Sister Act 31 lived up to its billing at the Top Seed Open presented by Bluegrass Orthopaedics in Lexington, Kentucky, with Serena Williams coming from behind to narrowly outlast Venus, 3-6 6-3 6-4.
It's never easy,. I feel like today I turned it up in the last two games. I needed to just play better. It was a high-quality match. Venus is playing really, really good. Serena Williams
At 2-2 30-30 in the final set, they could not have been more evenly balanced and then the younger sister prevailed.
“I think she played unbelievable, she’s doing so good,” Serena said in her on-court interview. “I honestly don’t know how I was able to pull it out at the end, she fought well.”
When Venus and Serena Williams played their first tour-level match in 1998, both were teenagers with beads in their hair, Bill Clinton was President and Coco Gauff was 6 years away from being born.
Venus beat her little sister in straight sets in that second-round match at the Australian Open, but Serena mostly dominated the rivalry across the next two decades and she led her older sister 18-12, including 7-2 in Grand Slam finals.
The sisters have combined to win 30 Grand Slam titles, with Serena claiming 23 and Venus potentially wondering how many more she might have won were it not for her sister, while Serena has earned close to $93 million in career prize money, with Venus at nearly $42 million.
In winning on Thursday, it is Serena, who will be 39 next month, that advances to the tournament quarter-finals of the first WTA event held in the United States since COVID-19 shut down the sport in March.
Serena lost 6 of 7 games to end the first set, but soon found her rhythm, breaking Venus’ service to go up 4-2 in the second with a backhand winner and winning the set when Venus hit a short forehand.
After splitting the first two sets, the match turned in the 3rd after Venus left the court during the break.
The sisters traded a series of breaks, with Venus taking a 4-2 lead, but Serena got two straight breaks, taking a 5-4 lead with a winner from well behind the baseline and then held serve to win the match.
Serena finished with 14 aces while breaking Venus 5 times.
The sisters tapped rackets at the net at the end, skipping the traditional hugs in deference to safety rules put in place to minimise the spread of COVID-19.
There were no fans in the stands, and the players had to handle their own towels, but despite these differences, Serena said she felt the emotional tug she always felt when playing her sister.
“It’s never easy,” Serena said in a Zoom conference later. “I feel like today I turned it up in the last two games. I needed to just play better. It was a high-quality match. Venus is playing really, really good.
Serena, whose nearly 3-year-old daughter Olympia has been on the grounds in Lexington, will play both the US Open later this month and the French Open beginning next month as she attempts to win her record-tying 24th Grand Slam title to tie Margaret Court.
“I honestly didn’t come here to win for the first time in my career,” Serena said. “I just came here to get some matches and see what happens.
“I haven’t had this much time off since the baby so I’m just trying to get some rhythm and just see what happens to be honest.”
Serena has yet to win a major title since giving birth to her daughter in late 2017 and returning to the tour in early 2018.
She won her first title as a mother in January at the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand, but is 0-4 in Grand Slam finals, losing the 2018 US. Open final to Naomi Osaka and beaten by Canadian Bianca Andreescu in last year’s final.
She also lost back-to-back Wimbledon finals to Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep in 2018 and ’19.
With the win over her sister, Serena moves into the quarter-finals as she continues to round into form after a layoff since February due to the pandemic, and takes on World No 116 Shelby Rogers, who defeated young Canadian qualifier Leylah Fernandez, 6-2 7-5, in an hour and 39 minutes.
Shelby served at only 40%, dominating with her first serve and fending off 3 out of 5 break chances.
The youngster couldn’t follow those numbers, losing half of the points behind the initial shot and giving her serve away 5 times to propel Rogers through.
Shelby broke in the first game of the match for a convincing start, serving well and increasing her advantage to 5-2 with another break.
The American needed 5 set points on serve in the next game, converting the last to move closer to the finish line.
Fernandez got into the fight in set number two, stealing serve in games 2 and 6 to forge a 5-2 advantage but with no room for errors, Shelby started to climb back, rattling 20 of the last 27 points to grab 5 straight games and move into the quarters without playing a decider.
Jil Teichmann made it through to the last 8 for the first time since Palermo last July, ousting the 5th seed Yulia Putintseva, 6-2 6-2, in an hour and 28 minutes.
Both players had their opportunities on the return, and it was the Swiss who took better advantage of those, snagging 60% of the points on Putintseva’s serve and securing 6 breaks.
That was more than enough to keep her safe after erasing 6 out of 8 opportunities that the Kazakh earned herself, controlling the pace and staying on course.
They traded early breaks before Teichmann shifted into a higher gear, taking the last 4 games for a massive momentum ahead of set two.
There, with the Swiss securing 5 straight games from being 2-1 down, she stole Putintseva’s serve to love in game 8 and sealed the deal in style, ready to take on Catherine Bellis next.
She chose to make her debut on the hardcourts of Lexington with an eye on the rankings as the tour returned to play following the 5-month break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I won both Palermo and Prague last year, and with this ranking system I couldn’t earn any more points there,” Teichmann said in her post-match press conference. “It would be more like a prize money tournament not an actual tournament for me.
“So I’m very lucky that this new tournament in Lexington came up, and now I have the chance to earn both prize money and as well to earn points for my ranking.”
After reaching the third round at the Australian Open, Cici Bellis is back on the winning way, ousting Jessica Pegula, 6-3 6-2, in an hour and 25 minutes.
Plagued with injuries in recent years, Bellis is back at her best after the coronavirus break, dominating on the return to forge a commanding triumph.
She served at 44%, saving 5 out of 7 chances offered to Pegula and delivering 5 breaks from 14 opportunities to always stay in front.
Bellis won the opener after clinching the last 4 games from 2-3, repeating a similar performance in the second set with three consecutive breaks that carried her over the top.