On 14 August 2016 on the Barra de Tijuca courts during the Games in Rio, Venus Williams was in the mixed doubles final with Rajeev Ram, playing their compatriots Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jack Sock. Aged 36, beaten by Belgium’s Kirsten Flipkens in the first round of the women’s singles, and then in the women’s doubles with her sister Serena by the Czech pair Lucie Šafářová and Barbora Strýcová, shattering their hopes of a fourth gold medal in this event, Venus was aiming to become the only person to win five tennis titles at the Games.
But Mattek-Sands and Sock won the match, 7/6 (10-7), 6/1, so she had to be content with making history by becoming the only tennis player to stand on the Olympic podium five times. She is also the only woman to have won medals at four different editions of the Games (2000, 2008, 2012 and 2016).
Aged 20, Venus Williams becomes a two-time Olympic champion
But rewind 19 years to when it all began, for both her and her younger sister. The 2000 Games in Sydney came during one of the best periods in her career for Venus Williams. When she walked out onto the tennis courts of Olympic Park at Homebush Bay, on 19 September 2000, to begin the women’s singles tournament against Slovakia’s Henrieta Nagyovà (who managed to win just four games, losing 6/2, 6/2), Serena’s 20-year-old sister had just won her first two Grand Slam titles, at Wimbledon in July and at the US Open in New York, nine days earlier.
In the women’s rankings, her compatriot Lindsay Davenport was the top seed, but she dropped out before the second round, while Venus, the number 2 seed, advanced effortlessly into the quarter- finals by beating Thailand’s Tamarin Tanasugarn 6/2, 6/3 in the second round, and then Germany’s Jana Kandarr 6/2, 6/2 in the third round.
Spain’s three-time French Open winner Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario gave her a harder time in the quarter-finals, but the American finally triumphed 6/3, 2/6, 6/4. After that, she won a hard-fought match against fellow American Monica Seles (1/6, 6/4, 6/3) before facing Russia’s Elena Dementieva in the gold medal match on 27 September, which she won in two sets: 6/2, 6/4. By October that year, Venus had won 35 consecutive singles matches.
At the same time, Venus was advancing in the doubles tournament with her sister, Serena, 15 months her junior. The Williams sisters were in the final the day after Venus’s singles victory, against Kristie Boogert and Miriam Oremans from the Netherlands. The demolition job was over in just 49 minutes with a score of 6/1, 6/1. Venus thus became the first woman to win the singles and doubles at the same Games since Helen Wills Moody in 1924. Speaking afterwards, she said: “For me, this is almost bigger than singles. To have a victory like this with Serena, my sister, a member of my family and my best friend, doesn't happen often. It's very rare. Just to be able to play and win together at this level is really huge.”
Three doubles gold medals with Serena, and then…?
Venus was wrong about just one thing: their collective victories would in fact happen very often in the years that followed, especially in Grand Slam tournaments, where they won a total of 14 women’s doubles titles, with Venus winning five singles titles at Wimbledon until 2008, plus two wins at the US Open.
Had Serena not been injured in August 2004, leaving them unable to take part in the women’s doubles in Athens, who knows whether the Williams sisters might not have enjoyed an uninterrupted series of Olympic victories from 2000 to 2012? Indeed, in Beijing in 2008 and then London in 2012, they stormed their way to the final each time, winning 6-2, 6-0 against Spain’s Anabel Medina and Virginia Ruano in the Chinese capital on 17 August 2008, and 6-4, 6-4 on 5 August 2012 on the grass at Wimbledon against Czech players Andrea Hlavacova and Lucie Hradecká, with Venus producing a backhand volley to clinch the match. Serena, who had won the singles the day before, exclaimed: “It’s crazy. I'm always copying her. I forgot that she did it in Sydney and I do it here. We're the same doubles team, we just split this to singles, so it's cool.” The total: four Olympic gold medals each.
Venus and Serena have faced each other nine times in Grand Slam finals, four times in a row between 2002 and 2003. More recently, the elder sister had a great season in 2017, moving back up to number 5 in the world and reaching the final of the Australian Open, where she lost to Serena, and Wimbledon, for the ninth time since 2000, where she was beaten by Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza. Her main goal now is to be present, racket in hand, at the Games in Tokyo in 2020, after celebrating her 40th birthday (she was born on 17 June 1980). “My aim is to earn a place at the Games. I love playing at the Olympics for sure!” She already has the most medals, and in the Japanese capital she could become the oldest tennis player in history to stand on top of the podium in her sixth appearance on the Olympic stage. What a journey!