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1:16PM

Serena: ‘Two weeks of Wimbledon showed me the end of the road'

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — No, that wasn’t the Serena we knew. That was the Serena who had given birth via Caesarian section only 10 months ago, the Serena who, because of her skill and intensity, made such great progress in a comeback in so short a time that we were fooled into thinking she was as good as ever.

Which, as we learned, she isn’t. But then isn’t that what she kept telling us?

She was in her element Saturday, on the grass courts where she had won seven championships. And yet she was a new mother, a working mother, working to regain the power and touch that made her a champion.

Everything had gone so perfectly this Wimbledon, the top seeds, the big guns, the upsets of defending champ Garbiñe Muguruza and No. 1-ranked Simona Halep. And suddenly there was Williams, two months before her 37th birthday, in the final.

But Kerber had won the Australian and French Opens, and two years ago she lost to Serena in the Wimbledon final. After that she stumbled, lost early in the Slams, fell in the rankings. Tennis people wondered what was wrong.

Whatever was wrong isn’t wrong any more.

Kerber, lashing shots, keeping Williams on the move, breaking serve the very first game of the match, making only five unforced errors compared to 24 for Serena, needed only 1 hour, 5 minutes to score a decisive 6-3, 6-3 victory.

That wasn’t expected. Maybe it should have been.

“It was a great opportunity for me to find out what I didn’t know a couple of months ago,” said Williams. “Where I was, and what I need to do, how I would be able to come back. I had such a long way to go to see the light at the end of the road. The two weeks of Wimbledon showed me the end of the road.”

As opposed to the end of a career.

“She played from the first point to the last point pretty good,” said Serena of the 30-year-old Kerber. “She played unbelievably.”

As the match progressed, or regressed, if you choose, John McEnroe said on BBC TV, “Normally Serena doesn’t beat herself.” But she wasn’t. Kerber was beating Serena.

Now and then there would be a cry of desperation from the stands, “Come on, Serena.” That wasn’t any more helpful than Williams’ relatively ineffective serve.   

The issue here may be our disbelief. Even at the top of their game, great athletes and sportsman have their failings. Tom Brady throws interceptions. Klay Thompson can’t throw a ball into the ocean, much less a rim.

And right now Serena, who embraced Kerber at the net after the final point, is not at the top of her game. She’ll attempt to get there once more, but as was apparent against Kerber it will take time and great effort.

“I knew I had to play my best against a champion like Serena,” said Kerber. Which she did, and then fell flat on the lawn in exultation. Moments later she was handed the trophy, the Venus Rosewater Plate, while Williams stood on the edge of the court in a scene so rare, a spectator rather than a participant.

“It was such an amazing tournament for me,” Williams would say in reflection. ”Obviously I’m disappointed. But I can’t be disappointed because I’m just getting started. To all the working moms out there, I tried. Angelique just played out of her mind.”

Analyzing on BBC-TV, nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova said, ”Serena played the best player in the tournament, by far.”

And Billie Jean King, a multiple Wimbledon winner, pointed out, “Kerber always got one more ball back.”

In the royal box were actual royalty, the Duchess of Cambridge and the new Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, as well as long-time Serena pal Jelena Djokovic, whose husband, Novak, beat Rafael Nadal to reach Sunday’s men’s final.

“These two weeks,” said Serena of the Wimbledon fortnight, “really showed me, OK, I can compete. I can come out and be a contender and win Grand Slams.”

As she used to do, and as Angelique Kerber just did.

3:53PM

Serena into the Wimbledon final: a matter of presence

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — They talk about the serve, and it is a powerful one, the Hammer, like a Steph Curry jumper, a Max Scherzer fastball. They talk about the quickness and the ability to cover the court. But maybe what gives Serena Williams the real advantage is presence.

She’s a champion, of course, in effect the sport’s goddess. Everyone knows that, whether battling her or talking about her.   

It’s as intangible and important as any shot she hits.

To the other players, it doesn’t matter if she missed months while pregnant and underwent a Caesarian. It doesn’t matter if this Wimbledon, where Friday she’ll he playing in the finals — go ahead, say you knew it all along — is only the fourth tournament of her comeback. 

“She’s hard to beat,” Martina Navratilova, who as a nine-time Wimbledon winner was equally as hard, said on the BBC.

Two years ago John McEnroe, a damn good player himself and no less an excellent commentator and analyst — Stanford doesn’t admit dummies — said Serena was the best women’s player in history. If not, she’s very much in the mix.

