Profoundness of Serena-Venus Williams sisterhood goes beyond tennis court

·5 min read
Serena Williams, left, and sister Venus share a laugh during a doubles match at the 2000 U.S. Open. (AFP via Getty Images - image credit)
Serena Williams, left, and sister Venus share a laugh during a doubles match at the 2000 U.S. Open. (AFP via Getty Images - image credit)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Some of the greatest athletes across the world have been paying homage to tennis great Serena Williams, who is headed to "retirement" after losing in the U.S. Open last week.

The articles and opinion pieces on Williams' career have been incredibly profound, which is particularly important because sports media and the tennis community were frequently unfair to Williams during her storied career and during her pregnancy.

Earlier this week, with the WNBA playoffs in full swing, Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon (yes, former assistant coach of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs and women's basketball legend) even cited Williams multiple times during her remarks about beating the Seattle Storm, which meant the last career game for another legend, the Storms' Sue Bird.

Amidst all the barriers and struggles, the relationship that steadied Serena and kept her grounded was her relationship with her sister Venus, less than two years older. The Williams family had five daughters and Serena was the youngest. The eldest sister, Yetunde Price, was killed in 2003 by stray gunfire.

Venus emerged on the tennis circuit before Serena and it wasn't long before the two sisters began to dominate the courts. Not only were the two young Black women with beads in their hair different than their white opponents, but their camaraderie was unmatched and set an incredible precedent in a sport that thrives on singular existence and competition. And what a match they were.

Dr. Sabrina Razack is a sport and social issues curriculum specialist and has been a fan of the Williams sisters for more than two decades. I asked Dr. Razack (who has a twin sister) to speak about the impact of their relationship.

WATCH | Serena Williams bows out of U.S. Open:

"Watching Serena over the past two decades, my sister and I would always marvel at how they loved each other, and the support they had for one another and even the public displays of affection," Dr. Razack said. "This was not common in the tennis circuit and the sisters truly embraced their family bond and stood firm in that connection."

Dr. Razack and her sister would call each other in tears and talk about the Williams sisters, their wins and their awards, but also the impact they had on tennis fans and the game — they truly shifted the way people watched and how people felt bridged to the sport.

I never cared much for tennis before Venus and Serena; I was introduced to them through my late paternal grandfather. He watched tennis and loved watching Venus Williams. I would enjoy watching him wearing his heavy glasses in his rocking chair, learning forward and cheering emphatically for Venus in the late 1990s. I would come home from university and see him glued to the television or reading the sports section of the newspaper. I didn't pay too much attention, but I remember him telling me excitedly about the little sister.

WATCH | Williams sisters play final doubles match together:

My beloved grandfather died before Serena reached her peak and I know he would have adored her and followed her career closely. As someone whose work investigates intersections of gender, race and sports media, Serena and Venus Williams' experiences were always of utmost importance to me.

But reflecting on what Dr. Razack said, I also realize they encourage so many people to look at tennis because their relationship and their values and sisterly love reflected so many out there. After the sisters played a final game last week as doubles partners at the U.S. Open, tennis expert Merlisa Lawrence Corbett wrote in a piece for The Guardian: "It is fitting that they went out in the doubles on Thursday night in the same manner as they arrived more than two decades ago: as a team — the Williams sisters."

There are few sibling relationships I can think of which have impacted both their sport and the broader culture. Even as competitors, they put family first and ensured that their connection was strong. Serena has often credited the women in her life for being her role models, her foundation and her best friends.

In all her toughness and phenomenal athleticism, Serena has been a dedicated sister and doting mother. She tearfully reminded us about Venus after her final match: "She is the only reason that Serena Williams existed."

 

While we don't yet know what Venus' tennis plans are, we know that she is tightly bound to Serena's phenomenal career.

Watching one of the most powerful and impactful generational talents of our time be so vulnerable has endeared Serena Williams to fans. The barriers and struggles she and Venus have faced have been the basis of academic research, contributions from Black tennis writers and above all, new generations of tennis players.

Among all of Serena's lessons to us, one of the most important is that despite tennis being a sport that can isolate a player, you can hold on to community and to family. That is something I cherish and respect. I never had a sister (I have two amazing sisters-in-law) but I have always dreamed of a relationship like Venus and Serena's. Many of my friends and cousins are like sisters to me. But to have a celebrity athlete cross so many lines of identity is rare. She is a phenomenal athlete, successful entrepreneur, and half of a power couple, but she is also a baby sister.