In a highly unusual move, organisers gave Venus and Serena Williams top billing at the US Open by scheduling their 1st-round doubles match in Arthur Ashe Stadium for Thursday’s night session, much to the delight of the New York crowd.
Being the big sister meant that when my little sister made her professional debut, I became a lot of new things to her -- her colleague, her competitor, her business partner, her doubles partner. But I was still, first and foremost, the one thing I had always been: her family. I was her protector -- her first line of defence against outside forces. And I cherished that. Venus Williams
“You have Venus and Serena playing for first time here in eight years there’s a demand to see that,” USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier told Reuters about the decision to put doubles on the main show court. “There’s also the fans that aren’t here, they want to see that on television.
“To us it was the obvious thing to do.”
The 14-time Grand Slam champions delivered in front of the raucous fans, but ultimately fell just short on the scoreboard, dropping the match, 7-6(5) 6-4, to the Czech team of Lucie Hradecka & Linda Noskova.
The ‘Sister Act’ have helped to forge history, from the time they hit the scene to the night they inaugurated the US Open’s first prime time women’s final in 2001, to their last years together on tour.
They have an unbreakable bond, both on and off the court, and have been around since they turned pro at the tender ages of 14.
Venus led the way, especially in their formative years, even though they were born just 15 months apart, but Serena soon grew to be her own self.
Venus roared to her first US Open final in 1997 as an unseeded 17-year-old, and she won the first of her 5 Wimbledon titles 3 years later after defeating Serena in a semi-final match.
“For me,” Venus wrote, “being the big sister meant that when I made my professional debut, I was the only player on tour who looked like me.
“I was the only player with my skin colour, with my hair, with my background, with my style. … When I became world No 1 in 2002, I wasn’t just World No 1. I was also the first Black American woman to reach No 1. And it meant that I had to carry with me the importance of what I had accomplished. And I was honoured to do that.”
Serena soon followed, taking the US Open in 1999 and going on to amass 23 Grand Slam titles on the singles court, not to mention the doubles prowess with her sister.
“Being the big sister meant that when my little sister made her professional debut, I became a lot of new things to her — her colleague, her competitor, her business partner, her doubles partner,” Venus continued.
“But I was still, first and foremost, the one thing I had always been: her family. I was her protector — her first line of defence against outside forces. And I cherished that.”
They had not played together for a while, but they looked a formidable presence on Ashe under the lights.
In what is likely their Grand Slam swan song as a doubles pair, the Williams sisters were on the wrong side of a tight opening set, despite having 2 set points on return at 5-4, and later leading the tiebreak, 5-3.
In set two, the Americans recovered an early break to dig out of a 4-1 hole, but the Czechs earned a second break of the match to close out the victory.
The Williams sisters were making their first US Open appearance as a doubles team since 2014, and playing their first Grand Slam doubles match together since Roland Garros in 2018.
The first of their 14 major doubles crowns came at Roland Garros and the US Open in 1999, and they also won the New York title in 2009 on their way to owning a 25-7 record at their home Slam following their 9th appearance.
After the match, Noskova and Hradecka were full of praise for their illustrious opponents.
“Playing against the Williams sisters is a special moment for everybody, any time,” said the 17-year-old Noskova. “I was really lucky that I could pair with my doubles partner and we could win and put up a good fight.”
Added Hradecka: “We played [each other] for the first time. I think we did a very good job,” she told the Ashe crowd. “I’m so sorry for you that we beat them, but we are so happy that we did it!”
Elsewhere, there was a major upset in the doubles when the American powerhouse duo of Coco Gauff & Jessica Pegula were knocked out of the US Open, suffering a 3-6 7-5 7-6 defeat to Canada’s Leylah Fernandez & Daria Saville from Australia on Thursday.
The No 2 seeded pair, touted as favourites to win the title, were bundled out in the 1st round in front of their home crowd at Flushing Meadows.
Saville & Fernandez put together a remarkable come-back in the hot conditions, losing the opening set before bouncing back and clinching the 3rd-set tiebreak to progress through the 2nd-round in New York.
Gauff, who is the doubles World No 1 and sits at 12th on the WTA singles rankings, will now be able to focus on her singles campaign, as will Pegula, the World No 8, who will also compete in the mixed doubled alongside compatriot Austin Krajicek.
Saville & Fernandez will next face Hungary’s Dalma Galfi & Bernarda Pera from the USA in the 2nd-round.
Saville exited the women’s singles draw in the first round after losing to Elena Gabriela Ruse on one of Flushing Meadows’ outside courts on Tuesday morning.
“Grand Slams are chaotic,” Saville said. “It’s busy, it is so freaking chaotic in the players areas, and 90 per cent of these people never travel to any other tournament but because it’s a Slam they’ve come to ‘support’ their players.
“Friends, family, agents. I don’t know about other players but it makes me feel like I owe them a win.
“I just want to do my job, I don’t come to your job to ‘support’ you. I like to be focused on the progress, but all that goes out the window during the Slam.”