Serena: ‘I don’t think it would have been a surprise if I won’

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The phrase is overused. Because it’s true. You can’t go home again. Thomas Wolfe borrowed the line from Ida Winkler, and it’s understood.

Of course, you can go into that familiar house you once knew, but it’s not the same. Nor are you the same.

The idea was made clear Monday night on Stadium Court 1 at Indian Wells, the tennis complex spread across the sand east of Palm Springs. There they were, two of the great female champions, playing a match that, well, meant nothing, and didn’t even fill two-thirds of the 16,000 seats.

Well, it did mean something. It meant Venus Williams had a 6-3, 6-4 victory over younger sister Serena, who of course was playing a WTA match for only the third time — all in the past few days, all at the BNP Paribas event — since a 14-month maternity break.

It also meant that Venus, at 37 and looking sharp, goes on to the fourth round and meant, not surprisingly, that Serena, 36, will need competition to return to the tennis summit. If that’s possible, with the years working against her.

But this is 2018, not 2001 when Venus and Serena refused to meet in the semifinal at Indian Wells because of booing that was perceived as racist. And this is not 2008, when they met in a final at Wimbledon. The stakes were high in those days. This one, in the 77-degree temperature, was merely a reminder of what used to be.

Venus won because she should have won. She’s been playing, while Serena was giving birth and learning how difficult — and how wonderful — it is to care for an infant. Serena, with maybe the greatest serve the women’s game has ever seen, was broken twice in the first set.

We’ve heard from both how difficult it is playing the sister. At least if it’s a final or semi in a Grand Slam, the match carries some gravitas: the “I hate to beat her, but I wanted to win the U.S. Open” sort of thing. What did they want Monday night, except to perform to a high standard?

Venus was her usually efficient and protective self. She rarely makes statements that will grab a headline, on Inside Tennis magazine or the New York Post.

Asked the difference in the match, Venus said, “Yeah, I just think I have played more in the past year.”

Reminded it was the 29th time they had played (Serena has won 17), Venus then was asked whether the sisters occasionally chided each other or cracked a joke. “Like you said,” she answered, “it’s the 29th time.”

And what did Venus think of the match? “Obviously Serena is playing very well," she said. "The biggest challenge is her tennis.” 

No, the biggest challenge is get Venus to say something exciting.

But the two of them, successful, wealthy and wise at least to the demands of the media, have endorsements to protect. You’re not going to get a lot of crazy remarks.

Serena gave what was expected, on the court and off. She can say she understands it will take practice and tournaments to regain the game she showed before retirement, winning the 2017 Australian Open.

But one senses deep down there’s a frustration. Champions never stop thinking like champions.

“I don’t think it would have been a surprise if I won,” said Serena. “So I don’t know if it’s a ‘should have won, should have lost’ sort of thing. I think people would have been, ‘Well it’s expected. She’s Serena. What do you expect?’”

A lady determined to make her way back, that’s what. Even out of sorts, after only a month or two of training, Serena has the old mind-set. That’s why people like Tom Brady and Andre Iguodala don’t retire. They live to play. They play to win. Venus laughs at thoughts of her stepping aside.

“So it’s always disappointing to me to lose to anyone,” said Serena. “It doesn’t matter at any time, at any stage in my career. But you know, there’s always a silver lining. I have to look forward to the next match and the next time, and going forward and trying to do better.”

And not needing to play her older sister.

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