A comeback to top-level tennis at 36 after birthing and nurturing a child isn’t an easy task even for one of the sport’s greatest champions. Serena Williams, however, is back on court after surviving a post-natal ordeal, which she said almost took her life away. And, with two straight-set wins at Indian Wells after one-year break from competitive tennis, she looks like she’s reincarnated on the WTA Tour.

In her third round match, she’ll face an opponent, who’s all too familiar and someone she loathes to fight against, especially at this stage of the tournament. It’s against this opponent that Serena has had some career-defining moments. It’s against this opponent that Serena grew up.

Asked about her third round clash against big sister Venus, Serena said: “I would prefer to play someone else, anybody else, literally anybody else, but it has to happen now. So it is what it is.”

Venus, 37, and Serena have faced each other 28 times in their storied careers and this will be their first encounter since she beat Venus 6-4, 6-4 in the 2017 Australian Open final – Serena’s last match before her maternity layoff.

‘Seventeen years seems like forever ago’

They met for the first time in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open which Venus won 7-6 (7/4), 6-1. This is the earliest they will face each other since that Melbourne meeting 20 years ago.

That this is Indian Wells, a tournament that holds plenty of history for the Williams sisters, makes it an even more loaded contest.

In 2001 they were slated to meet in the Indian Wells semi-finals when Venus withdrew, handing Serena a walkover. Fans who felt cheated of a chance to see the siblings play, thinking it was a tactic orchestrated by their father Richard, booed Serena during her final triumph against Kim Clijsters.

The crowd’s treatment led to a 14-year boycott by the sisters, which Serena finally ended in 2015. This is just her third appearance in the California desert in 17 years.

Asked about the semi-final match that never happened, Serena said she has tried to forget.

“That’s, you know, totally gone out of my mind,” Serena said Saturday. “Seventeen years seems like forever ago.”

Serena’s the dominant sister

The younger of the two, Serena holds a better career head-to-head record over Venus of 17-11., with only 10 matches going to a decider.

Serena, unseeded in the wake of her long layoff, admitted she would have preferred not to come up against her sister so soon in the draw.

“It’s a huge difference to play her in the semi-finals or even the quarter-finals or a final as opposed to the third round. You know, we can always stay in the tournament longer if the both of us are in the tournament,” Serena said.

Venus is enjoying a resurgence on the Tour after a string of injuries limited her playing time for several seasons.

“I still have a lot to give. I don’t think my dad wants me to ever stop playing,” the 37-year-old, seven-time Grand Slam champion said.

Venus’ last defeat of her younger sister was at the Canadian Open in 2014, where she prevailed in a three-set semi-final. After that, she’s lost all three matches to Serena – including last year’s Australian Open final.

“She looked like she never lost a step,” Venus said of her younger sister. “Great way to come back.”

Two decades after their first meeting on professional tour, the Williams sisters continue to be a dominant presence on the WTA circuit. But at Indian Wells, one journey has to be halted for the other to progress.

With inputs from AFP