The lob went up, Serena Williams raised her racquet over her head, and her opponents began to scatter. They know what the American can do with a sitter overhead, and neither wanted to be on the wrong side of it. But on this afternoon, they didn’t need to worry. Serena swung…and the ball bounced off the throat of her racquet and flew 10 rows up into the bleachers behind the court.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Serena miss the mark, on a smash or any other type of shot, by quite so much. But as shocking as that was to see in the moment, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Serena was playing her first official tennis in more than a year, in a meaningless Fed Cup doubles match with her sister Venus against The Netherlands. The Williams sisters, 14-time Grand Slam doubles champions, would go on to lose 6-2, 6-3 to Lesley Kerkhove and Demi Schuurs, neither of whom has a singles ranking inside the Top 150.
Sixty-six minutes: That’s how long Serena’s long-awaited comeback in Asheville, N.C., lasted. To her credit, she and her sister did their best to psych themselves up and try to make it competitive. But not only was Serena out of match practice, Venus had already played, and won, two singles rubbers in the last 24 hours. Serena could thank her older sister, and their teammate Coco Vandeweghe, for clinching the tie and making sure that there was nothing on the line for her debut. When it was over, Serena looked on the bright side: She was playing again, she was playing with her sister, and the U.S. was winning.
“It was really special to be back out there with Venus,” Serena said, “and we’re so happy Team USA won today. I’m really happy to be here and that we advanced to the next round.”
The crowd in Asheville may have come to see Serena, but it was Venus who was the star of this weekend’s show. While Vandeweghe provided the emotional fireworks in her comeback win on Saturday, Venus was the team’s rock. Her straight-set victories over Arantxa Rus—her 1,000th career win—and Richel Hogenkamp were models of veteran, do-what-needs-to-be-done tennis. Venus was never better than when Hogenkamp challenged her at the end of the first set on Sunday. Down break point at 5-5 and starting to look a little wobbly for the first time all weekend, Venus put a forehand an inch inside the baseline for a winner, and then broke Hogenkamp at love for the set.
“I had to balance between going big and too big,” said Venus, citing the altitude in Asheville. She credited Vandeweghe for “wearing down” Hogenkamp the previous day.
If you’re wondering why Serena would want to come back, at 36, after having a baby, and after having won everything in the sport multiple times over, you only needed to watch Venus in action over the course of the weekend. This five-time Olympian looked like she was in her element, relaxed but purposeful, doing what she loves, happy to have a chance to compete for herself, and for something bigger than herself.
“I felt proud,” Venus said. “Also you don’t want to let this crowd down, you don’t want to let your country down. That definitely adds to the pressure.”
It was Venus’s love for tennis that initially drew Serena to the courts, and it was Venus’s determination to be the best in the world, against all odds, that inspired Serena to believe she could do the same thing. If Serena needs any inspiration to keep going now, she can look to Venus again—why stop when your older sister is still going? While Venus couldn’t bring out Serena’s best in doubles on Sunday, she did bring out her fighting spirit.
Through the years, Venus has become almost as proficient at dispensing motivational wisdom, often with a zen touch, as she is at playing tennis. She didn’t disappoint in Asheville.
“Trust me, I know there’s no givens,” Venus said when she was asked how she gets up for matches that she’s favored to win. “You have to take.”
That will be true for Serena when she comes back as well: Even with her 23 major titles, there will be no givens. This weekend it was Venus who did the taking for both of them. But it probably won’t be long before Serena is following in her footsteps yet again.
This Week on Tennis Channel Plus 2/12
ATP Buenos Aires (Feb. 14-18)
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ATP Rotterdam (Feb. 13-14)
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