Serena took on one of the game’s improving young stars Thursday in a semifinal at Centre Court, Julia Goerges, who probably played as well as possible — even breaking Williams’ serve once. Williams was a comfortable 6-2, 6-4 winner. The match took 1 hour 10 minutes. Zap.

When someone asked Goerges, a 29-year-old German, if that result was frustrating, she did one of those “Let me escape” responses and answered, “I think frustrating is a negative word. I should not be too negative about the match. It was more about experience ... She knew how to win.”

Serena always did know. Always will know. She’s an intimidator, a destroyer. The weeks away haven’t made a difference to Serena, or to the young ladies she plays.

Also in the final, for the second time in three years, a repeat of the 2016 championship match, will be Angelique Kerber. Williams is seeking an eighth Wimbledon, a 24th Grand Slam.

Williams is not just another female athlete who left for a while to have a baby. This is a legend, with that monster serve — one was clocked at 122 mph against Goerges — and an ability to make returns.

“She was there from every single point,” said Goerges about the last set. “She showed me how to win those matches at that stage, because I think she’s won 23 Grand Slams and played I don’t know how many times on that court, which I haven’t done.”

Neither has the 30-year-old Kerber, who’s also from Germany, but Kerber has won the Australian Open (over Serena) and the French, and was runner-up in that 2016 Wimbledon final, Serena’s last match here until this year.

Asked about Serena, Kerber said, “I see a champion. She’s coming back. She’s one of the great players in the world.”

That item confirmed, Williams, to her credit is guarded, choosing not to remind us of her talent but allowing her play to do so.

She had been in just three previous tournaments since daughter Olympia was born in September, and without the opportunity to accumulate points her WTA ranking had plummeted to 181st. But the Wimbledon people were not fooled. They gave Williams a seeding, 23. Very wise.

And now, they not only have a potentially exciting final but the one name in women’s tennis that resonates on both sides of the Atlantic, Serena Williams. And lucky they do.

“It’s no secret, I had a super-tough delivery,” said Williams. ”The routine was to have a new surgery every day ... There was a time I could barely walk to the mailbox. A lot of people were saying, ‘She should be in the final. For me, it’s such a pleasure and joy because less than a year ago I was going through so much rough stuff.”

Serena said she thought she would have done better in the earlier tournaments, even at age 35 and away from tennis.

“I wouldn’t say it was a reality check,” she said of the stumbles. “I look at as a stepping stone. I honestly felt I would have done better. That was the hardest part, accepting that I didn’t. Whenever I go out there, I expect to win the next match.”

She’s not alone.

3:04PM

Serena, into the semis, vows to ‘keep going’

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — This is what champions do: They reach back, to their past, to their strength. They may struggle. They might fall behind. Then they find a way to win. Which is the reason they are champions.

From the start, when the top seeds were losing one after another, this Wimbledon seemed to belong to Serena Williams. Until the first set of Tuesday’s quarterfinal.

That was taken by Camila Giorgi of Italy, who just happens to serve as hard as Serena.

Down a set, down 0-30 on her serve in a game in the second set, scattering returns, still not tournament ready some 10 months after the birth of her daughter, Williams was in trouble. Or was she?

“No,” said Serena. ”It’s weird. Sometimes I feel, man, I’m in trouble. Sometimes I feel I can fight. For whatever reason, today I was so calm. Even when I was down the first set I thought, ‘Well, she’s playing great. I’m doing a lot of things right. It is what it is.’”

What it turned out to be was a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory for Serena, who when she faces Julia Goerges on Thursday will be playing in her 11th Wimbledon semifinal. Goerges defeated Kiki Bertens, 3-6, 7-5, 6-1.

The other semi will be between Jelena Ostapenko, who beat Dominka Cibulkova, 7-5, 6-4, and Angelique Kerber, a 6-3, 7-5 winner over Daria Kasatkina.

Before she became pregnant and left the game, Serena, with seven Wimbledon titles and 23 Grand Slam championships overall, unquestionably was the best women’s player in the sport. But she was away for months, and she’s almost 37. No one knew what to expect, including Serena.

“I think everything right now is a little bit of a surprise,” advised Williams. “To be here, to be in the semifinals, I mean I always say I plan on it. I would like to be there, have these goals. But when it actually happens, it still is like, wow, this is really happening.”

