“There’s no way I would be at 23 without her; there’s no way I would be at 1 without her,” Serena Williams said of Venus Williams in the on-court ceremony after their match.
“There’s no way I would have anything without her. She’s my inspiration,” Serena Williams continued. “She’s the only reason I’m standing here today, and the only reason that the Williams sisters exist. So thank you, Venus, for inspiring me to be the best player I could be and inspiring me to work hard. Every time you won this week, I felt like I’ve got to win, too.”
Saturday’s final was edgy from the start, with four straight breaks of serve and with Serena Williams breaking a racket when she swatted at the ground. She had lost her footing as she tried to change direction when one of her sister’s shots struck the net cord.
The quality of play fluctuated considerably, but the match ultimately was determined by Serena Williams’s ability to capitalize on Venus Williams’s second serve. In her surprising run to the final, Venus had won over 50 percent of the points on her second serve. She won just 29 percent on Saturday.
At 35, Serena Williams is back on top after playing little in 2016 outside the Grand Slam events and losing the No. 1 ranking to Angelique Kerber, who defeated her in last year’s Australian Open final.
Serena appeared unaware that the No. 1 spot was at stake on Saturday, however, and looked shocked when it was announced on court that she would return to the top. Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, later explained, a tad sheepishly, that he had not answered truthfully when Serena inquired about the ranking. He avoided telling her, he said, because he didn’t want to add extra pressure to a tense occasion.
In her return to the circuit earlier this month at a tournament in Auckland, New Zealand, Serena Williams was upset in her second match by the American Madison Brengle, making 88 unforced errors on a blustery day.
But Williams has proved time and again that she can click into a higher gear without much match play, and she impressively worked her way through a potentially challenging draw here. She beat four current or former top 10 players, including her sister in the final and the rising British player Johanna Konta in the quarterfinals.
Serena has now won 17 of the 28 tour-level matches with Venus and seven of their nine meetings in Grand Slam singles finals. And though Venus, who was seeded 13th here, remains one of the great players of this era, she has not won a major singles title since she beat Serena in the 2008 Wimbledon final.
In the intervening years, Venus received a diagnosis of Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that limited her training and contributed to her falling out of the top 100 in 2011.
But she has learned to manage her health problems and is having a late-career renaissance that might be a much bigger talking point if not for her sister’s surge into the record books. After reaching her first major singles final since Wimbledon in 2009, Venus Williams will be at No. 11 in Monday’s W.T.A. rankings.
Venus was gracious in defeat to her sister — as she has been so often throughout her career.
“That’s my little sister, guys,” she said, pointing to Serena Williams at the ceremony.
She then spoke to her sister directly. It was quite a riff.
“Congratulations, Serena, on No. 23,” Venus said. “I have been there right with you. Some of them I lost right there against you. I guess that’s weird, but it’s been an awesome thing.”
“Your win has always been my win,” Venus continued. “I think you know that. And all the time I couldn’t be there, wouldn’t be there, didn’t get there, you were there. I’m enormously proud of you. You mean the world to me.”
The sisters’ shared tennis journey — which began in Compton, Calif., where their father, Richard, wheeled a shopping cart full of balls onto a pockmarked hard court — remains one of the most remarkable stories in sports.
They were true prodigies who have managed to endure while nearly all of their contemporaries have retired or become doubles specialists (see Martina Hingis). Despite the 28 matches they have had to play against each other in the public eye as professionals, the Williamses’ deep affection and connection has endured, too.
They have become, through experience, adept at compartmentalizing, even if facing each other across the net still does not feel entirely natural.
Other members of their family struggle with the rivalry, too. Their parents, Richard Williams and Oracene Price, did not make the long journey to Melbourne this year, but their half sister Isha Price attended.
She decided to watch the final at her hotel until it was nearly over, instead of putting herself through the anguish of watching in person.
“It’s very difficult to watch, listen, hear commentary, all of that,” Price said. “We watch tennis on mute. It’s hard. To keep your body in optimal shape to be able to perform at this level consistently over 20 years is an incredible feat. But you still have the conversation where it’s not enough.”
Serena Williams acknowledged the difficulties of opposing Venus, even 19 years after their first professional match against each other — here in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open. Venus won 7-6 (4), 6-1.
“It definitely makes it uncomfortable,” Serena said before this latest final. “But after everything that Venus has been through with her illness and stuff, I just can’t help but feel like it’s a win-win situation for me. I was there for the whole time. We lived together. I know what she went through.”
But record books do not reflect such nuance. Through all these years of traveling to Australia, despite all of Venus’s talent and staying power, only one Williams sister has managed to win the singles championship at Melbourne Park.
And by taking her seventh, Serena broke her own record for singles titles here in the Open era.