Entries in BNP Paribas Open (29)


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.


Is Djokovic’s problem in his elbow — or in his head?

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The question now, after he has been eliminated in the first round of only the second tournament he entered this year — a tournament he's won five times — is whether the problem is in Novak Djokovic’s elbow or his head. Or both.

Tennis is a tough game, physically, mentally. The pros fly literally around the world. There’s no true off-season. Worse, unlike, say baseball, there’s no DL, disabled list. So people keep trying to play instead of trying to recover.

Then, of course, if and when they do recover, is the no-less-important issue of preparation, You can hit dozens of practice shots, but once a match begins, well, let Djokovic describe his failing Sunday in the BNP Paribas tournament at Indian Wells.

“Very weird," he explained. “I just completely lost rhythm. For me, it felt like the first match I ever played on the tour.”

It was the first match against Taro Daniel, a qualifier who is ranked 109th. The first match after losing in the fourth round of the Australian Open in January. And, of course, the first loss to Daniel. The score was 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-1, and it left Daniel as bewildered as, well, Djokovic.

“The Djokovic I know is like the Djokovic I have seen on TV, and he never misses a ball; he puts the ball wherever he wants,” said Daniel, who was born in New York. “Today, obviously he was missing a lot of balls, but even then you still have to beat him.”

Or let him beat himself.

We’re not talking just any opponent here. This is a man who a year and half ago dominated men’s tennis, winning in order the 2015 Wimbledon, 2016 U.S. Open, 2017 Australian and, not least since it’s on clay, the 2017 French Open. No one had held all four Grand Slams since the great Rod Laver in 1969. Then...

Was it the elbow? Was it rumored off-court problems? Was it a sense of no more worlds to conquer?, A year ago here at Indian Wells I asked Djokovic whether he relaxed after earning the French, which Roger Federer only won once, which John McEnroe and Pete Sampras never won. He conceded that was the case.

But in 12 months, missing time with the elbow injury, struggling in some matches, he has dropped from an uncatchable first in the ATP rankings to 10th. And now he’s gone one match into Indian Wells. 

He had surgery on the elbow in the beginning of February — “a small medical intervention,” he described it. Perhaps more time is needed to heal. Perhaps like some ballplayers, Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Sax, Rick Ankiel come to mind, Djokovic, although not with the yips, is unable to make the shot he once made.

Djokovic is 30, and while Roger Federer, for one, sneers at age — he won the Australian a month and a half ago at 37 — everyone’s body is different. Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, all have fallen victim to wear and tear. The stars keep pushing themselves, traveling from Doha to Melbourne to, yes, Indian Wells, to please sponsors and to embellish their rankings. The other day, Federer said how much delight he felt to return to No. 1.

“It’s life, you know,” said Djokovic. “God always challenges you when you expect it the least.” 

No cracks here that God has a poor backhand.

“Yeah, everything, nerves were there,” Djokovic said of his flaws against Daniel. “I made so many unforced errors that it was just one of those days where you are not able to find the rhythm from the baseline, especially from the backhand side.

“That has always been a rock-solid shot for me throughout my career. Just some inexplicable, uncharacteristic errors, but that’s I guess all part of those particular circumstances that I’m in at the moment.”

Djokovic said he had no expectations and just wanted to go out and see what would happen.

“I was not even supposed to be here,” he said, “because the surgery was only five, six weeks ago. But I recovered quickly and got myself ready. I’m sitting here talking after a lost match. It’s not something that I as an athlete want, but at the same time there is a reason everything happens in life.”

He just has to find the reason, and that never is easy.


Serena, Venus and Tiger — sport can’t go wrong

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Murphy’s Law? The contrived one that says anything that can go wrong will go wrong? It’s been drop-kicked out of site. Or rolled into the cup for a birdie. Or maybe served into the back court for an ace. If you’re running a sporting event this weekend, everything is going right.

College basketball needs no help, certainly. March Madness has arrived with the conference championships and then Selection Sunday. But it’s the individual sports that get buried this time of year. Unless...

Unless out of nowhere Serena Williams, in her comeback, has to play sister Venus in a third-round match of the BNP Paribas tournament. Unless Tiger Woods, in his comeback, enters the final round of the Valspar Championship a shot out of the lead.

This is a TV producer’s dream. Who doesn’t care? Who won’t watch? It’s as if we stepped back into time, when all you knew about golf was Tiger or about tennis the Williams sisters. A distant replay brought into 2018.

Never mind the purists. The late team owner and promoter Bill Veeck said if he had to depend on baseball fans for his financial support he’d be out of business by Mother’s Day. It’s the fringe crowd that makes our games what they are, who drive up the Nielsen ratings.

