SERENA Williams set up a mouth-watering Indian Wells third round showdown against her sister Venus with a straight-sets victory over Kiki Bertens on Saturday.
Venus and Serena have faced each other 28 times in their legendary careers and they are now meeting in Serena’s first tournament back on the WTA Tour since she beat Venus 6-4, 6-4 in the 2017 Australian Open final.
“(We are) having to play each other in the third round, one of us is going to be gone,” Serena said. “I would prefer to play someone else, anybody else, literally anybody else, but it has to happen now. So it is what it is.”
Serena, who lifted her 23rd Grand Slam title in Melbourne last year, was then already pregnant with daughter Alexis Olympia, who was born in September.
Venus did her part to set up the marquee match when she dismantled world No. 35 Sorana Cirstea 6-3, 6-4 in just 79 minutes.
Serena then took center stage, needing just under two hours to dispatch Bertens, of the Netherlands, 7-6 (7/5), 7-5.
“I mean, she looked like she never lost a step,” Venus said of her younger sister. “Great way to come back.”
Serena, 36 and vying to become the first woman to win three Indian Wells titles, clinched the victory against Bertens on her second match point when Bertens blasted a forehand wide.
Serena won 54 percent of her second-serve points and broke Bertens’s serve six times.
Still showing some rust from her long layoff, Serena hit just one ace and made 37 unforced errors to 32 for Bertens.
She takes a career head-to-head record over Venus of 17-11 into their third-round clash.
They met for the first time in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open which Venus won 7-6 (7/4), 6-1.
This is the earliest they will face each other since that Melbourne meeting 20 years ago.
Serena, unseeded in the wake of her long layoff, admitted she would have preferred not to come up against her sister so soon in the draw.
“It’s a huge difference to play her in the semi-finals or even the quarter-finals or a final as opposed to the third round. You know, we can always stay in the tournament longer if the both of us are in the tournament,” Serena said.
In 2001 they were slated to meet in the Indian Wells semi-finals when Venus withdrew, handing Serena a walkover.
Fans who felt cheated of a chance to see the siblings play, thinking it was a tactic orchestrated by their father Richard, booed Serena during her final triumph against Kim Clijsters.
The crowd’s treatment led to a 14-year boycott by the sisters, which Serena finally ended in 2015. This is just her third appearance in the California desert in 17 years.
Asked about the semi-final match that never happened, Serena said she has tried to forget.
“That’s totally gone out of my mind,” she said. “First of all, 17 years ago seems like forever ago.”
Venus is enjoying a resurgence on the Tour after a string of injuries limited her playing time for several seasons.
“I still have a lot to give. I don’t think my dad wants me to ever stop playing,” the 37-year-old, seven-time Grand Slam champion said.
Venus won 61 percent of her first-serve points and broke Cirstea’s serve six times.
She fell behind 3-1 early in the second set but rallied by holding serve in the fifth game. She won four of the final five games of the second set, breaking Cirstea three times to close it out.
Elsewhere on Saturday, fourth seeded Elina Svitolina defeated Germany’s Mona Barthel 6-4, 6-3.
The 23-year-old Svitolina advances to the third round where she will face Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro who beat Hsieh Su-Wei, of Taiwan, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3.
Ukrainian Svitolina won five titles in 2017, comprising Toronto, Rome, Istanbul, Dubai and Taipei City.
In other women’s matches, world number two Caroline Wozniacki steamed her way into the third round with a 6-4, 6-1 win over Lara Arruabarrena, wild card Danielle Collins surprised fellow American Madison Keys 6-3, 7-6 (9/7) and seventh seeded Caroline Garcia cruised past Jennifer Brady 6-4, 6-4.