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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.

 

7:15PM

Time and Muguruza overwhelm Venus

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — The end was as depressing as the rest of Venus Williams’ historic career had been enlightening. She not only lost what likely could be the last Wimbledon final in which she plays, Williams was battered, perhaps as much by time as by her opponent, the new champion, Garbine Muguruza.

One moment Saturday, it seemed Williams was in control, a point away from breaking serve and winning the game and the first set. The next moment, she had lost nine straight games and the match, 7-5, 6-0 — yes, blanked, a bagel — and Muguruza playfully was balancing the trophy, the Venus Rosewater Dish, on her head.

Suddenly, at 37, Williams’ age seemed to catch up with her as much as Muguruza’s forehands.

Her attempt to become the oldest women’s champion in the open era, which began in 1968, and the second-oldest in the 131 years of Wimbledons, came to a shattering finish.

There were reminders of the final days of Joe Namath or Willie Mays, of a great athlete who had stayed too long at the fair, although Williams, just by getting as far as she did, winning her other six matches, showed she still belongs among the best.

The problem is the way she closed, or the way Muguruza closed out Williams.

“There’s errors and you can’t make them,” said Williams. ”I went for some big shots, and they didn’t land. I think she played amazing. I’ve had a great two weeks.”

That was it.

But on BBC television, John McEnroe, never short of opinions, wondered if Williams was feeling the effects of the autoimmune disease, Sjogren’s syndrome she announced she had in 2011 or the effects of the two weeks of competition.

“Her forehand let her down,” said McEnroe, the New Yorker who won Wimbledon three times. “Her legs looked old. She has Muguruza down 15-40 to win the first set, and it was like a punch in the gut.”

More like some beautiful ground strokes from Muguruza, who won a 19-stroke rally that appeared to deflate Williams.

When asked if she were tired, Williams, to her credit, only would say, “She played amazing.”

Muguruza is only the second Spaniard to take the women’s singles title of the All-England Lawn Tennis Championships. The other, Conchita Martinez, defeated another 37-year-old, Martina Navratilova, in the 1994 final. Martinez now is one of Muguruza’s coaches.

Navratilova won nine Wimbledons. Williams won five and, including this one, has been a finalist four other times. Venus’ younger sister, Serena, beat Muguruza in the 2015 final.

“She told me one day I’m going to win,” Muguruza said about Serena. “And here I am.”

The day began with a light rain, and so the folding translucent roof, installed above Centre Court before the 2009 tournament, was unfolded. That didn’t appear to make any difference except in crowd noise, although other than on Williams’ ‘thundering ace on the very first shot of the match the fans were relatively subdued until the closing games of the first set.

Then, as Venus faded and Muguruza took control, some began to shout encouragement — “Come on, Venus” — but it was of little use.

“Her mind, her body,” McEnroe said of Williams, “wasn’t up to the task.”

Williams lost in the semifinals last year and in January reached the finals of the Australian Open, only to lose to Serena, who then announced she was awaiting the birth of her first child and would not compete for a while. Venus will enter the U.S. Open next month at Flushing Meadows.

“Yeah, definitely now that I’m in good form,” she insisted. ”I’ve been in a position this year to contend for big titles. That’s the kind of position I want to keep putting myself in. It’s just about getting over the line. I believe I can do that.

“I like to win. I don’t want to just get to the final. It’s just about playing a little better.”

4:22PM

Newsday (N.Y.): Wimbledon: Venus Williams to face Garbine Muguruza in 9th final

3:43PM

Once again at Wimbledon, it’s the Age of Venus

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON,  England — She hasn’t changed all that much over the years. Venus Williams always acted with a sense of responsibility. Played that way too. Younger sister Serena, as younger offspring often tend to be, was more emotional, more expressive, more likely to say or do, well, just about anything.

Venus, however, was measured, in actions and words. She never would have worn a T-shirt to a press conference with a double-entendre, as Serena did at Wimbledon. Wouldn’t have chewed out a linesperson with a burst of obscenities, as Serena did at the U.S. Open.

And yes, especially since 2011, when Venus disclosed she had the autoimmune disase Shjogren’s syndrome while Serena, in one stretch, won four consecutive Grand Slam events, Venus was somewhat in the shadows. Except in her own mind.

Retirement? Not a chance. “I mean,” she said Tuesday, “I love this game.”

An hour or so earlier, under the roof at Centre Court on the day the rain returned to Wimbledon, Venus defeated Jelena Ostapenko, 6-3, 7-5, in a quarterfinal. That Venus is 37 and Ostapenko is 20 meant nothing, except in terms of experience in a key match on the grass court.

Williams had years of it, Ostapenko only days.

Twenty years Venus has played at Wimbledon — starting in June 1997, weeks after Ostapenko was born. One hundred matches Venus has played at Wimbledon.

“It’s a beautiful game,” she said. ”It’s been good to me.”

As she and Serena, pregnant and not playing this Wimbledon, have been good for tennis, particularly American tennis.

Venus’ first pro match was in October 1994 at Oakland Arena, the building that later became Oracle Arena. She was the 14-year-old with her hair in beads, touted by her father, Richard, as a future great. As now many are touting Ostapenko, who won the French Open a month ago.

Ostapenko’s time should come. Venus’ time is now. Or maybe more accurately, then and now. She made it to the quarters in her second Wimbledon, 1998, and won it her fourth Wimbledon, 2000. And four times after that.

She’s the oldest woman to get to the semis since, as nine-time champ Martina Navratilova, doing commentary for BBC television, told the audience, “Me.”

Navratilova also was 37 that year. And made it to the finals, losing to Conchita Martinez.

For Venus to reach her first Wimbledon final since losing to Serena eight years ago, she will need to defeat Johanna Konta of Great Britain in their semifinal Thursday.

“I’m sure she’s confident and determined,” said Williams of Konta.

No more determined than Venus.

“I love the challenge,” Williams insisted. ”I love the pressure. It’s not always easy dealing with the pressure. There’s constant pressure. It’s only yourself who can have the answer for that.

“I love the last day you play. You’re still improving. It’s not something that’s stagnant. You have to get better. I love that.”

She had to love her serve, always the weapon. Venus started quickly, winning the first three games. Then in the second set, Ostapenko, having recovered her poise, seemed on the verge of at last breaking serve. But, zing, Venus powered an ace. It was going to be her game, set and match.

“I mean, she was playing good today,” said Ostapenko, who is from Latvia. “She was serving well. She was very tough to break. Because of that I had more pressure, because I had to keep my serve. I mean, she is a great player.”

And has been for two decades, a constant.

“It’s definitely a real asset,” Williams said of her serve. “Been working on that serve. Would like to think I can continue to rely on it as the matches continue.”

At the most, there are only two more matches.

“You do your best while you can,” said Williams. No flippancy, no arrogance. Just the straightforward comments of the older sister.

“I don’t think about age,” said Venus. ”I feel quite capable and powerful. Whatever age that is, as long as I feel like that then I know I can contend for titles every time.”

At Wimbledon once more, it’s the Age of Venus.