It's history, Serena-style
January 26 2003
By Linda Pearce
Rivals for a day, Serena, left, and Venus Williams embrace after the younger sister secured her 'Serena Slam'.
Margaret Court, visiting from Perth, watched from the second row of the presidential reserve. Steffi Graf was elsewhere, but nearby, and one Andre Agassi win away from contemplating a temporary comeback at Roland Garros. Martina Navratilova was awaiting today's mixed doubles final, which she will contest, incredibly, at the age of 46.
Only the late Maureen Connolly, the other woman to have won four consecutive grand slam titles, could not witness Serena Williams joining the exclusive club yesterday on Rod Laver Arena.
So, had Connolly still been with us, what would she have seen?
A close, intense two-hour, 22-minute final that ended when Venus Williams lapsed in her last service game; another example of the subdued, confused atmosphere that comes with not knowing which sister to support, or perhaps of not even caring all that much; the slightly eerie experience of the first all-indoor grand slam decider, as a 44-degree furnace raged outside; and the rare sight of a choked-up Serena, accepting her first Australian Open trophy with a brief speech, and then receiving a consoling pat from Venus.
The Williams' maternal grandmother recently passed away, and it was to Ora Lee Price that Venus dedicated her finals appearance. Serena's tears were more about history, about having always wanted to succeed and, at the age of just 21, of achieving a rare and treasured feat.
"All my life I've kinda dreamed of being the best, and doing the best, and it hasn't always been easy for me," Serena said after the 7-6 (7-4), 3-6, 6-4 victory. "So I've been trying, but it's really special to have come such a long way, it's just really fulfilling. And the fact that I'm just making history right now and the fact that I was able to win four in a row, it doesn't happen every day.
"I just can't believe that I can now be compared to these women, because they're such greats. I don't know if I'll ever be able to accomplish everything that they have, but just even being in that category of winning four in a row for me is really amazing: something I've always wanted to do."
A calendar grand slam beckons next, and the last match Serena lost in one of the Big Four was the 2001 US Open final, to Venus. Nothing, it seems, is beyond her. Venus says it is about momentum, in which regard Serena is like a truck left pointing downhill without the handbrake on.
As much as Venus pushed and struggled, her sister's force was ultimately irresistible, and the strength the challenger lacked was, she said, mostly mental. Serena disagreed, claiming that "most of my fight and courage I've gotten from Venus". Still, serving at 4-5 in the third set, Venus hit two errors off her usually more-reliable backhand side, then a double fault, and finally pushed a forehand long.
She embraced her sister at the net, smiled as she applauded the crowd, and then spoke of Serena's four-in-a-row achievement, "which is something I want to do one day . . . just trying to be just like her." That makes a change, for Serena spent her childhood wanting, and pretending, to be Venus. The roles have now been fully reversed.
Yet perhaps the vanquished big sister can take small solace from the fact that this was the most demanding leg of the so-called "Serena Slam". Having not lost a set in a major since Roland Garros eight months ago, the world champion dropped three at Melbourne Park: to Emilie Loit, Kim Clijsters and Venus.
Mother-of-the-finalists, Oracene Price, did not see yesterday's lapse, having retreated to the locker-room at the end of the tiebreak and staying there to watch in peace and privacy until the match was over. These family affairs are never easy, and the record-breaking fourth consecutive grand slam final between the sisters was no exception.
Even the racquet stringer was confused, mistakenly delivering one of Venus' blue-handled racquets to Serena, whose grips are white. "I guess they think we're so much alike we used the same racquet," she said, admitting she thought of returning it herself before the match, before deciding to let a ball boy deliver it instead. This, after all, was a grand slam final, even if it did not always feel like one.
Still, whatever the shortcomings of the atmosphere, at least the 11th encounter between the sisters was one of the most competitive, despite Oracene saying beforehand that having styles so similar made it "hard to play against yourself, in a sense". Venus was, as ever, more vulnerable and less damaging on the forehand side. She did not attack quite enough when given the chance, and could not hold her serve together for the full three sets.
As usual, the sisters had warmed up together for 30 minutes, and given no hint that this was anything but an ordinary day. Having watched from close range for more than two weeks, Western Australian hitting partner Mark Hlawaty believed the decisive factor was Venus' serve dropping away late in the third set, after "she'd been serving cannons all day".
"I think she just about had me. I just wanted to win so bad," Serena said before being taken off for the cheesy annual photo opportunity, this year by the Yarra at Southbank. "Luck has nothing to do with it, because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours, on the court working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come."
Make that moments, plural, and with all but Maureen Connolly in town for the occasion, one of her most historically significant yet.