The woman policing the gangway that leads down to the media seats on Arthur Ashe glanced at a stadium TV screen, and whispered, “I like Venus.”
It wasn’t “like” as in the American sporting argot, “think she will win”, more an expression of admiration bordering on sympathy for the older Williams sister (justified, as it happens), who was expected to be marmalised by Serena, the champion who had out-titled her over their careers 69-46, who had won 15 of their 26 matches and who was reaching for a quarter-final win that would propel her to within two victories of history.
And so the predicted result transpired, unexpectedly, in three sets.
Obstructing Serena’s route to the final and coronation as the first woman to sweep all four majors in a calendar year since Steffi Graf in 1988 is a player she has beaten all four times they have met, Roberta Vinci. The Italian has won just 22 games in those matches.
That has slaughter written all over it.
So did this quarter-final, which lasted an hour and 38 minutes and which Serena won 6-2, 1-6, 6-3.
It is not disrespecting Venus – who has won more easily in this tournament than has Serena – to point out the disparity in spoils and consistent dominance stretching back several years. She is in pretty respectable company trailing her sister in every statistic known to nerds. In slams, Serena now leads 9-5, including four on the spin in recent majors.
But, if you dismiss as absurd the notion that collusion between two sisters whose bond is unbreakable, there remains the dilemma of culling half-heartedness from conviction. There was little evidence of the former, much of the latter, by both players. Yet it was a strangely antiseptic affair.
No description could match watching the contest unfold live, but the numbers tell the story. There were a remarkable 126 rallies of four shots or fewer and only three that lasted longer than nine strokes. The paradox was they were so good they made it look bad, not a fight but an exchange of brilliant winners, 35 by Serena, 24 from Venus, with a combined unforced error count of only 37. As executions go, it was quick and clean.
Never the less, in the first set, fans looked this way and that around the stadium, fiddling with their phones, peeping up at the jumbo screens to see if they’d made it on to the roaming shoot of the stands, and wondering when it might be cool to maybe slip away. Not many did.
At times this was like kissing your sister – except they are sisters. The longest rally of the match arrived at 30-love to Venus in the third game of the second set after 44 minutes of tennis they could market as a lullaby video. It lasted all of 13 shots, and it wasn’t all that. Venus won it, by the way, holding to love, but everyone shifting in their seats knew it was not going to change the course of the match, and, of course, it didn’t.
Even when Serena dropped serve (breaking her run of 18 holds in a row) with a double fault (a second serve into the net at 68mph) to fall 1-3 behind, it was hard to detect in the champion a shred of anxiety.
A third double fault handed Venus the gift of serving out the second set at 5-1 after a little under an hour. She had three set points, and Serena was plunged into her 11th three-setter of the season when she banged the third into the net.
And still inevitability hung heavy in the air.