real life

"Venus Williams can't imagine not having a sister - and neither can I."

Venus Williams – you know, the Williams sister who somehow seems to hover slightly to the left of frame despite being ranked the number 12 female tennis player in the world, who has been plagued by injury for years, who seems kind of eclipsed by the mega wattage of sibling Serena – has a lot of people paying attention this week.

She doesn’t have a new boyfriend. She hasn’t lost a kilo or gained an orphan.

She’s simply announced she’ll return to play at Indian Wells this year after a 15-year absence. And she’s done it with one of the most beautiful essays about sisterhood you’ll ever read.

Venus and Serena Williams
Venus and Serena Williams. Image via Getty.

Venus is 35. Serena is 34. In 2001 the pair were due to clash in the semifinal at Indian Wells until Venus pulled out with a knee injury. The crowd reacted so viciously that the pair subsequently boycotted the event for more than a decade.

Venus’ essay in The Players’ Tribune reflects on the pain and hurt she felt that day. But it’s her honest, nuanced and heartfelt writing about Serena that will resonate with every older sister in the world, and likely with many of their siblings.

“Being someone’s big sister means being strong for them,” she writes.

“And sometimes “being strong” means, yes, being strong. But other times — more often than not — it really just means being there. It means being there, when needed, no matter what.”

Like Venus, I’m an older sister. There are only two of us – mine is five years younger.

She’s a little bit funnier than me. She’s a lot more extroverted than me. She reckons she’s ‘the pretty one’ – but we both know that’s not true (don’t we, sis?).

I can only vaguely remember what it was like without her, and sure, the time mum found five-year-old me bashing her basinette against the wall as hard as I could – with tiny-baby her in it – has become the stuff of family legend.

But the truth of it is, I can’t imagine life without her.

What Venus has explained so brilliantly is the complexity of being a bigger sister. Of being the first to do things, though of course in Venus’ case, the ‘firsts’ are larger than any ordinary life.

Venus and Serena Williams
Venus Williams. Image via Getty.
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“… I was the first to turn pro as a tennis player. The first to play in an official WTA tournament. The first to play against a world No. 1. The first to beat a top 10 player, to play in a Grand Slam, to make the final of a Grand Slam.

“And, of course, it meant that I was the first to become famous.

“I was the first to have articles written about me. The first to have autographs requested of me. The first to have TV specials produced about me, awards given out to me, shoes named after me.

“I was the first to be known by my first name only.”

Of feeling responsible. Protective. Of setting an example for how to a live a life – maybe not the life of a tennis pro, but the best life you can nonetheless. Of grappling with how you become something else – in Venus’ case, a colleague and competitor – but for the rest of us, someone who does a job, who has a family, who lives apart – when the constant remains: you are her sister.

Being a big sister is so many things. It’s being sensible and superior. It’s being rebellious and righteous. It’s being advisor and occasional adversary. It’s laughing yourself sick when only the two of you find it funny. It’s dobbing her into your parents when she’s been a pain, then covering up for her when she hasn’t.

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Anne Markey with her sister Jane. Image supplied.

It’s being in a strange state of alert, as if there’s a thin, web-like line running from you to her. You sense it when it twitches, feel it when it gets taut, and you can’t help but react. You might ignore other calls, but you don’t ignore hers. You know what she isn’t saying.

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You know when she’s deliberately pressing buttons. She knows when you are too. There’s the occasional bout of jealousy – but God help anyone who has the courage, or stupidity, to criticise her to your face.

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Anne Markey with her sister Jane. Image supplied.

Venus is too gracious to acknowledge some of those things. But she does recognise the best thing of all about being a big sister: after all those years of thinking you know it all, there will come a time when you learn from your little sister. For her, it was last year, when Serena played at Indian Wells, ending her boycott of the event after 14 years.

“… in that moment, seeing Serena welcomed with open arms last year at Indian Wells, that I think I fully and truly realized what being the big sister means,” Venus writes.

“It means that, for all of the things I did first, and all of the times when I paved the way for Serena, the thing I can be most proud of is this time.

“When Serena paved the way for me.’

The lesson learned?

Forgiveness.

And what has my sister taught me? Strength. Resilience. How to have a sense of humour when things look a bit bleak. And how to cut the crap.

I wonder how it must feel to be estranged from your sister, as so many are. To have a grievance of such magnitude that you can cut the cord on this most visceral of relationships. To walk away from someone who knows you instinctively, without explanation, who knows why you’ve done what you’ve done and what to do next.

I’m forever grateful I’m not that sister, and my little sister isn’t either.

I know I’m too old to think of her as my little sister. After all, she’s in her mid-40s, with a job and a mortgage and a life in a city that often feels too far away.

But I do. There’s a weird time warp in my head that will always render it that way

And it means that, like Venus with Serena, I’ll forever look out for her.

Watch: the Mamamia Team confess the last text they have received from their sister…

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