Jessica Luther Column: On growing up, and older, with the Williams sisters

Perhaps it is a futile effort these days to try to say anything new about the Williams sisters or to add to the two-decade long conversation about them that we’ve all participated in during their tennis careers. Oh well. I will simply embrace the fact that some of my words this week will be repetitive and unoriginal. Because, the truth is, there can never be enough nice words in the world about Venus and Serena. And if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to add a few hundred more.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Williams Sisters over the last few months, from Wimbledon through to Rio and now as they participate in the U.S. Open. You see, Venus was born on in June 1980. Fifteen months later, in September 1981, her little sister Serena came along. My birthday is tucked in between. I am their age.

Right now, I’m sitting on my couch, trying to adjust the pillows just right because if I sit the wrong way, there’s a possibility that the head of one of my ribs will slip out of place. It can be painful, though not necessarily so. At minimum, it’s annoying and causes me to have shortened breaths. It’s something I’ve been dealing with for over a year now, possibly something I will deal with for a good long time in my life. But yesterday, sitting comfortably in front of my TV, I watched these two women who are my age play on the biggest stage in tennis, Arthur Ashe stadium, for a chance to make it to the US Open quarterfinals. My back felt fine.

One of them, Venus, announced five years ago that she has Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that taxes her body in ways that make it harder for her to play professional-level tennis. Yet, here she was, on my TV, ranked 6th at the US Open playing in the round of 16 in the year 2016 at the age of 36, the oldest woman in the draw, taking it all the way to a tiebreak in the third set before losing to Karolína Plíšková, the 10th-seed from the Czech Republic. Venus’ current ranking is the highest it’s been in five years.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 01: Venus Williams of the United States celebrates her win over Julia Goerges of Germany during her second round Women's Singles match on Day Four of the 2016 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 1, 2016 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 01: Venus Williams of the United States celebrates her win over Julia Goerges of Germany during her second round Women’s Singles match on Day Four of the 2016 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 1, 2016 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The other sister, Serena, in March of 2011, nearly died from a pulmonary embolism. “I was on my death bed at one point – quite literally,” Serena told USA Today, “I’ve had a serious illness but at first I didn’t appreciate that.” She ended up having lung surgery. The following year—2012—Serena won the singles tournament at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and a gold at the London Olympics. When she won Wimbledon last year, she became the oldest woman in the Open Era to win a grand slam. Serena won her round of 16 match yesterday in 68 minutes, crushing Yaroslava Shvedova from Kazakhstan. By winning that match, she has now surpassed Roger Federer as the tennis player with the most grand slam match wins in history, with 308.  She currently has 22 Grand Slam singles championships, tying Steffi Graf for the most ever. If she wins the U.S. Open, she’ll sit alone atop that leaderboard.

I’ve been watching tennis since high school, which for me was in the late 1990s. That means I have been watching the Williams sisters play as long as I have been watching tennis. I don’t know tennis without them in it. Venus turned pro in 1994 and Serena in 1995. Venus won her first slam at Wimbledon in 2000, Serena the US Open in 1999. At the US Open in 2001 , fifteen years ago, the sisters met for the first time in a Grand Slam final and Venus won her second consecutive US Open title that year. They have both been No. 1. They have won so many grand slam championships and olympic gold medals in doubles together.

US player Serena Williams (L) and her partner US player Venus Williams (R) pose with the winner's trophies after beating Hungary's Timea Babos and Kazakhstan's Yaroslava Shvedova to win the women's doubles final on the thirteenth day of the 2016 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on July 9, 2016. / AFP / JUSTIN TALLIS / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
US player Serena Williams (L) and her partner US player Venus Williams (R) pose with the winner’s trophies after beating Hungary’s Timea Babos and Kazakhstan’s Yaroslava Shvedova to win the women’s doubles final on the thirteenth day of the 2016 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on July 9, 2016. / AFP / JUSTIN TALLIS / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

They are phenomenal athletes and I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that. I am so grateful as a sports fan, as a fan of female athletes, and as an avid tennis watcher that I just so happened to live at the exact same time as the two of them.

There’s another part of this, though. It’s all the stuff off the court that they have endured. There’s the racism, sexism, and transphobia. They have been harshly judged over the years for having interests outside of the sport. In the mid-2000s, people said that they, especially Serena, were not serious enough about tennis and had wasted their potential. In 2003, their sister, Yetunde Price, was murdered. In 2006, Serena spoke at the sentencing of the man convicted of killing Price. The following year, Serena was criticized heavily for gaining weight, something critics talked about throughout the Australian Open in 2007, up until Serena won the title. Venus led the charge for equal pay for female tennis players at grand slams and won (you can see that story in Venus Vs., a documentary by director Ava DuVernay). She also started her own clothing line. Serena has been vocal and active in the last few years in supporting movements to end racial inequity, including in the legal system. Their lives appear full, sometimes in dark and challenging ways, but most often in rewarding and productive ones.

They show me (and all of us) repeatedly that we can struggle but we keep going. We can go away but we can also come back. We can change our minds and choose other paths, or we can choose more than one thing at a time. We can journey and grow, and get better as we do it.

It’s hard to say if we’ll see Venus again at at grand slam, though the safest bet is that we will. It’s also impossible to know for how long Serena will be able to maintain this level of play. We are watching greatness each time they take the court. And they keep taking the court. How lucky we all are.

Venus, Serena, and I are all the same age. In a few weeks, Serena and I will both be 35 and then two months later, I’ll turn 36, joining Venus who is already that age. I am sitting on my couch still; they are both in New York. My back is okay, for now. I hope theirs are, too. When I go to the gym to workout today, I will think of them, my constant inspirations. I am sure this is true for so many people, men and especially women. And so, despite the repetition and unoriginality, it’s worth saying it all again. There will never be enough nice words to convey what these two women mean to so many, on and off the court.

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