Monday night was supposed to be all about Serena Williams. At least that was the convenient narrative.
The 23-time Grand Slam champion who won her last major while pregnant would take another step toward returning to dominance, the narrative went, against her older sister who at 37 had struggled early in the 2018 season.
But the evening belonged unequivocally to Venus Williams, not Serena, in a 6-3, 6-4 win in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open that could be one of the last times the sisters face each other on the women’s professional tennis circuit.
Venus will next play Anastasija Sevastova on Tuesday afternoon in Stadium 1.
“It was such a treat for everyone to see this match so early in her comeback,” Venus Williams said. “I’m just lucky I’ve played more matches than her right now, otherwise ... yeah.”
Had Serena played the last year, perhaps the outcome would've been different.
From her three matches here it appears Serena Williams, 36, has returned to some form of playing shape since giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia, last September. But it seems the timing and rhythm on her shots, and her court instincts, are still not where they've been for the better part of two decades.
She missed a handful of basic shots in the first set and couldn't get her serve going the way she typically did in the past.
Serena didn't expect her instincts would return so quickly, and said Monday that she looks forward to what will ultimately be a quest in getting back to the No. 1 ranking, where she was when she stepped away from the game for 14 months after winning the 2017 Australian Open over Venus.
"I'm getting there. It's not exactly where I want to be, but, I mean, I'll get there eventually," Serena said. "I just have a long way to go, and I'm looking forward to the journey."
Venus hadn’t beaten Serena since 2014 in Montreal, and though the pregnancy had prevented Serena from playing for more than a year prior to this tournament, she had dominated her sister in recent years. She had won eight of the last nine between the two and 17 of 28 overall — and displayed enough in her first two matches here to show that perhaps she could make a run at Indian Wells.
The two rode a golf cart together from the players’ locker room to the bowels of Stadium 1 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden without saying a word to each other. They sat with their backs to each other, with Serena on the back of the cart with Beats headphones over her ears.
They each remained stoic, without exchanging pleasantries or even making eye contact as the chair umpire chatted with them once they reached the court.
The near capacity crowd had not yet completely filed into the 16,100-seat Stadium 1 before the match quickly began to stay on a strict television schedule.
Retired mixed martial artist Chuck Liddell sat in the Champions Box near tournament owner Larry Ellison and top-ranked Simona Halep was also in attendance for the match.
Former tennis player Lindsay Davenport, who called the match for Tennis Channel, played the two sisters a combined 41 times and referred to Serena’s powerful serve as “probably the greatest weapon” in the history of women’s tennis. She wasn’t alone in believing that Venus would need to counter that with a strong serve of her own to have a chance to win.
And that’s precisely what Venus did.
She took the first game behind a swift 118 mph serve, then held serve before breaking Serena in the sixth game to take a 4-2 lead. She finished out the match cranking a mighty serve and riding an improved forehand that continually blasted shots with velocity from the baseline.
"Her level is super high and it was very difficult to close out the match, just getting one ball back," Venus Williams said. "Like I said, I have had a few more matches. Even though I haven't even played that much this year, the matches in the last year count."
The winner of the first set had won 24 of the 28 previous matches between the sisters, and Venus made it 25 of 29 on Monday.
Into the second set, Venus broke Serena again in the opening game then again in the third to take a 3-0 advantage and eventually hold on to win the set and the match despite a late 4-game rally by Serena.
There was some talk about how this was the first time the two sisters had played against each other at Indian Wells, and how they were supposed to play each other here in 2001 before Venus withdrew. The crowd didn't like that and booed the sisters heavily, and the sisters boycotted the tournament until Serena returned in 2015 and Venus came back a year later.
But neither of them spoke publicly about it while they were here, and instead chose to focus on Serena's return to the World Tour.
Serena spoke late Saturday about how she was not back to 100 percent and is taking her comeback one step at a time.
“I'm getting there,” she said. “I have a long way to go. I have such a long way to go. It definitely felt better than the first round, but I'm still a little rusty. I'm still making errors that I don't normally make.
"But I call this a trial run, you know. Even with the baby, like, a trial run of traveling with the baby and all of this is just so new to me. I'm getting there.”
Venus doesn't anticipate that trial run being very long.
"She's going to be speeding back to the seedings and to winning tournaments sooner than later," she said. "That's all I see. I think that's what everybody sees."