Can Venus, who will be 38 in June, knock off younger sister Serena, who’s returned to the game after what amounted to a 14-month maternity leave? Can Tiger, who missed the better part of two years with back troubles, earn a PGA Tour victory for the first time in four and a half years?

One event, the golf, is at Palm Harbor, Florida; the other, the tennis, is next door to Palm Desert, California, where the action Saturday night was delayed when rain moved in from Los Angeles, 125 miles away.

Venus, who hasn’t won this year — she was eliminated in the first round of the Australian Open — was first on Stadium Court One, defeating Sorana Cirstea of Romania, 6-3, 6-4, and was very unemotional about the victory, especially when someone pointed out that she could meet Serena — which she will after Serena’s 7-6 (5), 7-5 victory over Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands.

Yes, the irony of a Williams-Williams match at Indian Wells was unavoidable. In 2001, when they were supposed to play each other in a semifinal here, Venus withdrew four minutes before the match was to begin. The next day, when Serena faced Kim Clijsters in the final, the crowd booed her. Father Richard Williams said the booing was racist. Neither Williams returned to Indian Wells until Serena ended the boycott in 2015.

“I literally didn't even think about it,” said Serena, who is 36, and of course, as the world knows, mother of a seven-month-old daughter. “That's, you know, totally gone out of my mind. First of all, 17 years ago seems like forever ago. Yikes.

“I wish it were a little bit later (in the tournament) but just happy to still be in the tournament at this point. I would prefer to play someone else, anybody else, literally anybody else, but it has to happen now. So it is what it is.”

Which happens to be a popular phrase of Tiger Woods.

Venus always has been the more structured, more protective of the Williams sisters. And, just like Tiger, her interviews are not particularly newsworthy. Asked her mindset if indeed she was to play Serena, Venus said, “She’s playing really well and just honing her game.”

Even though at the time Serena had played only one match, two days earlier, since winning the Australian Open in January 2017 — her 23rd Grand Slam victory.

“Obviously I have to play better than her,” said Venus, “and see how the match goes.” The way the other 28 official matches between them have gone is 17 wins for Serena, 11 for Venus. From the 2002 French through 2003 Australian, they met in four straight Grand Slam finals, Serena winning all four.

The way the Williamses dominated women’s tennis was the way Tiger Woods, 79 victories, 14 majors, dominated men’s golf. They were the ones who kept us paying attention. On the weekend the clocks move forward — but golf and tennis, in a sense, have gone backward.



“Greatest Momma” Serena comes back with a win

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Subtle it wasn’t. Not when her husband paid for four billboards east of Palm Springs, one announcing “GREATEST MOMMA OF ALL TIME.” Not when she posted a video gushing, “My comeback is here.”

But successful it was, and in tennis, in sport, isn’t that what matters most?

Serena Williams, 23 times a Grand Slam winner, one time a mother — and that one time has kept her from playing on the WTA Tour for 14 months — made her comeback Thursday night at the BNP Paribas Open, defeating Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan, 7-5, 6-3.

“It was meant to be, coming on International Women’s Day,” said Williams, a feminist as well as a champion. Maybe so, but Serena struggled against a lady she had beaten twice and who is 53rd in the rankings.

“It definitely wasn’t easy,” Williams said post-match to a crowd that on a 68-degree evening maybe half-filled the 16,100-seat main stadium at Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

“But it was good,” she said, adding, “I’m a little rusty.”

And like golfer Tiger Woods in this winter of comebacks, understandably so.

It’s one thing to drop off the tour for any length of time. It’s another to give birth, by Caesarian section, develop blood clots, and then need to take care of an infant daughter.

But all is well, for Serena; for daughter Alexis Olympia, now some seven months old; and for father Alexis Ohanion, Sr., founder of the social news website Reddit, who a few weeks ago created the billboards along Interstate 10 dedicated to his bride.

Tennis and golf are built on stars, the rich and famous. And as his return has boosted galleries and TV ratings, there’s nobody more famous in men’s golf than Tiger, even at age 43. There’s nobody more famous in women’s tennis than Serena, age 36.

In America, at least, nobody comes close to Serena, as a winner, a fan favorite and an attraction. When you’re known by just one name, as is Serena, or Tiger, you’re queen or king of the hill, top of the heap.

Serena needed no extra promotion coming into this match, which was preceded by a glamorized exhibition (on ESPN, naturally) and a team competition in which Serena linked with her 37-year old sister, Venus.

When you get as many stories in People magazine as you do in Sports Illustrated, there’s no question why her return was major news, especially in the California desert, which with all the movie folk seems like just another part of Hollywood, 140 miles to the west.

