MARTIN SAMUEL: Williams' Sister Act failed to live up to billing

MARTIN SAMUEL: After the drama and delirium around the one-woman show, Serena and Venus Williams’ Sister Act failed to live up to the billing… the end for the greatest doubles players with 14 Grand Slam titles came suddenly

  • Serena and Venus Williams lost in the first round of US Open doubles Thursday
  • It was likely the last time they played together but it failed to live up to the billing
  • The reunion of the greatest doubles players was over almost as soon as it begun
  • Those inside the arena failed to grasp the significance of the Arthur Ashe clash 

After the one-woman show, it was time for Sister Act. Sadly, it couldn’t live up to the billing.

The reunion of the greatest doubles players in tennis history – 14 Grand Slam titles and a win-loss record that now stops at 176-30 – was over almost as soon as it had begun. 

The match took time, over two hours, but the end for Venus and Serena Williams came suddenly. It was as if somebody had marched into the room, mid-episode, and turned the show off. 

Having lost the first set on a tiebreak, going down 7-5 having led 5-3, it was a similar story of swift demise in set two. The Williams’ went down 3-0, and then trailed 4-2 and 40-0 with Linda Noskova serving. 

After Serena Williams’ (left) one-woman show, it was time for Sister Act alongside Venus (right)

But the show could not live up to its billing as the sisters lost their first-round doubles match

The duo were defeated by Czech pairing Lucie Hradecka (right) and Linda Noskova (left)

From that, they fought back to break and, ultimately tie the set 4-4. Lucie Hradecka held serve and, abruptly, Serena Williams served up three match points to the Czechs. One was saved, the next not. Noskova, just 17 – so younger than Emma Raducanu – nailed the perfect volley at the net, and it was done. 

After so much drama and delirium surrounding Serena’s progress, it was as if the sisters had been bundled out of a side door. Nobody quite knew what to do.

Hradecka and Noskova were humble enough to look a little embarrassed, as if they knew they had spoiled the party.

Still, it can’t be helped. The match was there to be won at several pivotal moments and it was the Czech pair that closed it out. 

Fans of Serena may be happy that their girl was not taken to a third exhausting set or will not be distracted from her lone mission by fighting on two fronts as she goes deeper into the tournament. 

After so much delirium surrounding Serena, the sisters were bundled out of a side door

Against that, the Flushing Meadows spell has been broken. To here, it was possible to believe in fate or destiny or simply that a 40-year-old woman can recapture her youthful peak just by willing it so. That isn’t true. Impossible isn’t nothing, whatever they say on Madison Avenue. 

We believe in Serena because, hell, Raducanu won it a year ago, and that was an unprecedented achievement, too. Yet here was a reminder that not all stories have happy ending, least of all in sport. 

It would have been lovely if Venus and Serena got the gang back together and made it 15, but they have a combined world singles ranking of 1,917 and – more importantly – a combined age of 82. Hradecka is a veteran of 37 years but she has partnered up with a teenager and, in moments, it showed. 

Noskova’s serve game fell apart once in the second set as the pressure of a Williams comeback sapped her confidence, but she was stunning in the final game, the winning point an aggressive flourish of youthfulness. 

Doubles points often look spectacular like that, fast and furious, particularly when a volley becomes the last word on the matter, or a full stop. The Williams’ era is over, period, Noskova seemed to say at the net.

17-year-old Noskova she was stunning in the final game, winning the match with a flourish

Yet what an era it has been. Not just the roll call of achievements, which will remain unsurpassed for generations, but the fact that right to the end they continued changing the game. 

Local time, 7pm, at the Arthur Ashe Stadium is the absolute prime slot for US Open tennis and its host broadcasters. The greatest players, the best matches, are placed there. 

How often, then, will that marquee match-up feature a women’s doubles game? A first-round women’s doubles game at that. In fact a first round women’s doubles game between an unseeded pair from the Czech Republic and a wild card partnership of two players in their forties. 

And yet nobody made the argument that they should have played second fiddle to Rafael Nadal, winner of more men’s singles Grand Slams than any player in history. This, correctly, was the Williams’ stage. Right to the last, they were taking a hammer to that glass ceiling.

Inside the arena, mind, the ticket-holders didn’t appear to have grasped the significance. There wasn’t the energy that has enveloped Serena’s individual journey here. 

Maybe this was a crowd that just got lucky, bought a ticket for the Thursday evening session and wound up watching the history girls it what we now know was their final appearance together. 

In the arena, ticket-holders didn’t appear to have grasped the significance of the match 

You know when the Open golf is at St Andrews and it is almost compulsory for commentators to remark on the knowledge of the gallery? The US Open isn’t like that. 

On Tuesday, Raducanu, the defending champion played at the Louis Armstrong Stadium to an audience that didn’t pause its chatter for a second. The game sounded like it was taking place in the middle of a saloon bar. ‘Is she American?’ one learned gentlemen asked his partner, of Raducanu. ‘No, British.’ There was a pause. ‘She won any Slams?’ ‘This one, last year,’ came the reply. Still, the cocktails are meant to be nice.

It wasn’t quite that bad for the Williams’ – most people at least seemed to know who they were – but the chat was a constant factor. 

Then, if the Czech pair were in the ascendancy, even that died down and the noise of the air conditioning took over. It was a crowd that sometimes found the French umpire’s pronunciation of advantage amusing, or that only got truly excited if a camera sought them out for the big screen during breaks in play. 

At the net, powering winners with utter fury, it was clear Serena still had the fight in her

One guy shouted encouragement to the 23-time Grand Slam winner at the top of her serve

One guy shouted encouragement to Serena when she was at the top of her serve.

When she won the point anyway, he turned proudly to his friend. ‘I did that,’ he said. When the Czechs took the match away, there was even a smattering of unsporting boos.

Who knows what this means for Serena’s singles match with Ajla Tomljanovic on Friday? At the net, powering winners with utter fury, it was clear the fight was still there. 

She did all she could to keep her sister at the US Open with her – although, ironically, it was Serena’s serve that was broken twice in the second set – but it was not enough. 

At the end, the sisters vacated the stage to rapturous applause from a crowd, some of whom were paying real attention to them for the first time that night. 

It will be different when Serena walks out alone in the third round. But will it feel different to her, too, having found out she is human after all?

Yet what an era it has been, the fact that right to the end they continued changing the game

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