Entries in Serena Williams (78)


No ‘next man up’ in tennis

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The words went straight to the heart and — no less important in today’s sporting world — the television ratings. “Sadly, I have to withdraw from the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells and the Miami Open,” said Serena Williams in a statement.

Of course it was in a statement. That’s the way stars dole out bad news these days. In a statement, or in the case of Tiger Woods, on his web site. As little direct contact as possible.

So we accept it. The way Serena has to accept her knee problems.

The way people in charge of the BNP tennis event have to accept the reality that the world’s No. 1 women’s player will not be entering what is the sport’s first big event since the Australian Open, which Serena won, defeating older sister Venus in a historic final.

The way that golf people accept that Tiger Woods is battling the same difficulties as Serena, relative old age leading to constant ailments that never heal.

There's nobody to blame. There are injuries in every sport, as we’re all too aware with Kevin Durant. “Next man up” is the litany. The trouble in individual sports, dependent on stars and personalities, sports without team loyalty, is there may not be a “next” man or woman.

There’s only one Serena. Only one Tiger.

The older you get, the more you’re injured. The fact is undeniable. The years of swinging a tennis racquet or golf club take their toll.

Tiger was different, special. He brought non-golfers to golf, attracted a new, expanded following, crossed ethnic and social barriers.

It wasn’t the game itself that proved fascinating. Some didn’t know a birdie from a bogey. But they knew Tiger.

Knew he was winning, knew he was spectacular, knew he was unique.

Now Tiger, 41, after two back surgeries, rehab and painful attempts at playing, is idled in Florida.

Three weeks ago in the Genesis Open, the former Los Angeles Open, an event benefitting the Tiger Woods Foundation, an event for which Woods was the unofficial host, he was ordered by his doctor not even to appear at Riviera Country Club to address the media but to stay horizontal. That’s serious.

Serena’s condition, the left knee that bothered her at the U.S. Open last summer, seems less critical. However, Williams is 35 and has had knee troubles in the past. That she waited until two days ago to announce her withdrawal from the BNP Paribas is somewhat bewildering. Did she think the knee would heal in a few days when she hadn’t played in a tournament since the Australian at the end of January?

Indian Wells already was missing Victoria Azarenka, on maternity leave; Maria Sharapova, who has one month left in her 15-month suspension for taking a drug banned by the WTA but available in her native Russia; and two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, recovering from stab wounds inflicted during a robbery of her apartment in the Czech Republic just before Christmas.

The advice in these situations from some is not to write about those who aren’t in a tournament but those who are. Yet Serena and Sharapova truly are bigger than their sport, just as Tiger is in his. They can’t be ignored. 

People who wouldn’t cross the street, or the base line, to watch tennis would very happily choose to see Williams. Or Sharapova.

Even in team sports it’s all about the individual, about Tom Brady or Steph Curry or Alex Ovechkin, the stars who make the money and the headlines, which certainly describes Serena.

Bill Veeck, the late team owner and promoter, used to say if you had to depend on baseball fans for support “you’d be out of business by Mother’s Day.” You’d better bring in the curious, the outsiders.

Veeck did it with gimmicks, sending a midget, Eddie Gaedel, to bat for the St. Louis Browns, holding disco night with the Chicago White Sox.

Tennis has to rely on famous players. In America, maybe the world, there’s no woman tennis player as famous, and successful, as Serena Williams. She’ll be missed.


A question for Serena, but no questions for Kerber

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — It seemed wrong, a final in women’s tennis without Serena Williams, but at the same time it seemed right. Sport is nothing but change, heroes and heroines raising a trophy or a hand in triumph and then being pushed aside, maybe in a matter of weeks or months — the Warriors' reign was halted all too quickly — or, in Serena’s case, a matter of years.

Now there is a new women’s tennis champion, someone who not that long ago the critics said didn’t have the game or the nerve to get to the top. Angelique Kerber is not only the U.S. Open winner but No. 1 in the rankings.

Kerber left no questions Saturday in the Open final, beating Karolina Pliskova, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, someone who like Kerber few outside the little, provincial world of tennis knew well, if at all, until recently.

Yet their questions of another, Serena, whose defeat in the semifinals by Pliskova on Thursday, and tumble from the top of the rankings on Saturday morning, became front-page news in the New York Times, 24 hours later.

