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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.

5:56PM

Down to a sport bra and caught up in controversy

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — In 1999, Brandi Chastain scored the winning goal for the U.S. in the women’s World Cup, ripped off her jersey in excitement and, showing a sport bra, became not only a heroine but a cover girl on Time. People cheered.

Two days ago, Alize Cornet changed a shirt that was being worn inside out during a first-round match of the U.S. Open, briefly showing a sport bra, and drew a warning that in turn drew an apology — and drew defenders by the numbers. Some people gasped.

But of course. That’s the history of women’s tennis attire, stitched up with controversy.

There was Gertrude “Gussie” Moran’s lace-edged panties — knickers they’re called in Britain — at Wimbledon in 1949, Karol Fageros’ gold lamé panties at the 1958 French Open that got her banned from Wimbledon a month later, Anne White’s bodysuit at Wimbledon in 1985 and Serena Williams’ black “catsuit,” only days ago forbidden by the French Open.

Now, on a steamy 90-degree day in New York, when even male players were permitted to take a break before a third set, as women previously were allowed, Cornet returns from the locker room to realize she had put her top on incorrectly. So, hey, switch.

Oh gracious, a lady in a sport bra, as we see in gyms, running paths, even on sidewalks. Not a bikini. Not a swimsuit. But exactly what Brandi Chastain was wearing when she fell to the grass at the Rose Bowl in ecstasy.

Chastain did wonders for women’s soccer — only recently she was inducted in the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, to join Joe Montana, Bill Russell, Joe DiMaggio and so many others. The guess is that Cornet, of France, will give women’s tennis a boost, if only out of curiosity.

Anyone who perhaps never heard of Cornet will Google her name. A negative may turn out to be a positive.

Quickly on Wednesday, the U.S. Tennis Association, which controls the Open, one of the four Grand Slam tournaments each year, sent out a press release stating it regretted the code violation assessed tor Cornet.

“We have clarified the policy,” said the USTA, “to ensure this will not happen moving forward. Fortunately she was only assessed a warning ... Female players, it they choose, may also change their shirts in a more private location close to the court, when available.”

The men have been stripping down for years, pulling off one perspiration-soaked shirt after another and putting on a clean, dry one. Indeed, there are differences between the sexes, but the ladies, on court and off, felt that the whole issue was just another one of those old-boys ideas on which they’ve never had a vote. Or been asked their thoughts.

“If I would say my true feelings, it would be bleeped out, because I think it was ridiculous,” said Victoria Azarenka, twice a U.S. Open finalist.

“It was nothing wrong. Nothing wrong. It wasn’t anything disrespectful. She literally changed her shirt because it was backwards. So I couldn’t believe this was a conversation.”

But it was, harkening back to tennis history. Anything out of the ordinary evolves into a major incident.

“I’m glad they apologized,” said Azarenka, “and I hope this never happens again.”

It will. Truth tell, it’s happening now, with Serena’s one-piece outfit. She will be unable to wear it at the French Open, played in late June. Assuming she enters, when Serena shows up the first question to her will be not about her serve but the attire she won’t display.

Azarenka understands what she doesn’t understand.

“There is always a double standard for men and women,” said Azarenka. “But we need to push those barriers. And as players, as representatives of the WTA Tour, I believe we’re going to do the best we can to make sure that we are the most progressive sport and continue to break those boundaries, because it’s unacceptable. For me, it’s unacceptable.”

By the way, in the match that was the cause, Cornet was beaten by Johanna Larson, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. So much for the important stuff.

 

6:48PM

Djokovic stays cool in a very hot U.S. Open

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — The air was unhealthy. The heat index was unreal. It was sport in a steam bath, officials intervening, players withdrawing, everybody — on court or in the stands — more concerned with what was on the thermometer (the temperature reached 95 degrees) than what was on the scorecards. 

This is America’s tennis championship, the U.S. Open, and so far no one has been able to whip that feisty lady Mother Nature. She’s been in control from the first match. “Extreme weather conditions,” was the official announcement. Are they ever.

The end of summer in New York, Odell Beckham Jr. getting headlines on the front and back page of the New York Post for signing with the football Giants; the Yankees losing ground in their attempt to overtake the Red Sox; and Roger Federer and Serena Williams back at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, out where the Mets play at Citi Field and the jets swoop low when they land at LaGuardia.

The Open is noisy, as is everything in New York; exciting, since if you can make it here you can make it anywhere; and hot, although rarely as hot as this August, when on Tuesday five men — none of them named Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal — withdrew because of conditions so severe that it was decided to give everyone a 10-minute break before a possible third set.