There’s a devious, realistic side to Serena, along with the gee-whiz-ain’t-this-unusual talk. She spoke about being a role model, to her daughter Alexis and other children, and in many ways — as an African-American woman who has worked her way to the top of a mostly white sport — she is.

Yet, as noted and heard that evening at the U.S. Open not too many years ago, when she berated a line judge for calling a foot fault, she can swear with the best — or worst — of anyone. She’s tough, physically, emotionally, verbally. That’s also part of being a champion.

You don’t go on year after year — she won her first Wimbledon in 2002 — without intensity. You go after an opponent. Now and then, you go after an official.

Or did. Mother Serena has compartmentalized her priorities. She says she is prepared for both life and tennis as they are, not what they used to be.

“It’s different now, obviously,” said Serena, “because I have the baby. Being a mom is totally different. Still have to think. ‘Wow, I’m a mom.’ Every day is different for me. Just having an opportunity to win, win matches, just matches in general, with a daughter at home.”

The fire still burns, however.

Asked about her apparent attitude change, Serena — at Wimbledon, she’s called and listed as “Mrs. Williams,” although her husband’s name is Ohanian — said that could be impermanent.

“No, just to be clear, that was just today,” she said of the relaxed approach. “I mean I’m hoping this is like a new thing. I highly doubt it. It was just the way I felt today; I never felt it was out of my hands. I can’t describe it. I just felt calm. Hoping I can channel it, but one day at a time.”

These have to be great days. With a lack of play and lack of points, she dropped to 183rd in the WTA rankings. With the comeback victory over Giorgi, Serena has leaped to 51.

“Well,” she mused, “it’s better than 183. Got to keep tracking on. Serena Williams, 51. It doesn’t have that same ring to it. The ‘1’ part does, but not the ‘5.’ Keep going.”

1:45PM

Wimbledon: It’s your baby, Serena

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — It’s your baby, Serena. This Wimbledon is all but yours. There may be a week to go, but most of the names and virtually all of the top ten seeds among the women have gone.

Underdogs are fine. In football and basketball, not tennis, a sport as dependent on name recognition as a solid forehand. Nobody wants Roger Federer to lose, especially tournament sponsors.

Serena — Mrs. Williams, according to the 18th-century concepts of the All-England Club, even if her husband’s name is Alexis Ohanian — came into this Wimbledon with a gift seed of No. 25 because she had missed so many tournaments after giving birth.

Which doesn’t mean anything. As shown by the results of the top-seeded players.

When No. 1 seed and No. 1 ranked Simona Halep was defeated, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, by Hsieh Su-Wei of Taiwan on Saturday only one of the women’s top ten seeds remained. And we’re only through the third round.

Maybe Steffi Graf could be accepted as a late entry. Or Martina Navratilova, who won nine times from 1978-1990, and is now on the grounds doing TV work. Sure, she’s not young anymore, but she’s still famous.

Tennis purists know about Hsieh, who with Peng Shuai of China won the 2013 Wimbledon’s doubles. But to be successful, a sport must bring in the masses. As the late Bill Veeck said about the so-called National Pastime, “If you had to depend on baseball fans for your support, you’d be out of business by Mother’s Day.”

Wimbledon, the Championships, has been in business since 1877. That doesn’t mean everyone is paying attention. It may be the oldest, most important tennis tournament in the world, but it’s still a tennis tournament, not the World Cup or the Super Bowl.

The players make the event as much as the event makes the players.

So with Halep, and defending champ Garbiñe Muguruza and Serena’s older sister, Venus, having been defeated all too early — along with Caroline Wozniacki and two-time winner Petra Kvitova — it could be Serena, 36, who’s the lady of them all.

Halep won the French Open a month ago. She went from a feat on clay to feet of clay on Wimbledon’s grass. Hsieh throws a knuckleball, in a matter of speaking, drop shots and slices, and her game — along with the Wimbledon lawn on Court No. 1 — confused Halep.

“I know she’s mixing the rhythm,” said Halep, who’s from Rumania. “She’s playing everything. It was really hard on grass court to do better. Still I had 5-3 in the third set. I had match point. It didn’t go my way today.”

Certain people can play hard courts. Certain people can play clay. Certain people can play grass. Great players, Graf, Navratilova, Chris Evert, Serena, won on all three.

“The ball is not bouncing two times in a row the same,” said Halep. “The difficulty was bigger today because of her game.”

Not that Hsieh, 32, doesn’t have her mental hang-ups. When she was serving for the match, Hsieh hit a fault, then paused before tossing up another ball.

