Venus and Serena made history at the Australian Open 20 years ago that’s often forgotten
‘They were a match made in doubles heaven. They knew exactly what each other was thinking.’
Twenty years ago, Venus and Serena Williams experienced a moment together on the hard courts at the 2001 Australian Open that’s often forgotten.
Venus, then 20 years old, and Serena, 19, made history as the youngest — and only African American — pairing in the modern era of tennis to complete a career Grand Slam in women’s doubles. After claiming titles at the French and US Opens in 1999 and Wimbledon in 2000, the Williams sisters defeated Lindsay Davenport and Corina Morariu, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4, in the final of the Australian Open in 2001 to achieve the milestone, reached by winning the event at all four major tournaments in professional tennis.
Their triumph, however, has been lost throughout the trajectories of their fabled individual careers since then. But even at the time, the story became a footnote to the narrative that each sister had essentially guaranteed victory in singles, but failed to leave Melbourne Park as champion.
Yet in the past two decades, Nirupama Sanjeev — a first-round opponent of the Williams sisters in the doubles draw — hasn’t forgotten the run Venus and Serena made to Grand Slam glory in the event they aren’t most known for now.
“I honestly don’t think a big enough deal was made back then out of their quest for a career Grand Slam in doubles,” recalled Sanjeev, who retired in 2003 and now coaches tennis in California and Florida. “I had no idea about the milestone they were chasing. But I’m pretty sure they were chasing it. They knew exactly what they needed.”
Ahead of the 2001 Australian Open, the Williams sisters had only played one doubles match in approximately three months — defeated by Martina Hingis and Monica Seles in the first round of the Adidas International in Sydney, an early January tune-up on the tennis calendar. The loss snapped a 22-match winning streak for the siblings in doubles that had spanned 18 months, dating to the 1999 US Open while including three Grand Slam titles and the gold medal at the 2000 Olympics, also in Sydney. The Williamses hit reset and vowed a better performance together at the first Grand Slam of the year less than two weeks later.
“We’re going to start again in Melbourne,” Serena vowed after the early doubles exit from the Adidas International. “Sometimes, it’s better to lose,” Venus added. “We’re confident we’ll do a lot better.”
The confidence they had playing alongside each other spilled over to a shared conviction in their ability to win separately. In the weeks between the Adidas International and Australian Open, the question in the minds of the Williams sisters wasn’t whether one of them would win the singles draw — but, which one. “It’s going to be a Williams,” Venus declared, when asked by an Australian reporter to predict the tournament champion. Serena, meanwhile, spoke a little more audaciously with her words.
“It doesn’t matter who we play or when we play,” said Serena, who won her first Grand Slam singles title as a 17-year-old at the US Open in 1999, before Venus won Wimbledon, the US Open and Olympic gold in 2000. “Venus and I are on a streak right now — and we’re really hard to beat.”
At the 2001 Australian Open, Venus and Serena were seeded third and sixth, respectively, in the singles draw. And despite only ranking 30th in the world as a pairing, they received a wild-card spot in the doubles draw. Sanjeev also squeaked into the tournament, randomly partnered with Canada’s Renata Kolbovic, whom she’d never played with before their opening match against the phenom sisters.
“When we saw the draw, we were like, ‘Oh, nooo!’ ” Sanjeev told The Undefeated. “When we were walking onto the court, Venus and Serena felt like they were a foot taller than both of us. To play against them, especially on one of those stadium courts in front of 5,000 people — it was so intimidating. We couldn’t even hold our rackets properly in nervousness.”
Sanjeev had never faced either of the sisters until the 2001 Australian Open, a moment she recounted in her 2013 autobiography, The Moonballer. The first-round doubles match marked the only time Sanjeev played against Venus and Serena during her career.
“Doubles is a lot about understanding your partner and what they can and can’t do. The interesting thing is, there’s nothing that either of them can’t do,” said Sanjeev, who retired in 2003 and now coaches tennis in California and Florida. “As siblings, they were a match made in doubles heaven. They knew exactly what each other was thinking.”
The Williams sisters defeated Sanjeev and Kolbovic in the first round, 6-1, 6-3, to begin their run toward an elusive doubles title in the Australian Open. Their first two appearances playing together there ended in the third round in 1998 and the semifinal in 1999.
