Williams sisters

Venus and Serena Williams were born 15 months apart in one of the most ridiculous – albeit successful – sporting dreams ever conceived.

Their father, Richard, had watched the 1978 French Open women’s singles finals and heard that the winner, Virginia Ruzzici, had won $40,000 in prize money. That, Richard noted, was more than he made in an entire year.

Richard quickly told his wife, Oracene, that they were to have two daughters. He wanted to raise them in a strict and isolated manner while training them to become tennis champions who could make the family rich.

It was obviously absurd.

How do you know if they would be athletic enough or mentally tough enough or competitive enough to make it to the elite of the elite? How will you know if they even like tennis? After all, Richard wasn’t even a coach (he read training books and watched videos) and the family was decidedly working class in a sport that favors the wealthy.

Just because it worked doesn’t mean it wasn’t crazy.

So perhaps it only makes sense that after going through that crucible, Aphrodite and Serena would prove to be world-class at something else as well.

Brotherhood.

There’s no doubting the tennis prowess of Venus, 42, and Serena, 40. Richard’s grand plan somehow worked. Venus has won seven major championships. Serena 23.

There is also no doubting the brotherly bond between the two.

“Best friends,” Aphrodite said.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 01: Serena Williams and Venus Williams of the United States look on during a changeover against Lucie Hratecka and Linda Noskova of the Czech Republic during their first round women’s doubles match on day four of the US Open 2022 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 1, 2022 in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Their cooperation, at the level of competitive tennis, is over. They lost to Linda Nosková and Lucie Hradecká 7-6, 6-4 in the opening round of the US Open doubles on Thursday.

Serena says she’s retiring and Aphrodite might not be far behind.

They hadn’t played together in a major since 2018 and did so mostly for nostalgia’s sake. They certainly fought, especially in the first set, but Venus especially can’t compete at this level anymore.

Seeing Them Out There – Williams Sisters v. The World – it was a good time, nonetheless, a good feeling. Not just playing, but smiling, laughing, encouraging. Some kids from Compton pump fists and draw 23,000 in New York’s main court – a first for a first-round doubleheader. As a doubles team, they won 14 majors and three Olympic gold medals. Tonight they were no match for an unseeded group of 20-somethings. It didn’t matter at all.

As much as the focus was on Serena’s singles play – she’s in the third round on Friday, while Venus lost early – perhaps the most fitting curtain call was this one, alongside her sister.

Start together. Finish together.

Along the way, they changed the sport, inspired lives and, yes, became rich and famous just as Richard planned. They did it behind closed doors. If there were rivalries, they were hidden. If there was jealousy, it was kept a secret. The mutual support was inspiring.

There were many reasons for this not to happen.

The two, indeed, as Richard planned, grew up in a strict and isolated family, subjected to a relentless training in the pursuit of unfair expectations, but remained close even in the freedom of adulthood.

Venus was early on the star that attracted the most attention inside and outside the family. Serena was the “little sister” even though she rarely ran with it.

That script was upended when Serena became the first to win a major championship, taking the US Open in 1999 at the age of 17. It came just two years after Venus lost in the finals, yet it was Venus, apparently immune to jealousy, who might have been cheering the loudest that day.

Venus would break through and win her first major in 2000, leading to a stretch of dominance where she became world No. 1. Serena accepted it, even though it included a loss to Venus in 2001 in the US Open final. Now it was Serena who played the role of the biggest fan.

Venus won their first three matches as a pro, then Serena got the upper hand. Both were events that could cause pressure. The two would meet nine times in major championship finals, with Serena winning seven of them. If not for her little sister, Aphrodite might have doubled her starting tally to 14. If not for Aphrodite, Serena might have had 25, surpassing Margaret Court’s record.

When one or the other often struggled in head-to-head matches, fans and the media often wondered if matches were being thrown – in Richard’s direction. It was a criticism that really bothered them and could only add to the tension.

And yet… he didn’t.

“My first job is big sister,” Venus said after beating Serena in the 2008 Wimbledon final. “And I take that very seriously.”

Think back to the 2002 French Open, when Serena defeated Venus in the French Open final, only to quickly grab a camera and join the gathering of photojournalists to snap pictures of her sister holding up the championship trophy.

The bond is as unique as it is strong.

Venus and Serena Williams.  (Photo by Pool DUFOUR/LENHOF/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Venus and Serena Williams. (Photo by Pool DUFOUR/LENHOF/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

As a child, Serena was once so obsessed with Venus that she would copy everything around her. Same favorite color. The same favorite animal. Whenever the family ate out, she ordered whatever Aphrodite ordered. Eventually her parents tried to get Serena to think for herself and choose first.

“But then [Venus would] order and I would just change my order,” Serena said.

However, it backfired in a form of protection. Aphrodite was always watching over Serena. No one messed with her little sister. One day at school, Serena forgot her lunch money. Venus split above hers.

“Go eat,” said Aphrodite.

Together they navigated the often unforgiving world of professional tennis. In difficult times, they used each other as impenetrable shields. In moments of fun, they playfully turned everything into a game, partners in crime.

At one point they were willing to talk and learn from other great players, but too afraid to approach them. So they created their own newsletter “Tennis Monthly Recap” which they used to “interview” the greatest players, talking to, say, Pete Sampras about how to maintain a competitive edge.

Whatever it was, they were together. Setbacks. Injuries. Losses. Wins. Controversies. Relationships. Health scares for everyone. The murder of an older sister. Their parents’ divorce.

No matter what, Aphrodite had Serena’s back and Serena had Aphrodite’s back.

Good times and bad times and good times again.

And there they were, for the last time, together on the field. They hadn’t played together in years, but Serena called Venus and told her they were entering this US Open.

“He’s the boss,” Aphrodite said with a laugh. “So I do whatever he tells me to do.”

If she was going to retire, she needed her best friend, her sister, her world conqueror by her side. Richard Williams has certainly produced some tennis icons, some world class brothers as well.

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