There are now retractable roofs on two of the courts, including the main one, the 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Court, but understandably officials from the U.S. Tennis Association do not want to close the roofs unless there is rain. Players under cover would have an unfair advantage over those on the outside courts.

Not that those in the night matches, Federer and Maria Sharapova among them on Tuesday, don’t have an advantage over those out in the midday sun, which as the lyrics go is for mad dogs and Englishmen. And on Tuesday for Djokovic, a 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-0 winner over Martin Fucsovics, and Caroline Wozniacki, who beat one-time champ Sam Stosur, 6-3, 6-2.

“Yeah, it was very hot conditions for sure,” said Wozniacki, the Australian Open champion. “I just tried to stay cool. We got a little lucky. In the shade, I was able to cool down a little bit. So that helped.”

Marin Cilic, who won the Open four years ago, was a winner when his opponent quit — well, the explanation is “retired” — at 1-1 in the third set after losing the first two sets, 7-6, 6-1.

“Conditions were extremely tough,’ said Cilic. ”Very humid, very hot. The ball was flying a bit more than usual, so I was having a tough time trying to control it. I was missing some easy balls, making unforced errors that are not that usual for me.”

He won. Whatever the situation, the better players inevitably do, which is why they are the better players.

Djokovic was the best player a couple of years ago, in the rankings and in the minds of most others. He had a stretch of four straight Grand Slams, from the 2015 U.S. Open through the 2016 French Open. Then he collapsed.

Maybe because of a bad elbow. Maybe because of reported family troubles. Now, after a win at Wimbledon a month and a half ago and victory over Federer in Canada, he’s back.

He did worry Tuesday because he said the heat made him feel sick during his match, even asking for assistance. The No. 6 seed, Djokovic recovered while taking the 10-minute break before the fourth set and then breezed without losing a game.

Argentine Leonardo Mayer, one of those who couldn’t finish, said of the allowed recess, “Ten minutes? I would have needed an hour and a half.”   

Djokovic and Fucsovics only needed to take an ice bath. That was cool, in more than one way.

8:49AM

U.S. Open third round: Chaos among the sand traps

By Art Spander

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Chaos among the sand traps. Phil Mickelson playing by his own rules, or his interpretation of the rules. Dustin Johnson playing by the skin of his teeth.

The wind blew, the bogies grew and the 118th U.S Open turned into a golf tournament of as many opinions as strokes.

Johnson had his seemingly solid lead get away before recapturing part of it Saturday in an agonizing third round at Shinnecock Hills, which definitively didn’t let its reputation as a brutal, testing course get away.

The last time the Open was here, at the eastern end of Long Island, caught between the devil and the deep, blue sea, was in 2004, and Shinnecock was so unfair that the sponsoring body, the U.S. Golf Association, decided to water the greens in the middle of the fourth round.

This time, looking for redemption as well as a tough championship, the USGA said it had learned from past mistakes and would keep Shinnecock playable. But as approach shots rolled for miles after hitting greens and golfers lost strokes along with their confidence, that promise appeared not to have been kept.

The USGA apologized for course condtions, as if that would ease the pain of those with bad scores. "Thanks guys did Bozo set the course," tweeted Ian Poulter, who shot 76.

 David Fay, a former executive director of the USGA, went on Fox TV and said the course was “close to the edge,” but Zach Johnson, a former Masters and British Open champion, who shot a 2-over-par 72, insisted, “It’s not on the edge, it’s surpassed it. It’s gone.”

That was the word that we believed would apply to Dustin Johnson, who began the day with a four-shot advantage. But it was the advantage that was gone, in a virtual flash. Dustin made double bogey on two and bogies on four, six, seven and eight, and with a 6-over 41 on the front nine he fell behind last year’s winner at Erin Hills, Brooks Koepka, and Henrik Stenson.

When the round finally was done, however, Dustin Johnson, even shooting a 7-over 41-36-77, was in a four-way tie for first at a not-surprisingly high total (for the Open) of 3-over for 54 holes, 213.

Sharing with him were Koepka (72) and two golfers who, because they were so far back after two rounds, had morning tee times, and they beat the wind — and everybody else on the course — with 4-under 66s, Paul Berger and Tony Finau.

Another shot back at 4-over 214 was 2013 winner Justin Rose, who virtually one-putted everything in sight (at least on the front) for a 73. Stenson was at 5-over 215.

Mickelson, on his 48th birthday and as frustrated as anybody — while others kept their emotions in check — had an 11-over 81 that included a two-shot penalty for hitting a moving ball when it rolled off the green at 13.

Fay, the former chief, said on TV that Mickelson should have been disqualified, but the question is whether the golfer is trying to keep the ball from rolling away or just hitting it when it is rolling.