In the second round of the 2001 tournament, Venus and Serena claimed another straight-sets victory over Els Callens of Belgium and Anne-Gaëlle Sidot of France. They didn’t drop a set until their third-round match against Sweden’s Asa Svensson and Bulgaria’s Magdalena Maleeva, but advanced with a 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 victory to reach the quarterfinal, where they met Russia’s rising 19-year-old star Anna Kournikova and Austria’s 24-year-old veteran Barbara Schett.
Kournikova and Schett, who had won together at Adidas International in Sydney a few weeks before, started strong in the quarterfinal match, taking the first set. Then, Venus and Serena took over.
“We won the first set. Then we got spanked, basically,” Schett recalled to The Undefeated from London, where she’ll cover this year’s Australian Open as a commentator for Eurosport. She’s worked for the network since retiring from playing in 2005. “I always found it quite overwhelming playing against them. Just because of the speed and presence. You felt like there’s no gaps, no holes, because they’re both so tall and athletic. On their path to the career Grand Slam, they encountered many doubles specialists but Venus and Serena just had that sheer power. You couldn’t afford to just play and get into a rally. Everything was very fast and quick. Facing two players with two of the best serves on the women’s tour brought a lot of pressure.
“Nobody was hitting the ball harder than them. And you just didn’t know who was the weaker link. … They just wanted to win. Their determination, that presence on the court — it was almost scary.”
The Williams sisters bounced the Kournikova-Schett pairing, 3-6, 6-1, 6-1, and followed up with a 7-5, 6-2, straight-sets semifinal defeat of fellow American Monica Seles and Switzerland’s Martina Hingis, the world No. 1 and top-seeded player in the singles draw. At the 2001 Australian Open, Hingis beat both Williams sisters in singles for the first time in her career. She knocked off Serena, 6-2, 3-6, 8-6, in an instant-classic quarterfinal match in 2 hours and 19 minutes before dominating Venus, 6-1, 6-1, in just 53 minutes to reach the final, where she ultimately lost in straight sets to 12th-seeded American Cinderella Jennifer Capriati.
After the Williams sisters beat Davenport and Morariu in the doubles final, their completion of a career Grand Slam in the event was overshadowed by the failure to follow through on their previous proclamation that one of them would emerge as the 2001 Australian Open women’s singles champion.
“Does this take a little sting out of … ,” one reporter asked before Venus and Serena interrupted, “No,” in unison.
“We love to play with each other,” Venus elaborated. “I can’t imagine playing with anybody else. That’s just the way it is. We do so well together. I know no matter what I do out there, Serena’s always going to be behind me and there for me.” Not only did Serena back up her sister’s words, she set the record straight even further.
“This is no consolation to losing singles at all,” Serena said. “We want to be known as singles players.”
This week, Venus and Serena Williams returned to Melbourne to play singles at the 2021 Australian Open, where they first won together in doubles exactly two decades ago. Since then, they’ve added 10 more major doubles titles, having never lost a Grand Slam final as partners. And just as Serena proclaimed at 19 years old, they’ve become known across the world in singles — with Venus now owning seven Grand Slam titles and Serena, at 23 titles, in reach of Margaret Court’s record of 24 for most all time.
“If somebody would’ve told me that Serena and Venus would still be playing at the age of 39 and 40, I would’ve told them, ‘No chance,’ ” Schett said. “But to see Serena still chasing her dream of being the best ever, and Venus still hanging around, it’s incredible. They’ve done so much for women’s tennis. … I selfishly wish they would’ve played more doubles together. They probably would’ve accomplished so much more. But it’s really hard to have successful singles and doubles careers at the same time, especially as you get older.
“We should just be very thankful to still have them around. When the day comes that they retire, there’s gonna be a big hole in women’s tennis.”
Since the Open Era began in 1968, only five women’s pairings have completed the distinguished career Grand Slam in doubles: Kathy Jordan and Anne Smith in 1981, Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver in 1984, Gigi Fernández and Natasha Zvereva in 1993, Venus and Serena Williams in 2001, and Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci in 2014. (Margaret Court and Judy Dalton are the only other pairing in tennis history with a career Grand Slam in women’s doubles, which they completed in 1970. However, their run began with a win at the French Open in 1966, pre-dating the Open Era.)
The Williams’ title at the 2001 Australian Open placed them in even more elite company with a “Career Golden Slam,” marked by wins in all four majors and at the Olympics. Venus and Serena claimed gold together in doubles at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Shriver and Fernández are the only other women’s double players in modern tennis history with a Career Golden Slam, which they completed in 1988 and 1993, respectively. No players have earned a Career Golden Slam in women’s doubles since the Williams sisters in 2001.