INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Seventeen years after their first match in Indian Wells failed to materialize, Venus and Serena Williams finally faced each other across the net in the desert.
The Williamses are now arguably the greatest sibling act in sports history, and Serena, 36, took the court on Monday night as a new mother while Venus, 37, walked out as a new aunt.
On Monday, it was the Williams who is not on the comeback trail who emerged as the victor. Venus prevailed, 6-3, 6-4, serving big when she needed it most, though she struggled to close out her sister.
“I just feel it’s never over until it’s over, and she just came right back,” said Venus, who failed in her first attempt to serve out the match at 5-2 in the second set. “You know, I’m just lucky I played more matches than her right now.”
This was the 29th meeting in a sibling rivalry that Serena still leads 17-12. The last time they faced each other was in January 2017, when Serena defeated Venus to win the Australian Open, which was her 23rd Grand Slam singles title.
Unbeknownst to the general public, Serena was two months pregnant when she won that title. She skipped the rest of the 2017 season, giving birth to a daughter, Olympia, on Sept. 1 and marrying Alexis Ohanian in November before resuming training in earnest.
This was the first singles tournament of her comeback, and she arrived with no official ranking and no seeding, which explains how she and the 8th-seeded Venus wound up facing each other in the third round.
It was their earliest meeting in a regular tour event since their first duel on tour, which came in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open.
Darren Cahill, the ESPN commentator who also coaches women’s No. 1 Simona Halep, tweeted earlier on Monday that he believes the WTA Tour should allow players returning from maternity leave to have a protected seeding, not just a protected ranking. But for now, the current rule stands and Serena, though she will have an official ranking next Monday, will continue to be the most dangerous unseeded outsider in women’s tennis.
“I haven’t played in over a year; it’s definitely not less disappointing,” Serena said of the defeat. “I wish it were, but then again, I wish it wasn’t. Then I wouldn’t be who I am. So I just have a long way to go, and I’m looking forward the journey.”
When she gets her footwork right, watch out. She is understandably still searching for consistency and timing, and she was often off balance on Monday, making unforced errors in bunches — 41 to Venus’ 19 — and failing to serve her best. But she also came up with winners under duress.
“You’re out there, and I can’t really replicate the situation no matter how much I do in practice, or if I make those shots 10 times out of 10 in practice,” Serena said. “It’s just the nerves, the anticipation you feel naturally. It’s a little bit of everything that comes in a match that just doesn’t normally happen.”
In 2001, the sisters were set to play here in the semifinals but Venus withdrew minutes before the match, citing an injury. The Indian Wells crowd later booed Venus and her father Richard Williams when they arrived to watch Serena play the final against Kim Clijsters, and Serena heard plenty of jeers herself.
Richard Williams claimed to have heard racist taunts, and no member of the family returned to the increasingly prestigious tournament for more than a decade. Serena ended her boycott in 2015 and Venus ended hers in 2016.
There were no hecklers on this clear and cool Monday night, just the usual shouts of “Go, Venus” or “Go, Serena” or, for those feeling ambivalent, “Go Venus and Serena.”
Only one sister could win, however, and it was Venus’ first victory over Serena since 2014 and only her second in the last nine years.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.