The day the women’s final, for a second straight year, would played without her.

“Serena Williams Will Be 35.” said the headline over a story by tennis correspondent Chris Clarey. “But Will She Be No. 1 Again?”

Yes, Williams is American and held her position for 186 consecutive weeks, and we tend to dwell on what was as much as what is. Still, women’s tennis is in flux, although Kerber suddenly appears to be the top-of-the-heap player who may hold her ranking for a while.

Kerber has done what Serena used to do, what Venus Williams used to do, what Steffi Graf and Chris Evert used to do: she stepped up and dominated. She beat Serena in the Australian Open final, lost to Serena in the Wimbledon final and now beats Pliskova in the U.S. Open final. Three finals and two titles in a calendar year. That’s something we would have expected from Serena, or from Kerber’s mentor and fellow German, Steffi Graf, who persuaded Kerber to be more aggressive.

As perhaps too many women on tour, Kerber played too carefully, keeping the ball in play but rarely forcing the issue. But after she lost to Victoria Azarenka in the third round of last year’s Open, she visited Graf — the last player, male or female, to take the Grand Slam, all four majors in a year, 1988 — in Las Vegas, where Graf lives with her husband, Andre Agassi, and family.

“Kerber used to play too defensively,” Evert told the ESPN television audience, “and she had that pitty-pat serve.”

At age 28, Kerber conquered her faults and her demons. And with experience she then conquered the hard-serving Pliskova, who at 24 finally had her breakthrough.

Pliskova, who never had been beyond the third round of any major, first won the Cincinnati tournament a month ago, beating Kerber in the final, 6-3, 6-1, and then going all the way to this final — if not to the championship.

Kerber said she had dreamed of being No. 1 since she was a child in Bremen. Sometimes even in a sport where the young come up so quickly, and the veterans slip away no less quickly, success is a process that takes a long while.

"It means a lot to me,” said Kerber, still on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court as tears trickled down her face immediately after the match. “I mean, all the dreams came true this year, and I'm just trying to enjoy every moment on court and also off court."

She’ll enjoy it. Serena Williams may enjoy it less so. Will she be No. 1 again? It will be fascinating to find out.


Serena denies she was beaten because she was ‘beat up’

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — She looked weary, bewildered, and even, yes, old, because some two weeks from her 35th birthday, as a tennis player Serena Williams is old, 12 years older than Karolina Pliskova, who on a Thursday night of disbelief — and perhaps transition — stunned tennis and Williams.

A 6-foot-1 Czech with a serve no less impressive — and at times more effective — than Williams', Pliskova overcame her own history of Grand Slam failures, Serena’s reputation and a howling crowd with a 6-2, 7-6 (5) win in a U.S. Open semifinal.

For a second straight year, Williams falls one match short of the Open final — in 2015 she was upset by Roberta Vinci — and also for the first time in months falls out of the No. 1 ranking in women’s tennis, which now goes to Germany's Angelique Kerber, who faces Pliskova in Saturday's final.

Maybe it was because Serena played a three-setter in the quarterfinals Wednesday against Simona Halep and was unable to recover physically.   

Maybe it was because Serena’s game is not what it used to be.

Maybe it’s because Pliskova has learned to conquer the nerves that rattled her until this summer.

Maybe it’s because Serena has a sore leg.

However, she rejected any thought that playing two matches in two days had any effect on her game.

“I definitely was not beat up after my quarterfinal match,” she insisted. “I wasn’t tired from (Wednesday’s) match. I’m a professional player, been playing for over 20 years.

“If I can’t turn around after 24 hours and play again, then I shouldn’t be on tour. So I definitely wasn’t tired from (Wednesday’s) match at all. But yeah, I’ve been having some serious knee problems. Fatigue had nothing to do with it.”

Williams, who rides on her thundering serves, was broken twice in the first set and once in the second. Pliskova, who until this Open had never been past the third round of any major in 17 previous attempts, won the battle of serves, and thus the match.

“Yes,” said Williams. “I thought she served well today, and that definitely was a big thing for her.” 

As over the years it’s been a very big thing for Serena, who in the tiebreak had two double faults. That’s what others do, not Williams. Until this semi.

