The return of Serena Williams to the top of the tennis tree, in thought if not in ranking, has been so remarkable, that it has left little room to appreciate the efforts of her sister, Venus. For while Serena was recovering from lacerated foot, pulmonary embolism and haemotoma, Venus was also trying to steer herself around an ongoing influx of injuries, and, as it later emerged, the debilitating Sjrogen’s Syndrome.
While Serena won Wimbledon, two Olympic golds and the US Open, Venus produced small victories of her own. She defied the odds to qualify for the Olympics on her ranking, without relying on a wild card, much of which involved winning on clay, her least accomplished surface. She won Olympic gold alongside her sister. And then, almost the most impressive of the lot, the reached her first semi-final since 2010 in Cincinnati, before winning her first title in two and a half years in Luxembourg to close the season. Venus Williams, it was made clear, would not be retiring anytime soon.
But be that as it may, there remains a gulf between the Venus Williams of today and the way she once was. And that was exposed to its full degree by Maria Sharapova, the second seed, who unpicked and out-hit Venus 6-1 6-3 in their third-round encounter on Friday night.
“She played very well. I expect her to play well,” Venus said. “Definitely not my best day today. But, you know, there's always other days to play better.”
There had been much talk of this being a blockbuster. A Friday night lights affair on Rod Laver Arena as two erstwhile rivals went toe to toe. Except Sharapova, only 25 to Venus’s 32, didn’t come close to letting that happen.
“I was a really determined player out there because I knew the tennis that she's capable of producing and playing,” Sharapova said.
“Despite what she's ranked or seeded, it doesn't matter when you go out on the court. She's been there. She's experienced enough to know no matter if you're playing the third round, the quarters, or the final, you have to be ready. I certainly was. Since the draw came out, I was really looking forward to that matchup.”
For the first four games of the match, Sharapova maintained her perfect record at Australian Open 2013: 28 games won, none lost. Two breaks, two service holds, and barely a wobble among them, aside from one break point. Venus, by contrast, looked as flummoxed as the blobs of paint on her dress. Her former foe out-hit her by only two more winners. She served just 44 per cent of her first serves in. And yet Venus found no way in against Sharapova.
The tale was true of the second set too. Sharapova broke to lead 3-0 before the American held to cheerful applause. There would be no bagel to humiliate the former great, who, despite never winning at Melbourne Park, still held seven Grand Slam titles to Sharapova’s four.
“We know each other's games very well,” Sharapova said. “A lot of it is about executing from our own sides. I thought I did a good job of what I had in my head and what I wanted to accomplish out there today.”
Thus there was no stopping the Russian on this occasion. Serving out the win at 6-3 in the second, Sharapova let slip how much this matchup meant. Producing a gutteral yell that Novak Djokovic would be proud of, she earned a withering look from Venus. But what did it matter? She had won.
“I served that game out really well. I was just really pumped. Why shouldn't I be?” she said.
It’s hard to argue with that. Or the way she played.