NEW YORK — As the game slipped from the Williams sisters on Thursday night, the crowd vacillated between desperation and brief elation.
There was a collective acceptance within Arthur Ashe that we will probably never see the two on the pitch together again.
As the Czech duo of Lucie Hradecka and Linda Noskova removed, unforced errors or lost break points were met with murmurs of encouragement from the crowd, which had their heroines summoning another tennis miracle. To give them an encore.
Barring a change of heart, Serena has hinted she will be leaving the sport in the next 10 days. The immediate future of Venus is unclear. She has taken a supporting role on Serena’s farewell tour, one in the shadow of her younger sister.
While Serena’s two victorious singles bouts at the US Open took the spotlight in an atmosphere resembling a boxing match, Venus’ loss to Alison van Uytvanck on Tuesday in the midday sun was a half-full Arthur Ashe.
There was no welcoming montage for her – but then again, there was no announcement regarding her future either. When asked earlier in the week if she was also thinking about her own development, she replied that she was only focused on the doubles with Serena.
“I think Venus deserves more credit,” said a fan who traveled from Nebraska this morning to see her heroines. “But that was Serena’s tournament – Venus is a good sister.”
That was her role last year. As Venus develops her businesses and continues her return to tennis, Serena has driven her own narrative about her future in and out of sport.
It was Serena’s call for the duo to play doubles here — “she’s the boss,” says Venus.
“I feel like it was very important for her to be a part of that,” Serena said Monday. “She is my rock. I’m super excited to play with her and just do it again.”
Venus, of course, answered the call. “We’re a big influence on each other and I’m a big influence on her,” Venus said earlier this week. But when it came to Serena’s “Evolution,” Venus knew how to play it.
“I just felt that my role was to make sure I wasn’t influencing her in any way and that that decision had to be hers and her family’s,” Venus said. “The newest addition to the family, I would say, because obviously we’re family.”
“What’s most important is to do things on their own terms,” Venus added.
We saw that on Thursday. It was Serena who led the two to practice. It was Serena who took the lead in her performance on Arthur Ashe. But it was Venus who finally took her away.
There’s an inescapable nostalgia for these two, especially in this part of the world. While Venus’ proudest tennis memories are of Wimbledon, the two are loved here in New York.
Before the sisters entered, a montage of a snapshot of their lives played out in the square, narrated by Questlove. The two Czech players did their best to stay focused as the cutlery-laden clips rolled over them. The montage attempted to summarize the Williams sisters’ legacy in 71 seconds. Had Noskova’s attention wavered for even a second, she would have seen plenty of footage from before her life. When she was born in November 2004, the sisters already had 10 singles slams and six doubles titles under their belt.
“This is a two-woman wrecking crew,” Questlove said in the montage. “Their influence on the game is described by 2 enormous 2 even 2. We were all lucky 2 because for 2 decades we have watched 2 of the greatest athletes show us how 2 can become 1.”
It ended with a final request from Questlove: “PS It’s not 2 late 2 change your mind. Just our 2 cents.”
For Serena, it most likely is. But Venus could well continue playing. She has been dealing with retirement issues for years. Since her return to competitive tennis – her first injury-related match in 11 months was mixed doubles at this year’s Wimbledon – the question has shifted to finding out why she’s back and what her motivation is to keep playing the sport.
At Wimbledon The sight of the grass and Serena’s games motivated her. On other occasions, she says she’s back for the love of tennis. She often uses the word “grateful” when asked how she feels.
But this week there was that old steely determination. When asked what she’s up to now, she replied: “Three letters – WIN. That’s it. Very easily.”
On Thursday, Venus’ goal was to “keep my side of the court and be a good sister.” The competitive fire burns brighter than ever for these two, and while they suffered a straight-set loss, it wasn’t because of a lack of intensity, focus or desire. They faced a unit that played precisely and without any emotion. Hradecka and Noskova sent the Williams sisters across the court and deservedly won 7:6 (5), 6:4.
The Williams sisters have resembled their own Tour de France team for so long – sometimes one sprints ahead while the other stays in the slipstream. On other occasions, they would sprint against each other. Sometimes one flew onto the pitch while the other kept them out. Venus called it “energy exchange and exchange of bestowal” on Tuesday.
As Venus’ US Open run comes to an end, she’ll be helping Serena prepare for her third-round match Ajla Tomljanovic on Friday. Venus will be in her box as usual, just as Serena has done for her before and likely will in the future.
It feels like Venus isn’t ready to finish tennis just yet. Back in 2021 at Wimbledon, she said: ‘If it’s my last game I’ll let you know. I’ll whisper it in your ear.”
Had she whispered it Thursday night, the whole place would have gone silent to listen. It’s the collective control the Williams sisters still have over their rapt audiences hoping for one last performance of their greatest hits. Serena has at least one more inside her; Venus could be back for another tour next year.
But with a wave to the crowd as they left Ashe, it was an understated gesture that put the finishing touches to the final act of one of tennis’ most dominant combined forces.