Serena won the Australian Open in January 2017, eight weeks pregnant at the time, as she and we found out. Then she was told to give up competitive tennis until after the baby was born. She did that.

Diyas, 24, served to open the match against Williams, and both women held serve until it was 5-5. You heard a few plaintive wails from the less-expensive seats on high — “Come on, Serena; let’s go Serena.” And finally in the 11th game, Serena broke serve for a 6-5 lead.

After that, Williams settled down.

“It’s so hard when you haven’t been playing matches,” said Williams after the victory — long after, having showered and dressed.

She said she almost cried before the match having to leave her daughter and go on court. “But playing at night made it easier, because I knew she was sleeping.”

Early on, it seemed Serena was sleeping. On the contrary, she was adjusting. The moves, the responses developed over the years, had to be relearned.

“It’s totally expected,” she said. “I’m not going to be where I want to be.”

Where she wants to be presumably is where she was. Time takes its toll, certainly, yet the triumphs of Roger Federer, at 39, show that age no longer is the barrier it used to be.

“I felt I had nothing to lose,” she said of the return. “I didn’t feel the stress I had felt. I was just happy to be here, like when I was young and just starting on Tour. Just excited to be here.”

As tennis, and all of sport, is to have her here.


Jack Sock — from Bill Gates to big forehands

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — So Jack Sock, who was discussing dinner with Bill Gates and, oh yes, Roger Federer — those tennis people live life — was asked when an American player, such as Sock, actually might win a Grand Slam tournament, the way Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi used to do.

“So you want to talk tennis now?” Sock said rhetorically — and somewhat disappointedly. He was having such a grand time discussing forecasts of the future provided by Gates, the Microsoft guy, and teasing when someone asked about the forecasts: “I can’t give that away.”

The real issue at the moment — now and forever — is the future of men’s tennis in America. The U.S. ladies, certainly, are in fine shape, literally as well as metaphorically.

Sloane Stephens won the 2017 U.S. Open, and if an American can win only one of the four majors, that’s the one. Thursday night, Serena Williams, who’s won them all, again and again, returns to WTA competition here at the BNP Paribas tournament at Indian Wells Tennis Garden

But no American male has won a Slam tournament since 2003, 15 years if you’re counting. That was Andy Roddick, who is from Nebraska. As is Sock. You never suspected the heart of U.S. men’s tennis was in the heartland of America, did you? Cornfields and forehands.

Down here, it’s cactus and streets named for celebrities, starting with Bob Hope Drive and Frank Sinatra Drive. Gerald Ford has his roadway. Tennis? Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, who’s won the French Open and Wimbledon, walked the red carpet at the Academy Awards Sunday night 130 miles up the road in Hollywood. According to one story she “turned heads in a black asymmetrical gown and had many asking, ‘Who is Garbiñe Muguruza?’”

Until the end of last year, the question from the casual sports fan might have been: who is Jack Sock? Then he won three titles, qualified for the ATP Championships (for which he was unprepared) and coming in at No. 9 was the first U.S. man to end the year in the top ten since Roddick in 2010, seven years earlier, a lifetime in tennis.

You would think Sock would be excited. He was, with an asterisk. He had his late summer and fall all organized, and then, wham, he had fly to London to be one of the eight singles contestants in the Nitto ATP Finals, which is sort of like the sport’s March Madness in November.

The next thing he knew, he was in the Australian Open this January. If not for long, losing in the first round. Around the world, and plop.

“That day I flew home from Melbourne,” said Sock, who lives in Kansas City, “and I was in the gym. For four weeks, I was trying to get my mind straight again.”

Success, or the result of success, had socked the 25-year-old Sock.

“I had no expectation of being in London,” he said. “I had to redo my schedule. I had no idea of what was going on. I had some commitments, traveling a lot in the off-season, things that in hindsight I wouldn’t have scheduled. But you live and learn.

“I took time off after Australia. Home in my own bed for more than two days. I feel a lot more confident now.”

To be invited to take part in the Federer-Gates exhibition and dinner, the money from the sellout crowd at SAP Arena in San Jose, $2.5 million, going to Federer’s African educational fund, verifies Sock’s new status.

He’s the so-called heir apparent in U.S. tennis, a designation he accepts with a cringe. 

“It’s enjoyable when you don’t talk about it,” he said. “I understand every time you talk about this. There’s such a rich history of American tennis, the fans here are used to somebody winning a Slam or at least competing for a Slam. Obviously there hasn’t been anyone at that level quite yet

“We’re doing our best. But there are a couple of guys, one named Federer, another named (Rafael) Nadal and another named (Novak) Djokovic. So it’s not the easiest thing to weasel your way in there in and win.”

Which is why a Grand Slam means so much.