hitler’s “master” race.
The coaching Harbaughs who ended up on opposite sides of the same Super Bowl is a nice tale. So is the one about the Mannings, two homespun Mississippi quarterbacks who followed their daddy to the NFL and combined for four Lombardi trophies and at least a half-dozen decent commercials.
But like NASCAR’s Waltrips or Henri and Maurice Richard helping their respective NHL teams win a combined 19 Stanley Cups, Eli and Peyton Manning can’t approach the importance and improbability of the Williams sisters.
Think about the odds Venus and Serena had to overcome to stand across the net from each other Saturday in Melbourne.
Leicester City was said to have a 0.3 percent chance of winning the English Premier League title last season, their 5,000-to-1 odds longer than the most ridiculous things you could wager on in Britain betting parlors, such as Kim Kardashian becoming the U.S. president (2,000-to-1).
The Little Football Club That Could, at least statistically, was more of an underdog than the greatest of American Cinderella stories –1980’s Miracle on Ice (1,000-to-1), Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson (42-to-1), and Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner beating three-time Russian gold medalist Alexandr Karelin at the 2000 Sydney Games (2000-to-1).
And yet, all of those improbable stories had a better chance of happening than this one. Two African-American sisters, born a year apart in one of the most gang-ridden, impoverished parts of Los Angeles – growing up amid Bloods and Crips in the 1980s and early 1990s? Straight Outta Compton was neither a movie nor an N.W.A. album to Venus and Serena; it was their life.
They somehow learned to play the game on public courts, where weeds poked through the cracked concrete. This is as far as one can get from Nick Bollettieri’s famous Florida tennis academy or paid lessons with a country club pro.
Oh, and they grew up in and dominated women’s tennis, a sport whose racial breakdown lies somewhere between Downton Abbey and really, really, really light-skinned, where the only black woman to win a Grand Slam before them, Althea Gibson, last did it in 1958.
Sustained success may be their most impressive trait. Advances in racket technology and players’ fitness have helped gradually kill the women’s serve-and-volley game. Yet power in the serve has meant shorter points and longer expiration dates on ligament and cartilage: Five of the seven oldest women to win Grand Slams have done it in the last 11 years. In 2000, just two women over 30 were ranked in the top 100. Today, more than two dozen players are over 30.
No one has played more brilliantly so late in her career than Serena. Consider that Steffi Graf, whose Grand Slam record 22 titles was eclipsed by Serena in Saturday’s win, was 30 when she retired. Serena won 10 of her 23 Grand Slams after she turned 30.
What’s more, Venus and Serena’s excellence has set the stage for more women of color to climb the sport’s ladder. Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens are just two of a half-dozen African-American women to be ranked in the top 100 in the past decade.
I rooted for Venus to beat her younger sister in a Grand Slam final for the first time since 2008. She was the prohibitive underdog, the 13th seed, going up against the most accomplished women’s player of all time.
But either way, a Williams sister would win again and become the oldest player to win a Grand Slam women’s singles title in the Open era. The odds of that happening for two girls born and raised in Compton? Considerably more than 5,000-to-1.
They played Saturday on the same Melbourne Park courts where they first competed against each professionally in 1998. Two decades later, #BlackGirlMagic has morphed into #BlackWomenMajesty.