Pliskova had beaten Venus Williams, Serena’s older sister, in the fourth round of this Open, and so becomes only the fourth player, along with Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, to score a victory over both Williamses in the same Slam tournament.

"I don't believe it," said Pliskova moments after the match finished at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

She wasn’t the only one, but anything in tennis, in sports, is believable. Who would have thought Rafa Nadal and Andy Murray would be gone before the semis? Who would have thought the San Francisco Giants would fall apart as they have done?

"I knew I had the chance to beat anyone if I played my game,” said Pliskova.

Which basically is preventing the opponent from returning a serve. It was evident why Pliskova leads the Tour in service aces.

Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, had suggested that the knee injury was the difference. It’s tough to blame defeat on ailments. Long ago Venus Williams, when asked after losing a match if she had been hurt, said, “If you play you’re not hurt. If you’re hurt don’t play.”

Serena, pressed about the knee, said, “I’m not downplaying anything. Karolina played great today. I think had she played any less, I would have had a chance.

“So I think I wasn’t 100 percent, but I also think she played well. She deserved to win today.”

As with almost every full-time tennis player, Williams has had her share of injuries. It’s a fact in a sport where the competitors are traveling around the world and rarely taking days off.

There’s a never-ending circle. You have to be in a tournament for a chance to earn points that will get you into a tournament. And bodies fray.

Nadal pulled out of the French Open and missed Wimbledon because he was injured. Roger Federer’s knee would not allow him to play in this Open. Time catches up, especially as the years mount.

Williams lost to Kerber in the Australian Open final in January and beat her in the Wimbledon final in July. Who knows whether Serena can keep going on year after year? What we do know is she’s not going on in the 2016 U.S. Open.


Venus and Serena: This could be the last time

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — You waited through the afternoon, watched the sisters who have become such a large and magnificent part of tennis, of American sport, Venus and Serena Williams, back to back, on the same grand court in the same Grand Slam tournament, the U.S. Open. 

And the words of that Rolling Stones song kept repeating in the mind: This could be the last time.

This could be the last time in one of the four major championships that their play and the draw — and scheduling by shrewd tournament officials — combine for a box-office attraction like we had Monday.

Venus is reaching that stage, age 36, where her game is not what it used to be. She was beaten in her fourth-round match, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 (3) by Karolina Pliskova, the Czech who finally escaped her nerves and the third round of a Slam. Venus won’t retire — “I love what I do,” she said — but neither will she regain what she once had.

Serena still is the best of the women, ranked No. 1, and with her tidy victory over Yaroslava Shvedova, 6-2, 6-3, has won more Grand Slam matches 308, than anyone in history, male or female. 

But the days when Serena and Venus are on the same court in a Slam, either facing each other, as they have 27 times, or playing consecutive matches — on, say, Centre Court at Wimbledon or Arthur Ashe at the Open — regrettably are finished.

So it was probably expected after Venus' defeat that she would be asked if she would walk up, above the interview room, to Ashe court to watch Serena, whose match was underway. “I haven’t thought about that,” said Venus. “I still have other stuff to do. Maybe she will win quickly, and then I won’t have to think about it.”

Serena did win quickly, and someone wondered if she had followed Venus’ match. “I was really trying to warm up,” said Serena. “I really get nervous when I watch. So I didn’t get to see much. I knew that she lost when it was over, but I didn’t really watch what was going on.”

What was going on was the writing of yet another chapter of sports inevitability, a potential young star — Pliskova is 24 — taking the stage while the older, familiar player is moved out of the spotlight. Venus still can compete, but not like before.

The crowd at 23,000-seat Ashe probably was cheering for itself as much as it was for Venus. We’re all trying to hang on to the present, which all too soon becomes the past. Only days ago it seems Venus was the teenager on her way up. Now she’s the veteran. This was her 18th U.S. Open.

Venus showed her courage, down triple-match point in the 11th game of the third set and breaking Pliskova to get even at 6-6. Then Venus showed her vulnerability, making mistakes in the tiebreaker that she wouldn’t have made a decade ago.

“I think (in) the breaker I went for a little bit more,” she said of her tactics, “but I didn’t put the ball in enough. You know I went for some aggressive shots, didn’t necessarily put them in.

“She played a great game. I was going to try and stay in there, continue to get points.”

That’s the way opponents used to talk after they lost to a younger Venus.

