“My dad [Richard Williams] always said that one day we’d be playing in the finals of Wimbledon, in the finals of the US Open. Just the big ones,” Serena Williams remembered as she and sister Venus rose to be the biggest WTA stars at the turn of the century. “And here we were, 10, 15 years later.”
The Williams sisters were already a formidable force by the time Wimbledon 2008 came around. Their shelves were adorned with trophies galore, which included Grand Slams and Olympic gold medals. Serena had already begun her march towards legendary status and had eight Major wins already.
Venus, who had beaten Serena in the 2001 US Open final, had then lost to her younger sibling in five different Grand Slam finals in 2002 and ‘03; two of them on the lush grass courts of Wimbledon. But the momentum had slightly shifted in Venus’s favour around this period, and the gap was getting narrower. Leading up to 2008 Wimbledon, the sisters were involved in a terrific battle at the hard courts in Bangalore with Serena edging it in the tie-breaker.
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Venus had barely put a foot wrong, not dropping a set en route to the final, but it must be said that did have the tougher draw.
Very early into the first set, one could sense that the contest had all the makings of an epic. Venus’s serve was deadly and her opponent’s early break fired her up. She returned like a dream and was determined to close down rallies.
As always, familial ties took a backseat. Venus took her time while serving, constructed points smartly, and more importantly, she was getting under Serena’s skin. Levelling scores in the opening set her up well for taking the set, which she did quite remarkably. Venus’s intent was paying off as Serena, who started off guns blazing, repeatedly made unforced errors.
There was more display of the unshackled Venus in the following set too. She went 1-0 up with a ferocious 129mph serve (a record at the Championships at the time) but Serena was far from finished, taking the lead with her sister only getting moderate success with her returns. But when Venus wrested the initiative with her serve once again, Serena was left backpedaling in the contest and never recovered.
Till date, it ranks as one of Venus’s better final wins of the seven Major she has in her kitty. The 7-5, 6-4 scoreline hardly did justice to how good both players were, and importantly, how gripping the contest was.
“My first job is big sister,” said Venus in a matter-of-fact manner after defeating Serena, who doesn’t miss an opportunity to highlight the significance of the older Williams in paving the way for her success. Venus broke into her customary victory twirl but celebrations were largely muted.
It is remarkable how professional rivalry took a backseat very quickly; the sisters were women’s doubles champions at the same tournament. However, the timeless classic between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the men’s final would soon take centrestage.
As a contest, though, the women’s singles final was every bit tantalising as the one that took place 24 hours later. Venus’s win was richly deserved and added more intrigue to what is the biggest WTA rivalry in two decades, as things stand. She was off to a blistering start in her career before Serena swooped in and started to bag titles for fun, that too at an incredible rate.
The pattern of the final too, was akin to how the 2000s were for Venus. At no point was she fazed by Serena’s rapid start. After back-to-back losses in 2002 and 2003, she came back strongly with Wimbledon titles in 2005, 07 and 08. Unfortunately, that win happened to be her last Grand Slam title as Serena went from strength-to-strength, even wrestling back the Wimbledon crown in 2009.
There was more to come from Serena and Venus but in the years that followed, the 23-time Grand Slam-winner had the measure of the latter. Serena would extract revenge later that year in the US Open quarter-finals, a contest that was even more absorbing.
Wimbledon 2008, though, made for better theatre with both players at the peak of their powers. The 2017 Australian Open final between them was significant for different reasons. Despite the stream of new talent every single year, the Williams sisters would continue to hold fort and churn out battles that were not easy on the fingernails. Alas, Federer and Nadal would dominate headlines on that occasion as well with another encounter for the ages.
Watch the 2008 women’s singles final here: