It was closing on midnight when Serena Williams came to the main interview room here, still with half an eye on history, still a bundle of impenetrable anxiety and still ready for a barrage of questions about her sister.
Venus, at 35 the oldest woman in the quarter-finals, had just left it all out on Arthur Ashe in front of a capacity audience. So had Serena, who turns 34 this month. There was nothing more to give at the end (Serena tumbled backwards to the ground from the force of one Venus forehand near the end), even though this high-powered, intense sibling confrontation, watched by millions on television, had lasted only an hour and 38 minutes.
Serena crossed the line 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 ahead to remain on course for the calendar slam and her fourth title in a row here. She had won 76 points, just one more than Venus, yet it was not really close.
Then they were obliged to talk about it. This would be a more draining experience even than the match, because the court is where they are safe and comfortable. In front of reporters, both of them hug the metaphorical baseline.
“I didn’t really listen to a lot of the press and read anything about it,” Serena said. “I didn’t really live in that world. It’s a big topic because I think it’s the greatest story in tennis … how we started and how we grew up and how we were able to win championships and be, you know, such inspirations for so many women across the globe. It doesn’t get better than that.”
What she did not say and rarely talks about is a story from the earliest days of their journey from the Compton ghetto to the heights of their sport. And, had it panned out with a different twist, tennis might have been a considerably noisier landscape.
Somewhere in the bottom of a drawer in his Florida home, Don King, boxing’s loudest extrovert, has a picture of himself and two shy young sisters wearing T-shirts and caps with his DK logo. It transpires that Kenny Miller, a Los Angeles face who went on to be a writer, knew the Williams family and introduced them to the promoter when the girls were just getting interested in tennis.
Their father, Richard, wanted to relocate to Florida and it was King who stepped up with financial help. They still call him Uncle Don – and, although he knows nothing about tennis, King to this day regrets that he did not sign them up. What a spectacle he would have provided in the stands.
They have done fine, though. Last month they doubled their investment when they sold a Manhattan loft for $2m. Wealth-X, who track the rich, on Wednesday listed Serena’s career earnings at $130m, third on the all-time tennis list behind Roger Federer ($330m) and her personal punchbag Maria Sharapova ($160m). Venus, whose best days were in her early years, has earned $70m, sixth on the list alongside Andy Murray.
The other ghost in the room here in Flushing has been Steffi Graf. If Serena wins the title, she moves alongside Graf’s tally of 22 slam titles.
If she wins two more after that – say, in Australia and at Wimbledon next year – she matches the all-time record of Margaret Court. If she goes even further, her achievement will be untouchable by her peers and she will unequivocally be the greatest player of all time.
“It’s been a really long time since I have played her,” she said of Graf, who retired in 1999 having won one and lost one against the teenage Serena on the WTA tour, “but I do remember her having an unbelievable forehand. Her backhand was amazing, too, because she had that really good slice. She was very athletic and very fast. She did a lot of things really well.”
Yet Serena still regards Venus, who won seven slams, tougher to beat than anyone she has played in her long career. “I have played a lot of great players like Lindsay [Davenport] and Jennifer [Capriati] and Martina [Navratilova] and Kim [Clijsters] and Justine [Henin]. I have had a lot of losses against those players, as well. They just didn’t have the pressure – they didn’t know my game and they just didn’t beat me as many times as Venus has.”
Sharapova does not get a namecheck.
But Serena had had enough questions now. She had fulfilled her obligation. She wanted to sleep, rest and get ready for her semi-final against Roberta Vinci – whom she could probably beat in her sleep. The Italian with the one-handed backhand, big slice and rushing net game has taken just 21 games off her in four one-sided defeats.
“To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t want to be here,” Williams told her final inquisitor. “I just want to be in bed right now. I have to wake up early to practise. I don’t want to answer any of these questions and you keep asking me the same questions. You’re not making it super enjoyable. I’m just being honest.”
She was never less than that.
This article was written by Kevin Mitchell at Flushing Meadows, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 9th September 2015 21.24 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010