Back in 1999, two then-rising stars began making their first major charge on the WTA tour, capping winning weeks with titles in Oklahoma City and Paris. February 28, 1999 was one incredible day that had been in the making for more than 20 years: two sisters, each winning tournament titles, 4,820 miles between them—but always close at the heart. Back in 1978, Richard Williams had watched Virginia Ruzici win the title at Roland Garros and earn $40,000. Upon seeing that, Williams decided he was going to have two daughters who would become champion tennis players.
Venus Williams was born in 1980, Serena a year later. Richard’s vision was detailed in a 78-page plan. By the late ‘90s, both girls had blossomed into tremendous tennis players. In 1997, making her US Open debut, Venus at the age of 17 had gone all the way to the finals. Later that fall, in the draw of a WTA event for only the second time, 16-year-old Serena beat future Hall of Famers Mary Pierce and Monica Seles. So, it was that the week of February 22 saw each sister compete at different tournaments on separate continents.
Venus played at the IGA SuperThrift Tennis Classic in Oklahoma City. A year earlier, this had been where she’d earned her first WTA singles title. By early ‘99 and ranked fifth in the world, Venus tore through the tournament, failing to drop a set. In the finals, she beat tenth-ranked Amanda Coetzer, 6-4, 6-0. “It’s like they know you here,” Williams said. “Oklahoma is a whole different thing. Tennis fans are great all over the world, but here the crowd relates to you.”
Meanwhile, Serena was in Paris at the Open Gaz de France. She too was dominant, reaching the finals without the loss of a set. To get there, Serena won four matches, including three versus accomplished French women—second-seeded Nathalie Tauziat (the previous year’s Wimbledon finalist), seventh-seeded Julie Halard-Decugis and Nathalie Dechy. But Serena’s final match was much tougher. Her opponent was another Frenchwoman, Amélie Mauresmo.
Just the previous month, Mauresmo had reached the finals at the Australian Open, upsetting reigning US Open champion Lindsay Davenport in the semis before losing to Martina Hingis. In Paris, she’d avenged that loss to Hingis and, just like Serena, was eager to claim her first WTA singles title. Serena won four straight games take the first set, 6-2. Mauresmo rallied to win the second, 6-3. In the third, Serena quickly took a 4-1 lead, only to see Mauresmo fight back and send the match into a decisive tiebreaker.
But from 3-all, Serena was too tough, taking four of the next five points.“I decided if I want to win, if I wanted to be the best, I had better be able to close out the match,” Serena said following the match. “This is a start for me. It’s always good to get a smaller tournament under your belt so that by the time you get to the Slams, you have a lot of experience.”
Serena was spot on. She’d earn four more titles in ’99, most notably winning the US Open. By year’s end, Serena was ranked four in the world, one spot behind Venus. Everything Richard Williams had imagined was coming true. It remains arguably the greatest story in sports history.