The new year has already blessed us with surprising treats like Clemson winning a national title and the Atlanta Falcons reaching the Super Bowl, but the events Down Under this week have been a universal gift for all sports fans.
The first major championship of the season has proven to be a tournament for the ages – provided the age is at least 30. For the first time, all four Grand Slam finalists were north of 30 and provided Australian Open fans with the most unlikely reprisals of two of the most storied rivalries in history.
First came the 28th meeting of the greatest sibling athletes of all time – the Williams sisters Serena (35) vs. Venus (36). Next came the 35th installment of two winningest men’s grand slam singles champions – Roger Federer (35) and Rafael Nadal (30).
If a combined 62 grand slam singles titles doesn’t get your heart going, that’s a pity.
“I think this is potentially the greatest weekend in the history of tennis,” said former pro and ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert in advance of Saturday’s women’s championship. “These could be the most viewed tennis matches ever.”
Considering the matches take place on the other side of the world in the wee hours in America, that’s saying something. Sometimes it’s worth getting up early or avoiding spoilers from the rest of the world to watch it on tape.
Before Saturday, it had been 14 years since the Williams sisters met in the Australian Open and seven-and-a-half years since the elder Venus reached a Grand Slam finals when she lost to her sister in 2009 at Wimbledon.
The two sisters have had uniquely volatile careers, rising and falling and rising again. Venus fell out of the top 100 in the world in 2012 as she learned to deal with an auto-immune disease. Serena ascended back to the top after fearing she might die or never player again after a blood clot in her lung in 2011.
What it meant for both of them to get an opportunity we all believed we’d never see again was apparent when Venus advanced as the 13 seed in a three-set victory over Coco Vandeweghe, celebrating with the genuine giddiness of her teenage self.
While they’ve faced each other in the finals of all four majors, Serena called this “the moment of our careers … so far.”
The moment meant so much for both of them – Serena seeking a record 23rd slam title in the open era and Venus trying for her first Australian Open win. Born 15 months later, Serena long ago eclipsed her sister on the court en route to staking claim as the greatest female athlete of all time. Despite owning a 17-11 career lead head-to-head dating back to their first matchup in the Australian Open 19 years ago (plus a 9-2 lead in Grand Slam finals), no other opponent in Serena’s career has beaten her more than her older sister.
The last time they met in Australia was 14 years ago in the final when Serena completed her first “Serena Slam” in three sets.
Their nerves were obvious early, as the first four games were service breaks. No quarter would be given, as Serena smashed her racquet in frustration when she lost a point on a net-cord shot and frequently shouted encouragement to herself.
Ultimately, Serena’s power proved too much again. She broke the seventh game in both sets to win 6-4, 6-4. The crowd eagerly tried to urge on Venus to extend the match, but when it was over the sisters shared a 10-second embrace on the court and delivered heartfelt testimonials in an emotional trophy presentation.
“That’s my little sister guys,” Venus said. “Congrats Serena on No. 23. I’ve been right there with you and some of them I lost right there against you. I guess that’s weird, but it’s true. Your win has always been my win. I think you know that. All those times I couldn’t be there, wouldn’t be there, didn’t get there – you were there. I’m enormously proud of you.”
Said Serena: “There’s no way I’d be at 23 without her, There’s no way I would be at one without her, There’s no way I would have anything without her. She’s my inspiration and the only reason I’m standing here today. Every time (Venus) won this week, I felt like I had to win, too.”
By the time this paper hits the driveway, Roger and Rafa will be finishing their sequel in a rematch that in many ways was more unlikely.
They came in as the No. 9 (Nadal) and 17 seeds but determinedly survived their halves of the bracket to face off again. Nadal’s 23-11 head-to-head lead is largely built on his clay-court dominance, with a 9-2 advantage in grand slam meetings including 6-2 in finals – the only losses at Wimbledon. On hard courts they have been a toss-up, with Nadal barely leading 10-9. Rafa beat Roger in the 2009 Australian Open final and the semifinals in 2012 and ’14.
Their rivalry dates back to 2004 when a 17-year-old Nadal upset the No. 1 player in Miami. They were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the world for six consecutive years from 2005-10 as they combined to win 21 of 24 Grand Slams including 11 straight.
Sunday marked their first Grand Slam final matchup since the 2011 French Open. When they both ended 2016 seasons with injuries, their friendship entered a new phase when Federer went to Nadal’s hometown in Majorca in October to open Rafa’s tennis academy, they believed their elite rivalry was in the past.
“In that moment, for sure, we never thought that we’d have the chance to be in a final again,” Nadal said. “It is a different match, a different moment for both of us. This match is completely different than what happened before.”
Regardless how the matches turned out, the real winners were those of us treated to perhaps the final chapters in two of the greatest sporting sagas. Even the protagonists appreciated the significance.
“I’m just so impressed that they’re still actually playing both of them at this high level,” Federer told ESPN of the Williams sisters. “Both of them went through a phase where it wasn’t easy, but it’s not supposed to be easy in a 20-year career. You’re always going to go through some ups and downs. Same for Rafa and the same for me. That’s why I think this tournament, not only for the four of us but in general, has created some incredible stories. It’s definitely two special nights for tennis. For any of the four of us, the win is going to taste extra special and different because the people we were facing against.”
Like fine wines that get better with age, this was a weekend to truly savor.