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9:04PM

Unfortunately and fortunately, it’s Venus against Serena

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — And so in what might be called the twilight of their careers, the ladies whom the late Bud Collins nicknamed “Sisters Sledgehammer,” Venus and Serena Williams, will face each other Friday night under the arc lights. “Unfortunately,” said Serena, “and fortunately.”

Unfortunately for the siblings, who were raised to become the champions they are but cringe at the thought of competing against each other.

Fortunately for tennis in America, a nation that in the last several years hasn’t had many winners in the sport, male or female, other than the Williamses.

Maybe, to borrow a Rolling Stones lyric, this could be the last time. Maybe Venus, 38, and Serena, who will be 37 in September and is a new mother, will not go head-to-head again after this third-round match in the U.S. Open.

That would be acceptable to the sisters, who through seedings, success and the luck of the draw have met 29 times, starting at the 1998 Australian Open — yes, 20 years ago. Venus won that first match, but Serena has a 17-12 advantage.

Golf and tennis are games without team loyalties. It you’re a Red Sox fan, a 49ers fan, an Auburn fan, who’s out there doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they’re wearing the right uniform.

It’s different in individual sports. Support is built on achievement, certainly, but also on recognition — which admittedly comes from achievement. There’s a reason Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams are scheduled at prime time, night time. To fill the seats. To build the TV audience.

The tennis purists know Alexander Zverev or Karolina Pliskova. But everybody knows Venus and Serena. Tennis fans? Let us borrow the Bill Veeck quote alluding to a sport far more popular in the U.S.: “If you had to rely on baseball fans for your support,” he said when he owned the Cleveland Indians, “you’d be out of business by Mother’s Day.”

Tennis is very much in business with Venus and Serena, who are as likely to be featured in Vanity Fair as they are in Sports Illustrated.

Their father, Richard, who both started their careers and, it is believed, manipulated those careers early on, supposedly deciding who would win the matches against each other, was protective of the sisters. He held them out of big-time competition until Venus, then 14, entered a WTA event at what now is Oracle Arena in Oakland in 1994.

She was impressive, but Richard Williams would say, “Serena is going to be better.” He was correct. She’s also more expressive than Venus, who as the older sister is more protective and less nonsensical. Also, when the questions fly, less tolerant.

After defeating Camila Giorgi in the second round Wednesday, Venus naturally was asked about a probable match against Serena, who a bit later would win against Carina Witthoeft. 

“You’re beating it up now,” Venus said. “Any other questions about anything else? I just want to talk tennis.” But not the tennis curious journalists wish to discuss. After all, how many times can you talk about a forehand? What’s going on in the player’s head?

“We make each other better,” Serena said about competition between the sisters.

They last played in March, at Indian Wells, Serena’s first tournament and third match since giving birth to Alexis in September 2017. Not surprisingly, Venus won, 6-3. 6-4, although Serena said she wouldn’t have been shocked were she the winner.

They might not want to play each other, but they definitely do want to defeat each other when on the court.

“We bring out the best when we play each other,” said Serena. What they also do is avoid critical remarks about the other.

“I never root against her, no matter what,” said Serena. ”I think that’s the toughest part for me. When you want someone to win, (it’s hard) to try to beat her. I know the same thing (goes) for her.  When she beats me, she roots for me as well.”

What we’re rooting for is a match worthy of the Williams sisters.

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