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January 21, 1998: the day the Williams sisters faced each other on the tour for the first time

Every day Tennis Majors takes you back in time to celebrate a great moment in tennis history. Today, we go back to 1998 to witness how, in the second round of the Australian Open, Venus and Serena Williams squared off for the first time, fulfilling their father’s prediction

What happened exactly

On this day, January 21, 1998, the Williams sisters played each other on the tour for the very first time, in the second round of the Australian Open. In the first of their 31 all-sisters clashes to come, Venus, 17 years old at the time and runner-up at the last US Open, defeated 16-year-old Serena, 7-6, 6-1, before making her way into the quarter-finals of the tournament.

The players involved: Venus Williams and Serena Williams

  • Venus Williams: groundbreaking prodigy

Venus Williams was born in 1980. Coached by her father Richard, she was heralded as a tennis prodigy since her first steps on the tour, in 1994. However, it was not until 1997 that she broke into the top 100, obtaining her first significant result in Palm Springs, reaching the quarterfinals after defeating world No 9 Iva Majoli (7-5, 3-6, 7-5). Although she was only 66th in the WTA rankings at the start of the 1997 US Open, 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 – and in the end, she made her way into the final, where she was defeated by Martina Hingis in the youngest Grand Slam final in tennis history (6-0, 6-4). At the beginning of 1998, she was already world No 16.

Venus Williams at the 1998 Australian Open
  • Serena Williams: following in her footsteps

Her younger sister, Serena, was also beginning a career in professional tennis, and their father had  boldly predicted that one day, the would face each other in a Grand Slam final. Many people thought he was joking, but they soon discovered how serious Richard Williams was, as Serena made her first world-class performance as early as  November 1997, in Scottsdale. At the age of 16, ranked No 304, she came out of the qualifications and went on to the semi-finals, beating Mary Pierce (No 7, 6-3, 7-6) and Monica Seles (No 4, 4-6, 6-1, 6-1).  In January 1998, at the Sydney Open, she made her way out of the qualifications and then defeated world No 3 Lindsay Davenport in the quarter-finals (1-6, 7-5, 7-5), before losing to Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in the semi-finals (6-2, 6-1).

The place: Australian Open, Melbourne

Unlike the other Grand Slam tournaments, The Australian Open (first known as the Australasian Championships and, later, the Australian Championships) had moved several locations throughout the years. In fact, the event switched cities every year before it settled in Melbourne in 1972, and no less than five Australian cities had hosted the event at least three times: Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth. The event was held on grass at the Kooyong Stadium, in a wealthy suburb of Melbourne. Its timing had changed several times as well, between early December and January, going from being the first Grand Slam of the year to being the last. Until 1982, many of the best players skipped the Australian Open, mainly because of the remoteness, and the low prize money, but then, with the triumph of Mats Wilander, the dynamic changed. The tournament’s board made big efforts to become as prestigious as the other Grand Slams, which ended up with the event moving to a new location in 1988, in Flinders Park (later known as Melbourne Park), switching from grass to hard courts, and displaying the first-ever centre court equipped with a retractable roof. Prizes increased as well, and it wasn’t long before the tournament became many players’ favourite Grand Slam.

Serena Williams in action at the 1998 Australian Open

The facts

In January 1998, the days when people laughed at Richard Williams’s predictions were long gone. His daughters, Venus, 17 years old, and Serena, one year younger, had proven their worth on the tennis court. Venus, runner-up of the last US Open, was world No 16, whereas Serena had already beaten three top 10 players before the Australian Open began, ranked 53rd in the world.

Richard had said the year before that one day his daughters were going to fight for world No 1 and play each other in a Grand Slam final. If this was to happen, it wouldn’t be at the 1998 Australian Open: in the main draw, the Williams sisters were only one match apart and thus could face each other in the second round. Venus methodically destroyed Alexia Dechaume-Balleret (6-3, 6-0), but Serena had to deliver an impressive performance to eliminate the world No 9, Irina Spirlea, from Romania (6-7, 6-3, 6-1).

While their mother sat in a neutral corner, more concerned with the relationship between her daughters than the outcome of the match, the two rising stars played a very tight first set, with no less than eight breaks of serve. However, the more experienced Venus showed more self-control to prevail in the tiebreak (7-4). The second set was much shorter, with Serena calling the physio to tape her right knee while trailing 3-0. The oldest of the incredible sisters prevailed 7-6(4), 6-1.

In the interviews that followed their first encounter on the main Tour, both sisters showed the same confidence as their father.

“What you saw was something for the future,” Serena said, according to The New York Times. “If I had to lose in the second round, no better than to Venus; I tried to keep thinking of her as someone else, but I guess Venus has a little more experience than me.”

“I see us as the No 1 and No 2 seeds, interchangeable,” Venus said. “Today would have been great fun if it were a final, but it wasn’t so fun to eliminate my little sister in the second round.”

What next

Venus Williams would go on to reach the quarter-finals of the 1998 Australian Open, where she would be defeated by Lindsay Davenport (1-6, 7-5, 6-3). 

Serena was right: this first encounter was a glimpse of the future. In total, the Williams sisters would face each other 31 times in the following 20 years, including in no less than nine Grand Slam finals – seven of them being won by the Serena, who even beat her sister in four consecutive major events in 2002-2003.

Venus would claim a total of seven Grand Slam titles in her career, at the US Open (2000, 2001) and at Wimbledon (2000, 2001, 2005, 2007, 2008). 

Serena, on the other hand, would accumulate 23 Grand Slams in singles, spending a total of 319 weeks as world No 1.

Together, the Williams sisters would also win 14 Grand Slam tournaments in doubles.

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