“I did what I could when I could,” was Venus’ assessment. “That’s the match.” Once upon a time, Venus did what she wanted.

Which basically is what Serena has been doing the last few years, winning Wimbledon in July, a 22nd Slam triumph to tie Steffi Graf for second on the all-time list. There have been stumbles — "hiccups" is the tennis term — such as last year’s U.S. Open, when Serena was upset by Roberta Vinci in the semifinals. For the most part, she’s stomped along.

“I feel like I’m going out there and doing what I need to do,” said Serena, now in the quarterfinals. “I’m not overplaying. I’m not underplaying. I’m just trying to play my way into this tournament.”

She’s done that. On Monday, she followed older sister Venus onto the big court at the big time in the big city to complete a double-bill that we may have very well seen for the last time.


Hurricane Serena sweeps into the Open

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — Warning signs kept popping up on I-495 east of the Queens Midtown Tunnel. “Tropical storm on weekend. Heavy rain, high wind.”

But there was a billboard with more tantalizing advice: “Leaving City of Dreams.”

To link either or both with the tennis of eternal champion Serena Williams might be a reach, if not that big of one. She’s been sweeping through this 2016 U.S. Open with the force of a hurricane. On Saturday, she spent only one hour on the court, defeating Johanna Larsson of Sweden, 6-2, 6-1.

But of course. This is women’s tennis. The top few, Serena, Angelique Kerber, maybe Agnieszka Radwanska or Flavia Pennetta, make it interesting when they are matched up. Otherwise, the rest are barely competitive.

In the early rounds, and the Open is in the third, there ought to be Serena warnings. Even with a sore shoulder, she simply overpowers the opponents. And the record book.

The victory over Larsson was Williams' 307th in a Grand Slam event, one more than the previous women’s record held by Martina Navratilova and the same as Roger Federer, who holds the men’s record — and since he’s not here, and since Serena will get more before the Open is done and Federer is missing because of a bad knee, she’ll have the most of anyone, female or male.

“That was pretty cool for me,” said Williams. “Obviously I want to keep that number going higher and see what can happen.”

Anything and everything. City of Dreams, indeed. A year ago, with the pressure of earning the legitimate Grand Slam — all four majors in a calendar year — overwhelming her physical capability, Williams was stunned in the Open semifinals by Roberta Vinci.

She seemed deflated as much as defeated, making it to the finals of the next two Slam events, the Australian and French Open, but losing to Kerber in Australia and Garbine Muguruza in France.

Small wonder then she was particularly elated by the triumph over Kerber in the Wimbledon final, her 22nd Slam, ending questions about a decline in her confidence if not in her talent.

Serena, along with older sister Venus, is a lady of great pride. When someone asks if he’s the best women’s athlete on the planet, Williams wonders if gender should be a part of the question, that simply “best athlete” would be proper.

And Saturday, post-match, the issue arose once more, hardly a surprise but after you get past Serena’s thundering serves and quick points, what else is there?

Sixty-minute woman. The first set against Larsson lasted 36 minutes, the second 24. To paraphrase the old Peggy Lee song, is that all there was? Not a chance.

There’s the Williams interview, on this day more fascinating than the Williams match. She can be soft and hesitating in her answers, but the viewpoints are unmistakably clear.

“I definitely think there is a difference between the way male and female athletes are treated,” she said. “I also believe as a woman we have still a lot to do and a lot to be going forward. I think tennis has made huge improvements. We just have to keep it going for all other female sports as well.”

Serena herself is intent on keeping it going. She will be 35 the end of this month and, other than a minor injury or two, appears both and willing and able. Kerber and Radwanska are challenging for the No. 1 ranking Williams has held for 309 weeks, which is exactly what Serena needs, a reason to continue the quest.

“There is a huge pay difference in terms of male and female athletes,” she reminded, “in a lot of sports, tennis as well.”

She and Venus both are millionaires. Serena’s motivation is not from dollars. There will be a finish line, but it is not in the immediate future.

“I am not ready to throw in the towel yet or just to have enough,” she said. “I think a lot of it has to do with my mentality. Just never wanting to quit and still being able to compete at a high level.

“I am still having fun out there. I’m still able to compete with the best. I think that’s what matters most to me.”

Hurricane Serena shows no sign of weakening.