120 Years, 120 Stories (Part 55): If an Olympic medal in tennis symbolizes endurance, then the Williams sisters personify it


For most of the part into our special series on the occasion of 120 years of Olympics, we have discussed about sports which provide scope for an athlete to bag multiple medals and that too taking on the competition arena for just a couple of rounds. In this edition in our Olympic Diaries, for a change, we discuss about a sport where an athlete has to sweat for hours and also take the court for more than a couple of days to finally carve out a position for oneself at the podium.

Tennis, for long, has been a sport of endurance – the most interesting thing is that you go on playing as long as you don’t get a result and ‘draw’ and ‘tie’ means nothing but schedule and match respectively in tennis terminology. The lawn tennis, as it is officially called in Olympic nomenclature, was very much part of the Games since its inception in 1896 through to 1924 till the Tennis Federation and Olympic Committee went at loggerheads regarding the dispute of segregating the amateurs from the professionals. Later when the court game turned professional with the advent of the Open era in the late 1960s, the racquet game once again made a niche for itself at the quadrennial event – but only as a demonstration sports in 1968 and 1984 respectively.

However, since 1988 Seoul, tennis became part and parcel of the Olympics. At the last Games at Rio de Janeiro, tennis was organized for a total of 5 disciplines – men’s and women’s singles and doubles along with the mixed doubles. The participants for the singles, doubles and mixed were 64, 32 and 16 respectively. So to win a medal, an athlete must win 5, 4 and 3 matches respectively in the singles, doubles and mixed events. So indeed, winning a medal is really exhausting in this particular sport since an average match takes around 2 hours to produce a winner and at such, a potential medalist has to spent around 8 to 10 hours in the court during the course of the tournament. In addition, players taking part in multiple disciplines have to return to the court within hours after finishing off a match. The defending Wimbledon champion Andy Murray played in all the three possible events at Rio.

Coming back to the success story, no other tennis personality could match the achievements of the Williams sisters as far as the leap-year event is concerned. Venus, the eldest of them, has a record 5 medals while Serena won 4. The only non-yellow metal among these cumulative 9 medals is the silver that Venus shared with Rajeev Ram in the mixed doubles event at Rio. The rest all are gold.

The Williams family’s association with the quadrennial meet set off when both the sisters (Serena in doubles and Venus in both) earned a ticket each to Sydney at the turn of the millennium. The eldest of the sisters Venus – born just one year apart – lost just 13 games in her passage to the round of 8, before beating compatriot and Grand Slam queen Monica Seles and Russian Elena Dementieva for her maiden Olympic gold in the singles – the draw of which had an American 1-2-3 in the form of Davenport, Williams and Seles. In the doubles, Serena lent more than an able hand to her sister in winning another gold after defeating five teams – with players like Anastasia Myskina, Amelie Mauresmo, Kristie Boogert in their ranks. It was the best Olympics for Venus who won the ‘double gold’ – to be emulated by her younger sister 12 years later at London.

Four years hence at Athens, a painful Wimbledon final loss to Russian teenage sensation Maria Sharapova handed Serena with a knee injury that forced the 22-Grand Slam winner to withdrew from the campaign altogether. The defending Olympic champion Venus, seeded 6, started her journey brutally – serving bagels (6-0) and breadsticks (6-1) to her early two opponents. However, the French resilience Mary Pierce ended the 7-Grand Slam winner’s dash with a straight set win. In the absence of her sister, Venus paired up with unheralded Chanda Rubin in the doubles but only to fall at the opening hurdle to the eventual gold medalist Chinese duo of Li Ting and Sun Tiantian.

In 2008 Beijing, it was the first time that there were both the sisters in the singles draw with a possibility of setting up a Wimbledon-like summit clash. Though the siblings started their individual expeditions well in the opening rounds, seeing off competitors like Samantha Stosur and Victoria Azarenka – who later won Grand Slams – both of them bowed out at the quarters. While Serena was stunned by the eventual title winner Elena Dementieva after being a set down, Venus fell to a future French Open champion Chinese Li Na – the latter, in an anti-climax, lost successive matches that kept her out of the podium. However, the sisters of destruction – who together boast of an incredible 14-0 in Grand Slam doubles final – gelled together to win their second Olympic title. The only stiff challenge they received in this event was when they came from a set deficit to win in the semi-finals against the Bondarenkos from Ukraine.

The London Olympics was perhaps the best ever for Serena who won the singles title without dropping a set! Williams – seeded fourth in the tournament – defeated Jelena Jankovic in the opening round giving away just 4 games before seeing of Urszula Radwanska, Vera Zvonareva and Carolina Wozniacki at the expense of 5, 1 and 3 games respectively. In the semis, the American overhauled the topseed Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 6-2. And in the final, Serena again completed her routine win over Maria Sharapova – the Russian became her bunny since her initial triumph eight years back with 18 matches ongoing streak to the American in their rivalry – at a margin of 6-0, 6-1 at the same greens of Wimbledon. The Olympic singles gold made the younger Williams emulate the legendary Steffi Graf to win a career Golden Slam and the first ever to win the career Golden Slam in both singles and doubles.

Venus – who was knocked out of the singles draw in the third round by Angelique Kerber in a tough match – teamed up with her sister to win their third Olympic doubles crown and again, they won without dropping a set! More importantly as they did not play regular doubles much in lead up to the tournament, the defending champions were unseeded and had to beat 2nd, 3rd and 4th seeded teams en route to the title. So Serena ended her Olympic campaign winning a total of 11 matches across disciplines without dropping a set in almost a week’s time. Bingo!

The 2016 Olympics was the first games where the Williams had to return sans a gold medal. Both the sisters – now in their mid-30s – has always defied their age and career threatening injuries to make a statement be it Serena’s spree at the Slams in recent times or Venus’ enthusiasm in playing tournaments around the world after fighting off Sjögrens Syndrome. In the singles, Venus fell off the very first hurdle whereas, topseed Serena could not progress beyond the third round. In the doubles too, the sisters tasted their first ever Olympic defeat as the Czech pair of Safarova and Strycova – the eventual bronze medalist – knocked the American pair out of the Games in the very first round.

The only saving grace was Venus’ pair up with Rajeev Ram in the mixed qualified through among one of the four reserved ITF slots. The Americans won two of their matches in the deciding tie-breaks after splitting the honours in the two regular sets. In an all-American final, the Williams-Ram duo lost in the deciding shoot-out to Bethaine Mattek-Sands and Jack Sock. However, the loss was enough to earn them a silver that came after a total of 8 golds from four Olympics – and the first medal that the Williams was helped by another from outside their family.

Photo by Normanno XXIII