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7:06AM

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.

8:33AM

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.

 

9:04AM

“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.

9:13PM

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.

1:21PM

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.