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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.

2:44PM

The answer always is Wimbledon

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — The answer is Wimbledon, no matter the question.

Grass courts that mystify (unless you’re Roger Federer)? Wimbledon.

Tournament often as crazy as it is important? Wimbledon.

Event the players would never criticize even though it should be criticized? You got it, Wimbledon. 

On Day 5 of Wimbledon 142 — yes, it started in 1877, but there was the interruption called World War II — Roger Federer and Serena Williams kept winning.

Venus Williams and Sam Querrey failed to keep winning. 

And the stories in the dailies that weren’t about Dominika Cibulkova’s thigh slapping or England’s World Cup quarterfinal were about an oversize balloon in the form of Donald Trump wearing a diaper that will fly over London

Ready? Your serve. And with this heat wave, 85 degrees on Friday, remember to stay hydrated.

Federer, 6-3, 7-5, 6-2 over Jan-Lennard Struff and Serena, 7-5, 7-6 over Kristina Mladenovic, stayed on course. So did John Isner, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 over Radu Albot.

But after taking the first set, Querrey was beaten by the flashy French guy, Gael Monfils, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2. And Venus, 38 years old, lost to Father Time, and to 26-year-old Kiki Bertens, 6-2, 6-7, 8-6.

“There always are more upsets at Wimbledon,” said Querrey, who a year ago had one of those, beating Andy Murray. “I think it’s because of the grass. It’s such a different surface.”

Whether Bertens defeating Venus could be labeled an upset is judgmental. Venus did win Wimbledon five times and did get to the final in 2017 before being whipped by Garbine Muguruza — who, talk about upsets, lost this year in the second round.

But Venus sadly is starting to look the age she is, eliminated in the first round of both the Australian Open and French Open and now being eliminated in the second round at Wimbledon after losing the first set in all three matches. 

“Just ran out of time in the end,” said Venus, an ironic comment that now could apply to her career as much as to the match. Not that she ever would even hint of stepping away.

“The plan,” said Venus when asked about disappointment, “is to go out and try to win the matches. You just go out and regroup afterwards. You know, I think she was just a little bit luckier than I was in the end.”

Johanna Konta of England wasn’t as concerned with fortune as she was with Cibulkova slapping her thighs during the Thursday match that Cibulkova won, 6-3, 6-4.

“Jo complained to the umpire about me slapping my leg when waiting to receive,” Cibulkova told The Sun. “But I have been doing that in my whole career, and I see no reason to stop. That is what I told the umpire. That is the first time anyone has ever complained.”

Konta is No. 24 in the rankings and Cibulkova is No. 31, so the result could be called an upset. For sure, Konta, a back-page tabloid star in this, her homeland, was upset emotionally.

“She’s very intense,” Konta said of Cibulkova, a Slovakian. “She was slapping her thigh. It was like clapping. I asked the umpire if it would be the same if someone else externally, from the crowd, would clap between first and second serves.”

No one’s been clapping of late for the achievements, or lack of same, of American men at Wimbledon or the other three Grand Slam tournaments.

“I feel like things come in waves,” said Querrey about the inability of U.S. men to contend. Querrey did make the semis a year ago, but that was that. The last American to win a Slam was Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open — 15 years ago.

“I mean, in the ‘90s we were probably the best tennis nation,” said Querrey, alluding to the days when Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi. Michael Chang and Jim Courier earned titles. “You have the dominance of Roger (Federer) and Rafa (Nadal) the last 12 years, Novak (Djokovic) and Andy (Murray). We have dropped off. Maybe in 10 years, we will have another wave.”

Or another lady who slaps her thighs waiting for a serve.

4:50PM

LeBron? At Wimbledon, don’t ask Venus Williams

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — LeBron? Of course we’re at Wimbledon, and he’s some 5,000 miles away. But the world of sport is international, and what else was there to ask Venus Williams, a lady of many shots — especially serves — and few words.

Venus on Monday, opening day of this 132nd Wimbledon, defeated Johanna Larsen, 6-7 (3), 6-2, 6-1, which could be considered a big deal since Williams was down a set and had been eliminated in the first round of the last two Slams, the Australian and French.

Or could be considered nothing special because this grass court tennis at the All England Club is where Venus won women’s singles five times and was a finalist four other times.

Oh yes, younger sister Serena Williams, her daughter of eight months, Olympia, back at the room, also won on this day, beating Arantxa Rus, 7-5, 6-3, when, gasp, the temperature in Greater London climbed to 86 degrees.

Yet Serena, with her 23 Grand Slam titles and younger sibling boldness, will say about anything. Venus, however, gives brief answers, forcing the media to probe for any item that could be interesting, it not particularly newsworthy.

So right after Venus was questioned about the weather — “I live in Florida,“ she reminded — she was asked her thoughts about LeBron James signing with the Los Angeles Lakers, which must have bored the scribes from Britain, virtually the only country on this side of the Atlantic not a bit interested in basketball.

“I’m sure he’s happy, I guess,” was Venus’ one-size-fits-all sort of contradictory response about LeBron. “I don’t know. I actually don’t have any thoughts.”

So careful, so cautious, so unflagging. Venus is the grand dame of tennis. She’s 38. Broke in as a pro in 1994 at what is now Oracle Arena but then was the Oakland Coliseum Arena. Won her first Wimbledon in 2000.

Throw her a trick question and she whacks it away like an opponent’s poor lob, as when a journalist said, “I see something on a ring finger. Something new that we don’t know?”

“No, no,” said Venus. “I’ve been wearing this all year. You’ve got to be a little faster.”

At least nobody asked when she might retire. Tennis is her life. You think after overcoming that autoimmune malady, first diagnosed in 2011, she’s going pack it in now? To do what? Travel the world? That’s all tennis players do.

Larsson, of Sweden, is 58th in the WTA rankings, while Venus is ninth. “I honestly hadn’t played her before,” said Venus, who honestly had played her before, in 2013 in the Fed Cup. But you get old, the memory declines.

“She played well,” Williams said of Larsson, who’s a mere 29. “There were moments I could have played better and was just playing better in those moments in the last two sets.”

If Venus Williams needs tennis, then tennis, American tennis, needs Venus Williams. Sloan Stephens did win last year’s U.S. Open, making us believe she would be the next star and attraction. But Monday, Stephens, who holds the No. 4 ranking, was upset by Donna Vekic of Croatia. So much for the next generation.

We’ll go with the reliable, Venus, and Serena, who’s 36. Familiarity sells in individual sports, tennis and golf. Maybe it doesn’t matter who’s in centerfield for the A’s or Giants, or Yankees or Red Sox. But it matters who's on Centre Court at Wimbledon.

And so the tennis people, those in the United States, must be pleased when Venus makes one of those brief comments that, while telling us very little, in a way tells us a lot.

“I just hang in there,” Venus said when asked how she remains consistent tournament after tournament, although until Monday her consistency in this year’s majors was to lose quickly.

“I’m not sure why any other people go up or down. Every day is not your best match, but you try to win that match anyway.”

The men’s tour, the ATP, added a new event for January, a variation of team tennis.

“I don’t read any news,” said Venus, quickly cutting off any chance of a debate. “I don’t know what’s happening on the (men’s) tour.”

At least she knew what was happening to LeBron James, apparently. Next question.

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.