Big tennis tournaments have subplots. The BNP Paribas Open, in Indian Wells, California, is a big tournament (players and fans call it the “Fifth Grand Slam”) and already, before its final weekend, it has provided a couple of developments that have heightened the drama and given us a glimpse of where tennis—women’s tennis, anyway, and American women’s tennis, in particular—may be headed.
There was, of course, the return of Serena Williams after nearly fourteen months on maternity leave. She battled and scratched her way to wins in her first two matches, but, on Monday night, in a third-round match, could not get past an aging veteran, a player even older than she is, who blasted first serves and absorbed Serena’s pace to muscle groundstrokes back at her, flat, hard, and deep. That was Venus Williams, Serena’s sister, who is three months from her thirty-eighth birthday. Venus won again on Tuesday—in the late afternoon, the loveliest time for tennis in the desert, as the mountains to either side of the Coachella Valley darkened to purple above the stadium’s lip—defeating Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova in two tight sets, and putting herself on a path to reach the women’s semifinals.