It has been more than 22 years since Venus and Serena Williams first played each other on tour. They were teenagers then, with beads in their hair and braces on their teeth.
Tennis greatness was predicted — and not just by Richard Williams, their father and coach — and the sisters have delivered. But what is nearly as remarkable as their success is their longevity, and on Thursday they faced each other for the 31st time in a strange and new environment with Serena Williams prevailing 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 in the second round of the Top Seed Open.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, there were no paying spectators allowed. And after the Williamses removed their masks and began ripping serves and groundstrokes in the summer heat, their often brilliant efforts were met with near silence: just scattered applause from the team members and the officials sitting courtside at this lower-tier WTA event in the suburbs of Lexington, Ky.
It looked, at first glance, more like a practice match, but Venus, 40, and Serena, 38, immediately made it clear that they were all business: exchanging a series of high-velocity groundstrokes on the opening point before Serena finished it with a backhand winner.
She jumped out to a 2-0 lead, but Venus quickly found her range and reeled off five straight games on her way to winning the first set.
This was the first official tournament in more than five months for both sisters because of the hiatus forced by the coronavirus. They even quarantined together for a stretch in Florida. But while Serena remained at home with her husband, Alexis Ohanian, and their 2-year-old daughter, Olympia, Venus sought out competition by taking part in World Team Tennis at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia for nearly three weeks.
Venus did not excel there, but she looked very sharp at this tour event, the first in North America since the pandemic. She overwhelmed Victoria Azarenka, a former No. 1, in the first round: displaying a revamped service motion with a wider stance that is helping her generate more consistent pace and penetration.
She and new coach Eric Hechtman clearly used the break to make some adjustments, and against Serena, who has won the majority of their matches through the years, Venus consistently positioned herself farther behind the baseline from usual and cut down on her groundstroke errors.
Double faults were still an issue, however, and Venus finished with 11. As the match wore on in the humid, 90-degree conditions, Serena began to attack Venus’s second serve more effectively when it did go in.
But the margin in this 31st tour meeting between the sisters was ultimately very thin with Serena only taking control for good by breaking Venus’s serve at 4-4 in the third set, then holding her own serve to advance to the third round.
“I just really tried to focus on those last two games,” Serena said. “I am super relaxed. There’s no crowd, so it kind of makes it super relaxing. And I have been practicing in a lot hotter conditions than today.”
When the sisters met at the net, there was no handshake or hug because of the new coronavirus rules, only a racket tap. But they did exchange a long, mutually weary look after the duel that lasted 2 hours 19 minutes.
“She played unbelievable,” said Serena, who leads their series 19-12. “Honestly, I don’t know how I was able to pull it out in the end.”
She will face Shelby Rogers of the United States or Leylah Fernandez, a rising 17-year-old Canadian, in the third round on Friday. Serena said that for a change, her main goal was not to win this tournament.
“I honestly didn’t come here to win for the first time in my career,” she said. “I just came here to get some matches and see what happens. I haven’t had this much time off since the baby. Now I’m just trying to get some rhythm and see what happens to be honest.”
She is preparing above all for the United States Open, which begins on Aug. 31 and where she will continue to chase a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title.
Serena, ranked No. 9, will not be facing a full-strength field in New York. No. 1 Ashleigh Barty has withdrawn, and on Thursday, reigning champion Bianca Andreescu, the 20-year-old Canadian who upset Serena in last year’s U.S. Open final, announced that she was withdrawing as well, saying that the pandemic had “compromised my ability to prepare and compete to the degree necessary to play at my highest level.”
Rafael Nadal, the reigning men’s singles champion, also will not defend his title, but the men’s field got a major boost on Thursday when No. 1 Novak Djokovic confirmed that he would play in the U.S. Open and the Western & Southern Open that will precede it at the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.