Venus Williams, seeded eighth, went first, defeating Sorana Cirstea, 6-3, 6-4, to record her first tour victory of 2018. Serena Williams went next, beating No. 29 seed Kiki Bertens, 7-6 (5), 7-5, in a tight match full of high-velocity rallies and abrupt shifts in momentum.
“I’m just so happy to be out here,” Serena Williams said. “Everything is a bonus.”
Now, she and her sister will face each other for the first time at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, 17 years after a match that they were scheduled to play here failed to materialize.
“I literally didn’t even think about it,” Serena Williams said on Saturday. “That’s, you know, totally gone out of my mind. First of all, 17 years ago seems like forever ago. Yikes.”
It was supposed to be a semifinal in 2001, but Venus withdrew only a few minutes before the match was to begin, citing tendinitis in her right knee.
The late decision sparked conjecture that her withdrawal had been a family arrangement, a conspiracy theory given further momentum when the Russian player Elena Dementieva said after her quarterfinal loss to Venus Williams that she believed the sisters’ father and coach, Richard Williams, decided who would win their matches.
The sisters and Richard Williams have denied that any such arrangement took place in Indian Wells, and Dementieva later insisted she had been joking.
But when Richard Williams and Venus Williams arrived at the stadium two days later to watch Serena Williams play the 2001 final against Kim Clijsters, they were met with a chorus of boos from the crowd of nearly 16,000 as the father and his daughter walked down the stairs to their courtside seats.
Richard Williams said he heard racial slurs directed at him, telling USA Today: “One said, ‘I wish it was ’75, we’d skin you alive.’ I think Indian Wells disgraced America.”
No other spectator present that day has confirmed publicly that such statements were made. But after Serena Williams defeated Clijsters to win her second singles title at Indian Wells, she did not return to the tournament until 2015. Venus did not end her boycott until the following year.
But this year, with Serena now 36 and Venus now 37, they are finally set to play in the California desert.
The third-round match will be their earliest meeting in a tour event since their first duel as professionals, when Venus Williams won, 7-6 (4), 6-1, in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open.
“I think it’s a huge difference to play her in the semifinals or even the quarterfinals or a final as opposed to a third round,” Serena Williams said. “We can always stay in the tournament longer if the both of us are in the tournament. And having to play each other in the third round, one of us is going to be gone. So it’s definitely a lot easier to play later on.”
They have faced each other repeatedly at the other most significant American tournaments, five times at the United States Open, four times in Key Biscayne, Fla., at the tournament now known as the Miami Open.
They have played in nine Grand Slam singles finals, with Serena winning seven of them. But Indian Wells has had to wait, and this duel comes at a unique moment in the sisters’ careers with Serena, a 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, unseeded and unranked after her long layoff but clearly still a threat after defeating Zarina Diyas and Bertens in the first two rounds without losing a set.
“She’s playing really well and just honing her game,” said Venus Williams, who watched the Diyas match from the stands. “When she’s missing, it’s not by much.”
That was not always the case on Saturday against Bertens as Serena Williams missed some serves by considerable margins and mistimed a few groundstrokes that landed far off the mark. Bertens is a dangerous if erratic opponent, quite capable of handling Williams’s power and providing plenty of her own.
Her average first- and second-serve speeds were superior to Williams’s on Saturday, and she tried and failed to serve for the opening set before Williams eventually prevailed in a tiebreaker.
Williams served unsuccessfully for the match at 5-4 in the second set, then rebounded to win the final two games, rallying from 15-40 on her serve to close out the victory by winning a series of extended rallies.
She is not yet in prime form, not yet in prime shape, but in her first two matches she has proved she still has staying power, coming to the net effectively, something she appears to be emphasizing in this comeback, and playing the crucial points with trademark intensity.
But all-Williams matches have never been exclusively about the tennis or the tactics. They are emotionally and psychologically fraught. The sisters remain extremely close and played doubles together just last month during a Fed Cup match against the Netherlands in Asheville, N.C.
“Obviously I wish it was anybody else in the draw, literally anybody, but that’s O.K.,” Serena Williams said of their latest rematch. “Just have to go out there and see how I am and do my best.”