History Makers: The Williams sisters
• 6 MINUTE READ
Our latest History Makers feature looks at the lives and careers of two of our sport’s most influential champions – Venus and Serena Williams.
With 62 Grand Slam titles between them as well as eight Olympic Gold medals and a Billie Jean King Cup (formerly Fed Cup), they have won everything tennis has to offer, but it’s their impact around campaigning for social justice that will stand the sisters as two of the greatest of all-time.
From Compton to the Grand Slams
Let’s first take it back to the start of their story; beginning in Los Angeles, where Venus and Serena – the youngest of five sisters – first stepped foot on the public courts at East Compton Park.
Famously coached by their father Richard Williams, the sisters’ talent was evident from an early age. Playing on their local court, the pair were spotted by a pro player, Tony Chesta, who was blown away by how good they were already. This meeting set in motion the start of a historic journey in becoming two of the game's greatest champions.
In 1991, the Williams family made the decision to move to Palm Springs in Florida to enrol both sisters at the famous Delray Beach Tennis Academy. Here, Venus and Serena took their training to a new level – they would spend around ‘six hours a day, six days a week’ on court practising and honing their skills.
But in 1995, Richard took the sisters out of the academy to take over as their full-time coach. During their time there Venus and Serena had been the top 12U and 10U players in the country and at the time it seemed a risky decision for two of the country’s most promising talents.
It definitely paid off – Venus turned pro at the age of just 14 and beat her first opponent ranked in the top 20 just a year later. Meanwhile, in 1997 Serena (aged 16) became the lowest-ranked player to defeat two stars inside the world’s top 10 at the same tournament, the Ameritech Cup Chicago.
It was obvious that Venus and Serena were two of the brightest young talents to come into the game for a while, but no one could have predicted the era of dominance that followed.
Taking over the world
Venus’ breakthrough came in 1997 when she made history at the US Open, becoming the first woman to reach the final on her debut since 1978 and the first unseeded player to do so in nearly 40 years.
On this occasion, she went on to lose the final to Martina Hingis but would return to win the title twice – in 2000 and 2001, during a golden period in her career.
Both sisters got their first taste of Grand Slam glory in 1998 collecting all four mixed doubles titles between them in a single season – Venus teaming up with Justin Gimelstob to win the Australian and French Opens, while Serena won Wimbledon and the US Open with Max Mirnyi.
In the same year they also played their first of many competitive matches against each other – Venus coming through in the second round in Melbourne.
1999 sparked the beginning of the one of the most successful women’s doubles pairings in history as the sisters joined forces to win the French and US Opens in the same season. These would be the first of 14 Grand Slam doubles titles and three Olympic gold medals together.
The turn of the new millennium saw the beginning of the Williams era of dominance on the singles tour – especially when it came to Wimbledon.
Venus claimed her first title at SW19 in 2000, defeating Martina Hingis, Serena and then Lindsay Davenport – during a 35 match unbeaten run, spanning across six tournaments.
She defended the title against Justine Henin in 2001 and picked up her fourth Grand Slam singles title after beating her sister Serena in the US Open final, which this was the first of nine major finals between the two.
Closest of sisters, best of rivals
The 2001 US Open final sparked the beginning of one of tennis’ greatest rivalries.
They became the first two players in history to play in four consecutive Grand Slam singles finals from the 2002 French Open to the 2003 Australian Open; with the bragging rights going to Serena who swept all four titles to win her first of two ‘Serena Slams’.
During this period, both sisters topped the WTA rankings at various points and were seemingly unstoppable to the outside world.
Injuries to both sisters in the mid-2000s set them back, but not for long. In 2008 Venus got her second win over her sister in a major final at Wimbledon but Serena returned the favour in the following year to win her first Slam title in six years.
The two wouldn’t play each other in a Grand Slam final for another eight years, until the 2017 Australian Open. By this point Serena had broken records left, right and centre and was sitting on an incredible 22 major singles trophies. She beat Venus in straight sets to surpass Steffi Graff’s Grand Slam tally in the Open Era.
Here's a breakdown of their achievements:
|Venus Williams||Serena Williams|
|Grand Slam singles titles||7||23|
|Grand Slam doubles titles (inc. mixed doubles)||16||16|
|Billie Jean King Cups||1||1|
Impact across the world
While their contributions to the world of tennis are almost unrivalled, Venus and Serena have never shied away from addressing social issues outside of the game.
Both players were at the forefront of effecting equal pay across both the men’s and women’s games at Wimbledon and the French Open in 2007, with Venus leading a WTA and UNESCO campaign to promote gender equality in sport.
In a famous quote, the seven-time Grand Slam singles champion reacted to the news saying, "Somewhere in the world a little girl is dreaming of holding a giant trophy in her hands and being viewed as an equal to boys who have similar dreams."
In more recent years, both players have refused silence on social injustice – especially around the Black Lives Matter movement.
From the 2016 killing of Philando Castile to the recent death of George Floyd, both sisters have been outspoken in both the media and across her socials about racism and the systemic problems they have been affected by.
When it was suggested that perhaps Serena took time away from her fight for equality to focus on her game and the 24th Grand Slam, the former World No.1 replied, “The day I stop fighting for equality... will be the day I’m in my grave.”
Arguably the most impressive thing about Venus and Serena is how they carry the responsibility they have put on themselves to stand up for what they believe in.
“Someone in my position can show women and people of colour that we have a voice, because lord knows I use mine” said Serena in an interview with Vogue last year.
“I love sticking up for people and supporting women. Being the voice that millions of people don’t have.”
The Williams’ are shining role models for the next generation. Their pride in what makes them who they are and the influence they have brought to society goes above and beyond anything they have achieved in the sport.