It was fifteen years ago exactly. Boris Becker and Steffi Graf had just retired a few weeks earlier, Roger Federer was just beginning on the tour, Rafael Nadal was losing against Richard Gasquet in junior tournaments, and Grigor Dimitrov was starting elementary school. It was summer the 1999 and Serena Williams, not even 18 yet and not a good little girl, won her first Grand Slam title at the US Open. Flashback.
« My real rival will be my sister. » When Venus Williams, then 17 years old and freshly defeated in the final of the 1997 US Open by Martina Hingis, said this prophetic sentence, the tennis world didn't know how to react: is this another provocation from a player who keeps disrupting the codes of tennis (this service...) and aesthetic (these pearls in her hair which acted up it more than once scattering on the court), or could it been seen as real warning to all her rivals?
Two years later, the tennis world had its answer: the first Williams to win a Grand Slam would be not Venus, but Serena. A few weeks before turning 18, the youngest of the terrible sibling lifted the US Open, "a tournament I dreamed of more than any other, she said at the awards ceremony. I don't even know if I should laugh, cry, scream, jump... Oh my God, oh my God, it's fantastic!" The warrior mask finally cracked, after a fortnight full of great matches and small provocations, true trash talking contest that wouldn’t have be disavowed by the NBA champions of the time.
The turbulences started from the draw of this US Open 1999 when, after seeing his girls in a different table, Richard Williams said: "My girls will compete in the final in a fortnight." If the placid Lindsay Davenport, defending champion didn't real mind, it was quite different for the world number one Martina Hingis. The Swiss was only 18 but already has an impressive prize list, including five Grand Slam titles in singles. Cut to the quick, she answered: "In the Williams family, there are a lot of big mouths."
« Hingis didn’t have a normal education »
While Venus, more introverted, remained away from the heated exchanges, Serena rushed in, and did the housework. Martina Hingis? “She has always been the kind of person who says what she thinks. She’s outspoken. I think it’s because she didn’t receive a normal education. But it doesn’t exempt her from thinking further, you need to use your brain a bit more than that in tennis.” And the other 125 players in the main draw of the US Open, then? Who cares: “I would need to play in the men's draw to meet opponents stronger than me.”
And yet, seeded No. 7, winner that year of her first titles at Paris-Coubertin, BNP Paribas Open and Los Angeles, the youngest Williams found someone to talk to in the first week. By the third round, a young 16 years old player pushed her to her limits. Her name: Kim Clijsters. The American got very scared and screamed with rage on the point that gave her the final break, clearly, revealing her relief despite the obvious arbitration mistake against Clijsters (4/6 6/2 7/5).
A real diesel engine on the courts, Serena lost the first set again to Conchita Martinez in the round of 16 and to Monica Seles in the quarterfinals, before coming back in the following sets each time. The American who kept boasting of her powerful shots, found an adversary up to her standards in the semis, her compatriot and defending champion Lindsay Davenport. The World No. 2 managed a feat in the second set... but still lost the third (1/6 6/4 6/4). "Two years on the Tour and I still haven't done anything great in a Grand Slam: this time it's my turn!" said Serena, qualified for her first major final, two years after her sister.
But she didn’t met Venus in the final: her older sister was defeated in the semis by Martina Hingis (4/6 6/3 6/1) in the first expected explanation on the court between a representative of the turbulent family and the cheeky gifted child who's been dominating world tennis for three years. But if beating a Williams if possible, two in a row is a different story, even more so in the demanding series of the Super Saturday...
Forty years after Althea Gibson, another African-American at the top
The Friday's semi-finals had exhausted Hingis. As well as the verbal guerrilla started twelve days earlier. One against all? Maybe. Still, that Saturday, she seemed tired, "This is fatal against such a powerful player. I spent my time defending," said the Swiss after the defeat. She conceded the first set 6-3. At 5-3 in the second set Hingis yet found the resources to save two match points and break back, causing a moment of hesitation for her opponent: "I was feeling bad for missing the opportunity, recalls the 'American. I was so sure that I was going to finish the game with my service. It took me a while to accept the fact that it wasn't going to happen, forget about it and being positive again. Even my mother looked concerned. I had never seen her so despondent in my life than after these two match balls!"
Serena pulled it together just in time for the decisive game. At 6-4, she won two new match balls. The first flew over Martina Hingis' backhand. Williams anticipated victory and rushed towards the net, smiling, following the ball with her eyes... "Out!" Shouted the linesman. 7-6: Serena Williams had just won the US Open, a few days before celebrating her 18th birthday.
Two years before becoming a synonym for tragedy, that September 11th was a day of celebration in New York: the black community had been waiting for a champion since Arthur Ashe. For a woman, it was even going back Althea Gibson in the 1950s "I was well aware of this additional impact, said Williams. It was my first Grand Slam final but Venus had already played a few before, so people often told her about Althea." And it wasn’t the last success for African Americans in tennis. At first, it was Venus who would assert her birth right by winning two consecutive doubles Wimbledon/US Open in 2000 and 2001. And then came the Serena's era. An era rich of 17 Grand Slams, and which, fifteen years after the first New York fireworks and seventeen after the original prophecy of Venus, is still on-going.
By Guillaume Willecoq