WIMBLEDON, England — Time had stopped, more accurately gone backward. The Williams sisters were at it once more, powering serves, ripping forehands, making us feel young again, making us feel part of an era when women’s tennis was distilled down to two names, Venus and Serena.
“Come on Williams!” a voice shouted during the first set of their Wimbledon fourth-rounder, and laughter rippled around Centre Court. Yeah, come on Williams, because out there in the sunshine and history, reprising an act that never gets boring, a Williams would succeed.
It would be Serena, as expected, and, for anticipated drama, as hoped. Venus played surprisingly well at times, but only at times, and so Serena, moving better, playing more consistently, won in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3. It was the 26th match between them over a period of 17 years and brings back memories of when the two were kids playing on broken-up public courts in southern
California and dreaming of the lawns at Wimbledon.
Now Venus departs, reminding us at 35 she’s still close to the top of the mountain if no longer at the summit. Serena, 33, goes on to the quarter-finals and maybe, if she takes Wimbledon a sixth time, a genuine Grand Slam, winning tennis’ four majors, in a calendar year.
That hasn’t been accomplished since Steffi Graf in 1988. That’s never been accomplished by Serena, who, as would a batter during a hitting streak or a basketball team during a winning streak, is trying to avoid any discussion of the subject.
“I no longer answer questions about Grand Slams,” said Sister Slam, uh, Sister Serena after needing only one hour, eight minutes to slam Venus. So, we’ll have to answer them.
It’s tough, very tough, winning the four Slam tournaments, the Australian Open, French Open (a.k.a. Roland Garros), Wimbledon and U.S. Open, on four different surfaces, over 8 1/2 months, January to September. You wake up one morning a bit listless, and you’re done.
But Serena, who faces Victoria Azarenka on Tuesday, is a survivor. She’s also one of three Americans in the quarters, along with Madison Keys and Coco Vandeweghe, Keys defeating Olga Govortsova, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, and Vandeweghe, whose grandfather, Ernie and uncle, Kiki, were stars in the NBA, beating Lucie Safarova, 7-6, 7-6.
Keys, 20, and Vandeweghe, 22, are faces of the future in a sport of rapid change — other than Serena. None of the 2014 eight quarter-finalists, including defending champion Petra Kvitova, made it that far this year, verification of the instability in the women’s game. Other than Serena.
Even when in a mess, she’s able to produces the huge shot when needed, usually one of her thundering serves. After all, she was beaten by Heather Watson in the third round, or so it seemed.
“It’s going to be tough for anyone to defeat her,” said Venus of Serena. “Maybe she didn’t have her best day [against Watson], but she found a way to win against an inspired opponent. That’s what it takes to win these championships, even when you’re not at the level you want to be.”
Weird and exciting that both tennis and golf have a chance at a Grand Slam in the same time frame. Next week in the British Open at St. Andrews, Jordan Spieth, after triumphs at the Masters and U.S. Open, will be where Serena Williams is now. The difference is that in tennis, the opponent is across the net. In golf, it’s spread out for more than 7,000 yards, the course.
Venus said it felt different facing Serena with the possibility of a Grand Slam on the line.”I don’t think another opponent would really care,” said Venus, “particularly in such an early round. It’s definitely anticlimactic if this isn’t a seminal or a final. Especially when she’s going for something historic, which is achievable for her.”
What Keys and Vandeweghe achieved was getting as far as the quarters in a Slam event for the first time in their brief careers. Keys was excited. “I think I’m playing pretty well,” she said. Vandeweghe was unemotional. “I thought it was one of my worst matches,” I’ve played so far, but I kept calm and cool.”
Those descriptions apply to both Williams sisters, for the most part. When Serena blows — such as when she verbally tore into a linesperson at the 2009 U.S. Open, spewing obscenities that cost her a huge fine — she blows high. That’s rare. Her control is as much an asset as her strokes.
“It doesn’t get any easier,” she said about playing Venus on Centre Court for a sixth time. “It’s never easy to play someone you love and care about. But I play for the competition and enjoy the moment.”
And to head toward the Slam she doesn’t wish to discuss.