March 28, 1999: The day Serena and Venus squared off in a final for the first time
Each day, Tennis Majors takes you back in time to an important moment in the sport’s history. On this day — March 28 — in 1999, Venus Williams and Serena Williams went head-to-head in a WTA final for the first time.
What happened exactly on that day
On this day, March 28, 1999, at the Miami Open, Venus and Serena Williams became the first sisters in the Open Era to face each other in a WTA final. Venus prevailed 6-1, 4-6, 6-4, but it was not the outcome that made that day memorable in tennis history. The final marked the start of a new era of tennis dominated by the Williams sisters — as long predicted by their father, Richard, who had always claimed one day his daughters would compete for the world No 1 spot.
The players involved: Venus Williams, Serena Willams
Venus Williams was born in 1980. Coached by her father, Richard, she was heralded as tennis prodigy since her first steps on the tour in 1994 — when the teenager made a strong impression, beating world No 59, Shaun Stafford, 6-3, 6-4, before leading 6-3, 3-1 against world No 1, Arantxa Sanchez (Venus eventually lost 3-6, 6-3, 6-0). However, it was not until 1997 that she broke into the top 100 by obtaining her first significant result at Indian Wells, reaching the quarter-finals after defeating world No 9 Iva Majoli 7-5, 3-6, 7-5. She drew a lot of attention to herself thanks to her powerful groundstrokes, mixed with her charisma and the heavy promotion made by her father. Her younger sister, Serena, was also beginning a career in professional tennis, and their father had boldly predicted that one day they would face each other in a Grand Slam final. In September of 1997, Venus reached the final at the US Open, where she was defeated by Martina Hingis in the youngest final in the tournament’s history (6-0, 6-4). She claimed her first three titles in 1998 — in Oklahoma City, Miami, and the Grand Slam Cup, and in major tournaments she reached the quarter-finals at the Australian Open, Roland-Garros, and Wimbledon before making her way into the US Open semi-finals (defeated by Lindsay Davenport 6-4, 6-4). At the end of the season she was world No 5.
Serena Williams, born in 1981, is the youngest of the Williams family. Her older sister, Venus, at the start of her career in 1997 had declared that her main rival for world No 1 would be none other than Serena. At the time, the tennis experts did not know whether she was joking or just being provocative. They soon discovered how serious Venus was, as Serena made her first world-class performance the same year, in November, in Scottsdale. At the age of 16 and ranked No 304, she came out of qualifying and went on to the semi-final by beating No 7 Mary Pierce 6-3, 7-6 and No 4 Monica Seles 4-6, 6-1, 6-1. In 1998 she beat several top 10 players — including world No 3 Lindsay Davenport in the quarter-finals of the Sydney Open (1-6, 7-5, 7-5). Serena also reached the quarter-finals several times to end the season as world No 20. But it was 1999 that became her true breakthrough year. In February she claimed her first title in Paris Coubertin at the age of 17, defeating local favourite Amélie Mauresmo 6-2, 3-6, 7-6. Two weeks later she triumphed at Indian Wells, beating former No 1 Steffi Graf in the final (6-3, 3-6, 7-5). She held the 16th spot in the WTA rankings heading into Miami.
The Miami Tennis Open, originally named the Lipton International Players Championship, was held for the first time in 1985 in Delray Beach — with the idea of being the first big tennis event of the year (at the time, the Australian Open was held in December). The tournament moved to Key Biscayne in 1987. The event was played on slow hard courts and in extreme heat and humidity. Nonetheless, with huge prize money and a 96-player draw it was — by 1998 — considered as the biggest tennis tournament in the world outside of Grand Slams. It boasted an impressive list of former champions, including Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, and Martina Hingis.
The 1999 Miami final between Venus and Serena Williams could not be called a surprise, as both young women were already confirmed top players. Nonetheless, it was a monumental moment on tour. Many experts thought Richard was crazy for claiming that one day his daughters were going to dominate the game, but as years went by Venus and Serena made their way to the very top of the game. By 1999 it was just a matter of time before his prediction came true.
To reach the final in Miami, Serena — who had already topped a legend of the game, Steffi Graf, to triumph at Indian Wells — ousted world No 3 Monica Seles 6-2, 6-3 and world No 1 Martina Hingis 6-4, 7-6. Meanwhile, Venus eliminated world No 4 Jana Novotna 5-7, 6-2, 6-3 and 21-time Grand Slam champion Graf 6-2, 6-4.
“The new era has arrived for women’s tennis,” Venus said following the win over Graf. “We’ve come a long way but this is what we always thought we would do. We both raised our games since the beginning of this year.”
No one could be more thrilled than the always outspoken Richard Williams to see his daughters becoming the first sisters since 1894 to set a final clash at the top level.
“I always knew it would happen,” he said. “I’ve been talking about it for years, planning for it, but now that it’s here I don’t even know what to think.”
Before the match started, Richard took place in the stands and stood up — holding up a sign reading, “Welcome to the Williams show.” However, he was soon overwhelmed by emotion and left the court after a few games, pacing around Crandon Park while his daughters were fighting for the title.
“I really thought I was going to cry,” Richard explained. “I felt too ugly to be out there crying, so I left.”
In this clash of sisters, Serena — who had said before that, no matter the outcome, “the trophy would definitely go [to our] home” — didn’t show the same killer instinct that she had in her previous rounds. According to opponents — including Hingis, whom she had defeated in the semi-finals — she had been more impressive than her sister throughout the whole tournament. Nonetheless, she was beaten by Venus for the third time in as many encounters (6-1, 4-6, 6-4).
“It’s difficult to play against your sister,” Venus said after her victory. “But whoever I play, I play to win.”
In September 1999, two years after Venus Williams had boldly declared that her biggest rival would be her younger sister, Serena would become the first of the Williams family to lift a major trophy, defeating world No 1, Martina Hingis (6-3, 7-6), to clinch her first Grand Slam title at Flushing Meadows. It would take almost three years before Serena claimed another Grand Slam crown, but when she did it was to achieve a feat known as the Serena Slam — she would win four consecutive major titles in 2002 and 2003, each time defeating her sister Venus in the final. Thus they proved their father right. Serena has claimed a total of 23 Grand Slam titles and has been world No 1 for 319 weeks.
Venus Williams has claimed a total of seven Grand Slam titles in her career, at the US Open (2000, 2001) and at Wimbledon (2000, 2001, 2005, 2007, 2008), and she held the world No 1 ranking for 11 weeks in 2002 before being overtaken by Serena.
In total, the Williams sisters have faced each other 31 times in their career — 12 times in a final, including nine Grand Slam finals. Serena leads 19-12 overall and 7-2 in major finals.