In terms of the greatest athletes in the history of professional sports, few can rival what Serena and Venus Williams have done for tennis.
With 30 Grand Slam singles titles between them and another 32 in women’s and mixed doubles, you won’t find a more talented sister act to have ever graced the court. For those who watched the Hollywood adaptation of their rise to greatness in “King Richard” released earlier this year, it became abundantly clear that they had more hurdles to overcome in reaching their dreams than your typical tennis player.
With Serena celebrating here 41St birthday next month and her big sister Venus having turned 42 earlier this summer, it’s pretty evident that our opportunities for watching these two legends in action is drawing to its conclusion. As the WTA alternates between Toronto and Montreal every year, the prospects of seeing either of the Williams sisters back here at the National Bank Open in 2024 is pretty unrealistic.
What I’m saying here tennis fans is this: if you have the opportunity to make it out to Sobeys Stadium this Monday Aug. 8, take full advantage of the chance to see two of the greatest competitors you’ll ever get to watch live. One day you’ll be able to tell your kids, grandkids or maybe even your great-grand kids that you got to see them one last time here in Canada!
Having both Williams sisters back in Toronto was somewhat of a surprise given how little the two have been able to play over the past year. Serena injured her hamstring at Wimbledon in 2021 and only recently came back at this year’s installment of that same Major going down 5-7, 6-1, 6-7 to Harmony Tan. The National Bank Open will be her first hard court tournament in a year and a half, since last playing on the surface at the Australian Open in 2021 where she made it to the semifinals.
Venus has also had a long absence from the court, having played her last singles draw last August in Chicago before returning last week in Washington, DC where she fell to Canada’s Rebecca Marino. It won’t be any easier here as she has a tough opening round match here against Switzerland’s Jil Teichmann, ranked 21St in the world.
So how exactly did the tournament land these two all-time greats? In speaking with Tournament Director Karl Hale, he revealed that part of it was good fortune. He had decided to attend the French Open at the last minute and while there ran into Serena’s agent Jill Smoller and things progressed from that point.
“Nobody knew that they were going to come back and play six weeks ago,” Hale told me. “I spoke to them and they love Toronto, Serena spent a lot of time outside of the tournament in Toronto so I knew we had a really good shot of landing here. Then I sent a note to Venus saying ‘hey your sister is playing how about you join us?’ And she said sure!”
For Serena, the quest to tie Margaret Court with a 24th major title is a prime motivator. While most consider the American legend as the greatest player of all-time, the desire to eclipse that mark is a big factor in what keeps her going. Despite a lack of recent match play, she’s always performed well here in Toronto winning the event in 2001, 2011, 2013 and making the finals as well in a losing effort most recently in 2019 to Bianca Andreescu in a match that unfortunately ended with an injury that cut short the match after just a few games.
Serena plays the daytime match on Monday Aug. 8 while Venus will be the second night match later that evening. Their matches will be featured on Center Court which comes as no surprise whatsoever and in front of what is shaping up to be a full crowd to welcome both Williams sisters back to Canada.
Around The Grounds
They say the early bird gets the worm and that’s no exception at a pro tennis tournament. Both Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka took the first practice slots available on Sunday in Toronto and were hard at work before many of their peers had even arrived on site at Sobeys Stadium.
It took a little getting used to seeing Serena without her longtime coach Patrick Mouratoglou who now works with Simona Halep. In his place, Serena has her sister’s coach Eric Hechtman working with her for the time being. Throughout the session, Serena had an extra level of focus in her eyes as she tries to sharpen her hard court game after many months away from competition.
Osaka for her part was full of smiles as she warmed up tossing a football back and forth with her coach. Even after they began hitting balls, the former World No. 1 looked to be enjoying herself out there which was a most welcome sight.
Osaka has been very open about her mental health struggles in recent years and has been an inspirational force behind initiatives such as the Mental Timeout Campaign that Tennis Canada is running throughout the National Bank Open this week. I’ll have more on that tomorrow following my interview with Bianca Andreescu who has been very supportive of the programme.
Later in the day Great Britain’s Emma Raducanu had her first hit on site since arriving from DC where she fell in the quarter finals. For those who weren’t aware, Raducanu was in fact born here in Toronto but has always represented the Union Jack in competition.
I asked the 19-year-old last summer during her run to the US Open title whether or not she felt any connection still to her Canadian roots. “It definitely means a lot to have support from Canada, I was born there, I lived there for a couple of years before I moved to London, I have a Canadian passport so to have that support means a lot.”
From The Archives
Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki weren’t just competitors on the WTA but also good friends as well. Here’s a shot I took at the National Bank Open in 2015 where Serena crashed Wozniacki’s pre-tournament press conference to lighten the mood. Wozniacki, who won her lone Major title at the 2018 Aussie Open, recently gave birth to her first child and can be seen these days doing match analysis at the Slams on TV.