On big sisters
Ajla Tomljanović is serving for the match as I type this.
I have written before about my love for Serena Williams. I cherish her, and I do not say that lightly. We are not kin; I do not know her, have never met her. I do not know her deep internal motivations, we do not share the same faith, and we most likely have very different views on a lot of things in life. And yet I love her. I feel like I get her, to an extent. For all the gaps in this parasocial (SORRY!) relationship, she is not an enigma to me.
And a lot is being written about Serena these days, because it’s the US Open, and it’s almost certainly her final big tourney, following her recent Vogue cover article, in which she articulated her reasons for hanging up her racket. Serena is 40 years old; 41 at the end of this month — she wants to expand her family, she’s been playing since she was damn near a baby, and over the course of her game-changing career she’s achieved… a lot. So it feels right to slide out of the court at this juncture, GOAT status assured, single tear of pride and effort sliding down her cheek, her adorable daughter on her hip, and her uxorious husband by her side. It’s the dream, right?
But I just want to take a minute, in the middle of—the rightful—blanket coverage of Serena, and talk about Venus Williams. Venus Ebony Starr, the older sister by just over a year. The quieter one, the taller one, the one with the immaculate forehand. The one who won a Grand Slam first. The door opener. The essential ingredient in Serena’s eventual domination and GOAT-hood. Simply put: no Venus, no Serena.
I don’t say that lightly, either.
I say it as a younger sister, one who is often noisier than her older sister. One who is chattier, and is maybe more of a show-off, and has been rewarded for those traits, or traits like those. Without my older sister A, I am less — less able to be myself, less free to try. My older sister is the one to ‘beat’ — my North Star (moreso than even my beloved parents!). She is the one I would slide a look to as a kid, to confirm it was OK to do the thing my mum had just asked me to do. Her subtle “go ahead” nods were the key I used to unlock possibility and potential. When I look at Venus, and how from the earliest days she would be in the stands, cheering Serena on (if she wasn’t on the court opposite her, that is), I see my sister — counting my successes as her own, and feeling my defeats as keenly as I did. My sister and I joke sometimes that we share a mind and merely have two bodies… but sometimes I am not joking. The ratio changes day-to-day as our needs change, but yes, without her, there is no me. Not in this configuration, not in this specific form.
I have written about sisters before. My play, Hoard, is about sisters (and their mother) and though the three sister characters are a composite of Nigerian British girls I have known, they are also versions of me and my sister. Ami, the oldest daughter character, is a teacher. I chose the profession carefully, as an ode to my older sister, the person I have modeled ever single version of myself on. She taught me how to be myself. My friend K, also a younger sister, once described the feeling, as a kid, of wanting to wear her sister — to climb into her, and know her so intimately that she felt like her. We laughed at the thought, then lapsed into silence and continued, “I really did feel like that, though.”
Nowadays, when my sister compliments me on something I’ve done, claiming it’s “brave” or “inspiring,” my urge is to shrug it off laughingly, or to say “meh, it was nothing.” But what I really mean is: “Can you not discern the shape of your influence photo-imposed over this accomplishment? Do you believe this to be my own doing alone?” Most crucially: “don’t you see how I couldn’t have done it without you specifically?”
Watching Venus watching Serena in this third round match made me emotional. I saw in her my own older sister, watching me do my work, and encouraging me to keep it going, reminding me that I’ve done the prep, that I’m capable, that in many ways, my life is the thing that I get to steer. And so I love Venus too. With all my heart. Because I know that, among the many other things she is, she is the one of the very first, most potent engines that drove Serena forward into the life she has made for herself.
Tomljanović, with her nerves of Valyrian steel, just won the match. The struggle for it felt epic enough to be a championship match. It is correctly the story of the hour. But I’m still going to focus on the big sister tonight.
It’s only her due.