All night the mother felt it coursing through her, flowing all the way from the nearby hotel room where her daughters tried to sleep. Joy and pain, elation and regret, winning and losing: positive and negative currents commingling, plunging straight into her heart. Was this part of the plan, too? Not really. Back in the 1980s, it had been just talk and dreams when her husband, Richard Williams, stood on a cracked court in Compton, Calif., and predicted huge things for daughters Venus and Serena, boasted that they would upend the tennis world and someday rule the game.
No one thought about how it would play out. No one thought about complications. But now here it was, the night before the women's final of the 1999 U.S. Open, and Oracene Williams lay awake, listening to the hum of New York City after dark. Earlier that evening, everything had gone right and everything had gone wrong. The younger daughter, until now overshadowed, had won and would play for the family's first Grand Slam singles title. The older daughter, long anointed the star, had lost again and could only watch. Serena, 17, was all but vibrating with anticipation. Venus, 19, could barely speak. Mom got to handle the wreckage.
"It was almost like a death, mat loss for Venus," Oracene said. She was sitting in the players' lounge underneath Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was late last Saturday night, hours after Serena had made history and scored a massive upset by outmuscling and outthinking No. 1 Martina Hingis 6-3, 7-6 to become the first African-American since Ashe in 1975 to win a Grand Slam singles title and the first African-American woman to do so since Althea Gibson in '58. The room was empty. Her husband, who had stirred the pot before the Open by predicting a Williams-Williams final, baiting Hingis into saying he had a "big mouth" and sparking a dopily orchestrated hug between the two in the first week, had already boarded his flight home to West Palm Beach, Fla. "Venus didn't sleep, and I felt her emotion all night, so I couldn't sleep well either," Oracene said. "She thinks since she's the oldest, she should've been the first, that maybe she should've been tougher. That's something they've thought about all their lives: Meeting in a final, two sisters. She feels she let everybody down."
Down? Hardly. Along with the 18-year-old Hingis, 23-year-old Lindsay Davenport and Serena, Venus had concocted one of the most uplifting 24 hours in women's Grand Slam history, a bruising span of high-octane, high-quality tennis that closed the century with a satisfying bang, eclipsed Andre Agassi's run to his second U.S. Open title and showcased the rivalries that should dominate the women's game for the next decade. Historic shifts hit tennis like hurricanes; you see them coming, but never know exactly where or when they'll make landfall. Suddenly, at this Open, the future came blowing in. Steffi Graf had retired a month earlier, fellow veteran Jana Novotna announced midway through the tournament that she'll be following suit at the end of the year, and stalwarts such as Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario and Mary Joe Fernandez folded before the quarterfinals. "The new generation is here, and it is ready to take over," Novotna said at her retirement press conference. "I think those players will be great, and they'll be tough as well."
For anyone doubting that, allow last Friday's semifinal showdowns—Serena versus defending champion Davenport and Venus versus Hingis—to serve as Exhibit A. After being delayed five hours by rain, Serena and Davenport squared off in a slugger's delight of huge serves and monstrous groundstrokes, with Serena gutting out her fourth straight three-set win, 6-4,1-6, 6-4, over one of three former champs she would vanquish en route to the title. "I fear no one," Serena said afterward. "I only fear God."
Then came the match of the year: an exhilarating battle between Venus and Hingis that pitted power against guile, athleticism against versatility, and depended ultimately on who was resilient enough to survive a mesmerizing string of furious rallies. After Hingis rolled through a sterling first set, Venus rebounded to take control in the second. But Serena didn't like what she was seeing. Sitting in front of a TV in the interview room while her sister broke to a 4-1 lead, Serena said, "Venus just doesn't seem to be doing the right things. No, she's definitely not doing the right things." Venus held on to win the second set 6-4. Serena still didn't like what she was seeing. She got up and headed outside to the family box. "She needs me," Serena said.
She did. For although Venus is far more imposing, Hingis proved to be in better shape. After being shoved all over the court by Graf at this year's French Open final, the once-pudgy wunderkind spent four weeks training at her new home at the Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel, Fla., and came to Flushing Meadow looking fitter than ever. Hingis rolled into the semis without losing a set and then, after dropping an exhausting second set to Venus, came back to pull off the shot of the tournament. With Venus assaulted by cramps and serving limply into the net, Hingis had built a 5-3,30-15 lead when Venus dropped a forehand just over the net. Racing from four feet behind the baseline, Hingis snagged the ball with a one-handed backhand just before it hit and flipped it up the line for the winner. One serve later, she had the 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 victory, and a meeting with the next Williams sister in less than 24 hours. "Another one?" Hingis said.
A better one. Richard always claimed that Serena would be the superior player, but when Venus made her spectacular run to the 1997 U.S. Open final, most observers dismissed such talk as a another Richard hype job. It turns out that Father knew best. After joining the tour two years ago, Serena rocketed up the rankings and then early this year uncoiled a 16-match winning streak. That ended when Serena played flat against her sister in the Lipton final—an act of deference, Serena said while watching Venus and Hingis battle, that she has no intention of repeating: "I don't care who I play now. I'm ready." Then, just to make sure, she grabbed a court after her sister lost to Hingis and worked on her strokes for about a half hour.
"She's outside practicing?" Hingis said when she heard the news. Venus, meanwhile, declined an interview with CBS. Then she was asked if she wanted to say something nice about Serena. Venus said, "No." She'd better get used to such requests. With the best forehand in women's tennis, a more consistent serve and a light-footed transition to the net, the seventh-seeded Serena had been recognized by tennis peers as the more accomplished Williams even before the Open. Agassi picked her to win.
"I thought she was ready," Agassi said after his compelling 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2 win over a better-than-ever Todd Martin in Sunday's men's final. "I like her game. She and Venus are incredible athletes, but it's my belief that Serena was more ready to win a big tournament. Her second serve is a lot better. Her forehand is better. And she's a more efficient mover. They're both fast, and Venus can elevate into greatness as well. But she's going to end up taking a bit more work."