“Because last year I play against (Lucie) Safarova, then I have two match points,” she recalled. “I make double-fault. Then have one match point. Double fault again. So today, I have a fault. Oh my God, not going to happen again. People was laughing at me. I need to cool down.”

Hsieh had injuries to both ankles, forcing her into a brief retirement two years ago. “I nearly thought of stopping tennis completely,” she said on her return in December 2016. “But here I am.”

There she was, ousting Halep and making a mockery of the seeding.

Serena was idle Saturday and, as is tradition, there is no play at Wimbledon on the middle Sunday, so she will be well rested for her fourth-round match Monday.

A seven-time champion, Serena was asked whether, with so many top players being knocked out, this would be an excellent chance for another title.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I think a lot of the top players are losing. But they’re losing to girls who are playing outstanding. If anything, it shows me every moment that I can’t underestimate any of these ladies.”

Nor do any of those ladies dare underestimate Serena Williams

 

2:57PM

What a 'Messi': Wimbledon starts in the shadow of World Cup soccer

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — Hot and hazy in Greater London, where the front-page headlines that aren’t about England’s chances against Belgium in the World Cup seem to be about the world’s chances against Donald Trump in political maneuvers.

The Championships, Wimbledon, which start Monday, with the usual stars, Roger, Rafa and Serena and the usual controversies — Serena Williams says it’s unfair she’s drug-tested more than other players — are being kicked around, metaphorically.  

Soon, tennis will regain the attention owed to an event that’s been played since 1877. But about the only Page 1 Wimbledon photo the last few days, not surprisingly, was of Andy Murray, who in 2013 became the first Brit in 77 years to take the men’s singles.

And then, still recovering from hip surgery in January, Murray announced Sunday he was not ready for best-of-five set matches and withdrew.

So, for the most unfortunate of reasons, he’ll be Page 1 stuff again.

On Sunday, the front pages of both the Times and the Telegraph were on soccer — yes, football here. “End of the World for Ronaldo and Messi,” said the Times about the stars of ousted Portugal and Argentina.

“Where’s the Hand of God when you need it?” was the Telegraph head, over a picture of Argentina’s Diego Maradona, who in 1986 scored to beat England and denied he whacked the ball with his hand.

And both the Telegraph and Times had the same headline in their sports sections: “Move Over Messi,” alluding to French teenager Kylian Mbappe, who scored twice in France’s 4-3 win over Argentina, and Lionel Messi, the LeBron James of soccer. Err, football.

Roger Federer is the LeBron James of tennis. He has won Wimbledon eight times and has 20 Grand Slam titles. He will be 37 in a month, certainly too old for a world-class player, but every year of the past four or five years he has been too old — and too successful.

Although only No. 2 in the ATP rankings behind Rafael Nadal, Federer is the No. 1 seed for this Wimbledon, as he has been for many other Wimbledons. The people in charge know quite well that Federer’s best surface is the grass at the All England Club, while Nadal, with his nine French Opens (the tennis purists refer to the tournament as Roland Garros), is magnificent on clay.

One of the two has won each of the last six Slams, starting with the 2017 Australian Open.

Americans never have been very good at soccer. Don’t worry about headlines; the U.S. didn’t even qualify for the World Cup. Since the early 2000s, neither have American men been very good at tennis.

The last U.S. winners in the Slams were Andre Agassi at the Australian and Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open, both in 2003.

Not since 2000 has an American, Pete Sampras, taken the men’s singles at Wimbledon. Not that long perhaps, when measured against the decades of World Series disappointment by the Red Sox and Cubs, but long enough.  

The U.S. ladies, meaning Venus Williams and sibling Serena, won when the men could not. But now Venus is 38 and was knocked out of the Australian and French in the first round. Serena is coming back from giving birth last September. She withdrew from the French before a scheduled fourth-round match against Maria Sharapova because of an injury.

Messi, arguably the best player in soccer, and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo are gone from the World Cup, if not the world stage. Sport is a constant change, constant replacement. Father Time, or Mother Time, wins every match, every move.

Federer and Nadal, Serena and Venus Williams, someday will be too old. Not that you’ll be hearing anyone tell them to move over. In an individual sport, the individual has to make the decision that it’s time to leave.

Teams and tournaments, World Cups, Wimbledons, NBA playoffs, Super Bowls, go on and on. The athlete goes out. Inevitable and, as we were reminded by the World Cup, oh so painful.