Serena Williams sets major record with win over sister Venus

- Serena Williams held up a Grand Slam winner's trophy for the 23rd time, celebrating her unrivalled place in history, and received a congratulatory letter and a pair of custom-made shoes from Michael Jordan, the name most synonymous with No. 23.

   Venus Williams got to watch from close range again, and shed tears more of joy than regret after being beaten in a major final for the seventh time by her record-breaking younger sister.
   Serena won the all-Williams final, the ninth in Grand Slam history and the second in Australia, 6-4, 6-4 on Saturday night.
   With her record seventh Australian Open title, Serena moved ahead of Steffi Graf for the most major titles in the Open era. 
   The Williams sisters are close. They started out playing together in Compton, California, hardly a hotbed for tennis, with their father Richard and mother Oracene as coach and mentor. And they still practice and travel together around the world.
   They met for the first time at a major at Melbourne Park in 1998 -- Venus won that one. In 2003, when the younger of the Williams siblings completed her "Serena Slam" of four consecutive titles, Venus was on the other side of the net. She didn't reach another Australian final for 14 years.
   When Serena sat on the court, holding both arms up to celebrate on Saturday, Venus walked over to her sister's side of the net for a hug.
   "This was a tough one," Serena said. "I really would like to take this moment to congratulate Venus, she's an amazing person -- she's my inspiration.
   "There's no way I would be at 23 without her -- there's no way I would be at one without her. Thank you Venus for inspiring me to be the best player I can be and inspiring me to work hard."
   Asked if it felt awkward to be on the receiving end of so many losses to her sister, the 36-year-old Venus didn't flinch.
   "No, because I guess I've been here before," she said. "I really enjoy seeing the name Williams on the trophy. This is a beautiful thing."
   Venus won the last of her seven majors in 2008 at Wimbledon. She didn't make the second week of a major for a few years as she came to terms with an energy-sapping illness after being diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome in 2011. And she only made it back to the semifinals last year at Wimbledon.
   Another shot at a first Australian Open title was a sign of progress, she said.
   "That's exactly where I want to be standing during these Grand Slams, is on finals day, having an opportunity," she said. "That's the highlight of all this, is to be in that moment."
   Serena Williams, meanwhile, enjoyed the fact she made history in Melbourne. Only Margaret Court, with 24, is in front of her in terms of overall Grand Slam singles titles, although the Australian great won 13 of her Grand Slams before the Open era began in 1968.
   "My first Grand Slam started here, and getting to 23 here, but playing Venus, it's stuff that legends are made of," Serena said. "I couldn't have written a better story."
   The match didn't live up to its classic billing, with nerves and tension causing uncharacteristic mistakes and unforced errors, with four consecutive service breaks before Venus finally held for a 3-2 lead in the first set. That included a game when Serena had game point but served back-to-back double-faults and three in all to give up the break. 
   There were six service breaks in total. Both players were relatively subdued, except when Serena smashed her racket in the third game.
   After the fourth game, however, Serena Williams didn't face another break point in the 1-hour, 22-minute match.
   "Serena Williams, that's my little sister," Venus said. "I have been right there with you. Some of them I have lost right there against you. It's been an awesome thing, your win has always been my win."
   In terms of total years, it was the oldest Grand Slam women's final in the Open era --the Williams sisters combining for 71 years, 11 months. 
   Roger Federer will be aiming to increase his all-time men's record to 18 when he takes on 14-time major winner Rafael Nadal on Sunday, completing the singles finals lineup of all 30-somethings.
   Bob and Mike Bryan missed out on a doubles record, losing the final 7-5, 7-5 to Henri Kontinen of Finland and John Peers of Australia.
   The third-seeded twins were trying to win their 17th Grand Slam title, which would have tied them with John Newcombe.
   Speaking of records, Serena got a little bit superstitious Down Under, and hadn't wanted to talk about the No. 23 until she got it. 
   Now there's a limited-edition racket -- 23 of them to be released -- and some custom-made shoes sent by former NBA great Michael Jordan. It had Jordan's usual jersey number No. 23 stamped on the heel, helping to provide some synchronicity for the numbers involved.
More than seven years after her last Grand Slam title match, Venus Williams would be forgiven for being a little nervous when she stepped inside Rod Laver Arena to face her sister, Serena, for the Australian Open championship.
   She embraced the occasion instead.
   It was Venus who was smiling during warm-ups and looked far looser at the start of Saturday's match -- not her sister, the 22-time major winner, who double-faulted three times in a single game to drop serve.
   And when Serena eventually settled down and overpowered Venus to win her seventh title in Australia and set an Open-era record with her 23rd Grand Sam title, Venus was gracious in defeat, as she's had to be on so many occasions against her sister.
   For her, just getting to this stage again -- playing at the end of a Grand Slam, in a packed arena with a title on the line, was a victory in itself.
   "I felt ready. I mean, I haven't played in a final for a number of years, but I don't think it's something you forget," she said. "I mean, I played a good amount of them, so experience was right there for me."
   When Venus revealed in 2011 that she'd been diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease, few expected she'd return to the same dominating presence that saw her win seven Grand Slam titles, including five at her favorite tournament, Wimbledon. Her ranking fell outside the top 100 as she coped with her illness and injuries, and from 2011 to 2014, she only advanced past the third round at a major once.
   Venus kept going, though, even as the early-round losses continued to mount and questions about retirement came up time and again.
   Those questions are still asked, but she's become used to brushing them aside. And her recent career renaissance -- she'll rise to No. 11 in the rankings next week -- suggests she'll continue to be a force in the sport for however long she wants to play.
   "I feel motivated to continue, to continue to go out there and hit the ball the way I know I can," she said. "There's only things I can improve on, to be honest, and to build on."
   Serena is making history, but Venus is setting her own marks these days, too. Her gap of 14 years in between appearances in the Australian Open final (2003-2017) smashed the previous record of seven years. Her 7 1/2-year break in between Grand Slam finals (Wimbledon '09-Australian '17) also broke the previous record by six months. At 36, she's the oldest finalist in Australia in the Open era.
   And if anyone doubts her passion, her unbridled joy after defeating CoCo Vandeweghe in the semifinals said it all.
   "I tried to contain myself. It was so hard. That was me containing myself," she said with a wide smile. "You have to enjoy your moment when you get it."
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