Williams sisters meet for 31st time as Serena prepares for US Open
Bookies’ favourite targets 24th slam at Flushing Meadows Siblings clash in Kentucky tonight at Top Seed Open
There is something hypnotic about this week’s tennis coverage from Lexington, Kentucky. Even as the world’s leading women battle for points and prize money, a stream of vehicles flashes past in the background, bound for the assorted pet stores, banks and bakeries of middle America.
This juxtaposition of millionaire athletes with the humblest of settings will be especially piquant tonight. Lexington’s so-called “Centre Court” may be indistinguishable from its closely packed neighbours, but it is about to host two of the great modern champions: Serena Williams on one side of the net, and sister Venus on the other.
Despite the fan-free environment – which might seem peaceful but for the constant hum of traffic – this is an important week for all the players, given their collective lack of match fitness and the imminence of 2020’s second slam: the US Open. The rule applies to no one more than Serena Williams, who is the bookies’ favourite to lift her latest major title in exactly a month’s time.
Admittedly, Serena Williams has been the bookies’ favourite to lift every US Open title for the past decade or more, despite a barren run in New York that stretches back to 2014. But this year – it almost goes without saying – is different. The stars are aligning for what could be an evening to remember on Sept 12: a 24th slam, to finally carry her level with Margaret Court’s long-standing record.
There are numerous reasons to predict another seminal Serena moment. For one thing, the US Open field has already been weakened by the withdrawal of three of the world’s top seven players, including No 1 Ashleigh Barty, on safety grounds.
For another, she has been practising on a freshly built court at her home in Palm Beach, Florida. The pristine Laykold surface is identical to the one that will be used at Flushing Meadows.
“The tennis court is so fun,” said Williams at the weekend. “I go there and it’s my own sanctuary. I’m like, ‘Why didn’t I do this 20 years ago?’”
Admittedly, Serena’s backyard practice sessions could not prevent a slow start to Lexington’s Top Seed Open, where she lost the first set to world No 60 Bernarda Pera on Tuesday night. But she had a decent excuse. She had not played competitive tennis for six months. By the end, she was still dominant enough to reel off the last nine points, finishing the match with a contemptuous forehand winner.
Worryingly for her rivals, Serena looked phenomenally fit, with sharply defined biceps that could have belonged to a boxer or javelin thrower. But her repeated postmatch insistence that “I am playing unbelievable in practice” was a reminder that she needs matches.
With only two warm-up events to work with, she can ill afford any upsets before the US Open begins on Aug 30. After Serena had battled to her 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory on Tuesday, Venus was contrastingly ruthless in a 6-3, 6-2 thrashing of former world No 1 Victoria Azarenka. The main talking point here was a new service action, radically reinvented from the toppling-tower motion that had brought Venus 49 career titles. Such a late-career reinvention might seem risky – foolhardy even. But the new version proved brutally effective, regularly clocking more than 110mph and allowing Azarenka just a single break point in the match.
And so, at 38 and 40 years old respectively, Serena and Venus are about to meet for the 31st time on tour – as well as the first with no fans in attendance. Serena probably needs the win more, given her focus on US Open glory. But it is easy to overlook the real story here: the remarkable fact that these two are still competing with such ferocity, 26 years after Venus’s tour debut.
It sounds like a movie script. And indeed, only last week, a Hollywood studio moved closer to bringing the early years of the Williams story to the big screen.
According to documents from a Los Angeles court, Will Smith’s production company settled out of court with TW3 – a smaller studio which claimed to hold the rights to Richard Williams’s autobiography. In theory, this clears the way for the release of King Richard – starring Smith himself in the title role of Venus and Serena’s father – in a little over a year’s time.
The movie has already begun shooting, with Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton playing the respective parts of Venus and Serena. One suspects that Lexington, Kentucky, is unlikely to make the final cut.
Family rivals: Serena (below and far right) and Venus