“Phil didn’t purposely deflect or stop the ball,” said John Bodenhamer, managing director of championships for the USGA, alluding to a rule.

What Phil did, however, was a poor reflection of a man who has won every major except the U.S. Open, as if he could do what he wants.

“It was going to go down in the same spot behind the bunker,” said Mickelson, referring to where he earlier had played from. “I wasn’t going to have a shot.” So he had 10 shots. “I know it’s a two-shot penalty.”

Yes, the Open drives men mad.

Rickie Fowler shot 84 Saturday. His total of 226 was one lower than Mickelson’s 227. That two golfers far out of contention became newsworthy is part of the Open’s mystique and confusion. A few rounds at a course where par is almost impossible has golfers talking — and the media listening.

“I didn’t feel like I played badly at all,” said Dustin Johnson. “Seven over, you know, usually is a terrible score, but I mean with the way the greens got this afternoon ... they were very difficult.

“A couple of putts today I could have putted off the green. But it’s the U.S. Open. It’s supposed to be tough.”

Shinnecock was. Very, very tough.

 

6:02PM

The Open: Tiger won’t win; Dustin probably will

By Art Spander

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Halfway through a U.S. Open low in excitement and high in scoring, two assumptions are possible: Tiger Woods definitely will not win and Dustin Johnson probably will.

Neither could be considered a surprise.

Woods unquestionably was once the best golfer in the world. That was then, before aging and injuries. This is now, when Johnson could be considered the best golfer in the world. If nothing else, he’s No. 1 in the world rankings.

And after 36 holes at Shinnecock Hills Country Club, way out on Long Island, he’s in first place of this 118th Open by four strokes, at 4-under 69-67-136, the only player under par.

Woods was tied for 86th place, meaning nowhere, because only the low 60s and ties made the cut to play in the final two rounds. Tiger wasn’t bad in Friday’s second round (stop asking, “compared to whom?”). He shot a 2-over 72. If only he hadn’t shot 78 on Thursday.

That’s when, asked about his mindset after a round that included a triple bogey and two doubles, Woods advised, “Shoot something in the 60s (Friday) and I’ll be just fine.”

He didn’t and he wasn’t. That’s what happens in sports. You can plan, you can practice, but in the end you have to produce. 

Tiger produced for years. Now the production is from Johnson, trying for his second Open championship in three years. “Dustin,” said Woods, grouped with Johnson, “was in complete control of what he’s doing.”

Such a glorious feeling in golf. In life. For everything to go the way we want it, if only for a brief while. Yet bliss can end in the blink of an eye.

In football, the line is you’re always one play away from an injury. In golf, you’re one swing away from disaster — or from success.

Johnson is well aware. He led another U.S. Open, in 2010 at Pebble Beach, and in the final round, his drive on two landed in a bunker. The next thing he and we knew, Dustin went triple bogey, double bogey, bogey on two, three and four, respectively, losing six shots like that and blowing himself out of the tournament.

What Ian Poulter did on Friday at Shinnecock wasn’t quite as severe, but it was no less unfortunate. One shot behind at eight, his 17th hole of the round, Poulter went into a bunker on his approach, bladed the sand shot and took a triple bogey. Then he bogeyed nine.

“It looks really stupid,” Poulter said of his mis-hitting. “I felt stupid knifing the first one. I felt even more stupid chunking the next one. And I didn’t do much better on the next one either.”

A humbling game, golf. Such a harsh description. Such an honest description. Tiger Woods? Five amateurs had lower scores for two rounds in this Open than Tiger. One of them, Matt Parziale, is a fireman in Brockton, Mass. He made the cut.

What a strange Open his has been, with the stars making bogies and double bogies — but Phil Mickelson at least made the cut; Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy did not — the weather turning from light morning wind and rain to late afternoon stillness and sunshine.

Johnson went off the 10th tee at 8:02 a.m. EDT with Woods and Justin Thomas. Conditions were less than ideal. Yet when you’re playing well, the weather is secondary. You just hit and march on.

“Starting out,” said Johnson, “through our first seven or eight holes it was breezy and overcast. So it felt like the course was playing really difficult. But I got off to a nice start. I kind of hung in there and made some good saves for pars.”

Woods, 42, had years of success. He believes he’ll find it once more, which is understandable, if not quite realistic. His putting, once magnificent, now is best described as mediocre. And there’s no record of a golfer who became a better putter as he got older.

“You don’t win major championships,” said Woods, who has won 14, “by kind of slapping all over the place and missing putts. You have to be on.”

Which is why, while others play the last two rounds, he’s off.