So much has changed in 17 years. When Serena, now 36, took the court on Monday night, she did so as a new mother, while Venus, 37, walked out as a new aunt — and as the favorite, which has not been her customary role as this increasingly lopsided rivalry has evolved.
Serena is the one with 23 Grand Slam singles titles, one short of the record held by Margaret Court. Venus has had to make do with a very respectable seven, although she twice came close to an eighth during her resurgent 2017 season, when she reached the finals of the Australian Open and Wimbledon.
Serena, as so often, played the spoiler on one of those occasions, defeating her in Australia when, unbeknown to the general public, she was already two months pregnant.
She did not play again for the rest of 2017, giving birth to a daughter, Olympia, in September, recovering from traumatic postnatal medical issues and then marrying Alexis Ohanian in November, before resuming training in earnest.
This was the first singles tournament of her comeback, and though it showed, she was hardly far off the pace, winning two matches and then giving Venus cause for concern as she tried to close her out.
“I just feel it’s never over until it’s over, and she just came right back,” said Venus, who faltered in her first attempt to serve out her victory at 5-2 in the second set. “You know, I’m just lucky I played more matches than her right now.”
Serena still leads their sibling rivalry, 17-12, and has won eight of their last 10 matches. But Venus now has her first victory over Serena since 2014 and a place in the fourth round, where she will face Anastasija Sevastova, a Latvian with a game brimming with spin and guile, on Tuesday.
“I definitely know her well,” said Serena of Venus. “But she definitely played a little better than she normally does today.”
Venus was certainly the more reliable power player: making 19 unforced errors to Serena’s 41, and not because she was taking fewer risks from the baseline.
Although Venus has sometimes struggled to find her service rhythm early in her matches against Serena, she was at close-to-full strength from the start, hitting a first serve of 121 miles per hour at her sister’s body during the tense opening game.
There would be much more of that, as she won 68 percent of her first-serve points to Serena’s 53 percent during the match. And in a much clearer indicator of Serena’s rust, Venus also won 52 percent of her second-serve points, despite struggling to generate depth and pace on many of those second serves.
In peak form, Serena would have pounced on them repeatedly. And though she did her best to capitalize, taking some returns very early, she could not find her range consistently.
“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,” she 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.”
Serena arrived in Indian Wells with no official ranking and no seeding, which explains how she and the eighth-seeded Venus could face each other so early in the draw.
Darren Cahill, the ESPN commentator who also coaches women’s No. 1 Simona Halep, tweeted earlier on Monday that he believed the WTA Tour should allow players returning from maternity leave to have a protected seeding, not just a protected ranking that guarantees them entry into tournaments. But for now, the current rule stands, and Serena, who will have an official ranking close to .500 when she plays the Miami Open later this month, will continue to be the most dangerous outsider in women’s tennis.
“I think she’s going to be speeding back to the seedings and to winning tournaments sooner than later,” Venus said. “That’s all I see. I think that’s what everybody sees.”
Serena is understandably still searching for consistency and timing and was often off balance on Monday. But it is tempting to believe that when she gets her fitness and footwork right, the rest of the tennis world should resume watching out.
“I have a lot to improve on,” she said. “It’s good that I don’t have to say that this is the best tennis I have ever played and I lost. My room for improvement is incredible. So I have just got to keep saying each tournament my goal is just to be better than the last. I definitely don’t want to go backwards. I just want to continue to go forwards.”
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 that afternoon.
Richard Williams claimed to have heard racist taunts, and no member of the family returned to this increasingly prestigious tournament for more than a decade, with Serena ending her boycott in 2015 and Venus ending hers in 2016.
Neither sister said that she gave much thought to 2001 this year, but others did. And there were certainly no heckles on this cool Monday night in the desert, just the usual cheers of “Go Venus” or “Go Serena” or, for those feeling ambivalent, “Go Venus and Serena.”
It has been quite a journey, and earlier on Monday, Roger Federer, a 36-year-old who has had a tennis odyssey of his own, took the time to mark the moment.
“Longevity and dominance; they showed that,” Federer said of the sisters. “They had a massive arrival on the scene, a lot of buzz around them, and they lived up to the hype. Came out and crushed it. From the very beginning, they were very interesting to follow.”
They remain just as interesting now as they, like Federer, play deep into their 30s and, unlike any other tennis stars, continue their sibling rivalry into those years.
“I think it’s great for the sport, and they have done so much already,” Federer said. “This is like, you know, the extra lap they are doing, and the fans can enjoy it. So I’m very happy for them.”
Only one Williams left the court feeling satisfied on Monday, however. “It’s definitely not less disappointing,” Serena said of her defeat. “I wish it were. But it’s not. 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 to the journey.”