Each Thursday, Joel Drucker will look back at a moment in tennis that warrants remembrance. Some will be significant, others humorous, and many in between. It’s Throwback Thursday, tennis-style.
Many times, change is virtually undetectable. But then, there come those rare moments when it is strikingly visible, and eternally meaningful.
The setting was what was then called The Lipton Championships (now the Miami Open), the near-Slam level event played on the island of Key Biscayne. The 17-year-old Serena and the 18-year-old Venus had each reached the semis, showing the kind of competitive spirit and skillful tennis that would in time make them major champions.
But to play one another in the final would require vaulting past two titans. Serena took on world No. 1 Martina Hingis, winner of five Grand Slam singles titles, including the most recent—the Australian Open. Venus’ opponent was Stefanie Graf, the dominant player of the ‘90s.
A year earlier, in the quarters versus Hingis, Serena had held two match points, only to lose in a third-set tiebreaker. But by 1999, Serena had drastically improved. Prior to Key Biscayne, she’d won two straight tournaments, most recently beating Graf in the final of Indian Wells.
This proved to be a rollercoaster of a match. Hingis swiftly went up 4-0, weaving her trademark spider web of pace, spin and precision. Serena responded forcefully, taking eight straight games to lead 6-4, 2-0. Then it was Hingis’ turn, the Swiss winning five straight games and eventually holding two set points to take it into a third. In the end, though, Serena closed it out in a tiebreaker, 6-4, 7-6 (3).
Serena and Venus pose for a photo op with mom Oracene at Miami’s 1999 event. (Getty Images)
“I’ve never beaten the number one player in the world before, so I guess this is my biggest victory, ” Serena said following the nearly two-hour match.
“She was always a step faster and quicker than me,” Hingis noted.
Venus versus Graf was far more business-like, at least for the most part. Serving at 6-2, 5-3, 40-love, Venus was broken—but then took Graf’s serve in the next game to close out the match in 78 minutes.
“On the few points I played well, she did too,” said Graf. “And she came up with the better shots.”
“We both raised our games since the beginning of this year,” Venus said. “In Australia, we were both very, very extremely disappointed with our play. We came back in February as new people. We could even have new names.”
Though tennis has had its share of world-class sisters—the Maleevas, the Everts—Serena and Venus had done something remarkable: They were set to become the first sisters to meet one another in a singles final since Maud and Lillian Watson in the 1884 Wimbledon final.
Serena and Venus’ father, Richard Williams, was both elated and at a loss or words. “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.”
“It will be a great feeling for me because then it wouldn’t really matter who won or lost,” the younger sister said. “It would be like we both won. The trophy would definitely go to our home.”
Two days later, the older sister would emerge triumphant, but just barely, getting past Serena, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4.
No one more than Venus best articulated what those two semifinal wins really meant.
“The new era has arrived for women’s tennis,” she said following the win over Graf. “We’ve come a long way but this is what we always thought we would do.”
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