Venus and Serena Williams took each other on in the quarterfinal match of the U.S. Open last week. Every time they play, it’s always great sports drama: two sisters, only one winner. For a couple of hours we get to sit back and watch two of the best players in the world battle it out. But what we don’t see, and what I think we sometimes forget, is the real greatness behind all the hype. What we don’t see is thirty years in the making. What we forget is how they became the best in the world. And the answer isn’t in spite of each other, but because of each other.
Anyone who’s ever grown up playing sports with a sibling knows it can be challenging and yet so invaluable. Here are three things growing up playing sports with my sister has taught me.
1. Having someone else's back (literally and figuratively): Growing up, I’ve never been on a team in which I was the only one with the Panepinto name on my back. Playing with a sibling, you learn that you’re not only representing your team and yourself on the field, but your family name as well. The Panepinto name carries with it a strong personality—one that’s hard-nosed, hard-working, and hard-to-beat. Every day my sister and I work to embody these qualities to make each other proud. But, if one of us stumbles and falls down in the process (say, one happens to get into a little scuffle with an opposing player during the quarterfinal game of the Patriot League tournament), the other one is right there to lift her up and have her back. You're never alone out on the field, there's someone who has your back.
2. Stay humble and be happy for other people's accomplishments: I believe that the best teacher of sportsmanship is playing on a team with your sibling. You can never get too cocky or big for your britches because if you ever did, your brother or sister would always be right there to put you back in your place. I never had time to be cocky or arrogant playing with my sister. I’d always be a second or two behind her in basketball sprints or get the silver behind her gold in track. Never once did she brag or boast about beating me. And never once (whenever I managed to edge her out) would I brag or boast about beating her because I knew there was no way she'd let it happen the next time around. We learned to win with class and lose with grace. We learned to appreciate a winner’s competitiveness, and, more importantly, learned to be happy for another’s accomplishment. When you grow up playing on the same team with a sibling who receives more recognition or awards than the other, it’s tough. But, at the end of the day, he or she is your sibling, and there’s nothing you can do but be happy for them. You support their success no matter what.
3. What it means to compete and work hard: I think it's one of the truest things when people say that you’ll never find a tougher opponent than your sibling. Hands down, my sister is the hardest person for me to beat. I always hated going up against her when we were younger, but learned to love it because it only made me better in the long run. When you grow up playing with a sibling, you have both an automatic practice partner, an automatic opponent. You have someone you can go up to the field and a kick the ball around with, someone to play 1-v-1 with all the time. When you have this, you learn what it means to compete and what it means to work hard. There’s a certain pride that goes along with competing against a sibling. No one ever wants to lose to his or her brother or sister, so you battle it out, you push yourself, you give it all you’ve got. And then when game time comes, you both are better because of it. Serena and Venus Williams are proof of this. After the match last week, Serena said, “She’s [Venus] the toughest player I’ve ever played in my life, the best person I know…So it’s going against your best friend and at the same time for me going against the greatest competitor in women’s tennis.”
Like Serena, my sister is my biggest competitor, and better yet, my best friend. And for that, I thank her.