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8:50PM

Venus and Serena: This could be the last time

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — You waited through the afternoon, watched the sisters who have become such a large and magnificent part of tennis, of American sport, Venus and Serena Williams, back to back, on the same grand court in the same Grand Slam tournament, the U.S. Open. 

And the words of that Rolling Stones song kept repeating in the mind: This could be the last time.

This could be the last time in one of the four major championships that their play and the draw — and scheduling by shrewd tournament officials — combine for a box-office attraction like we had Monday.

Venus is reaching that stage, age 36, where her game is not what it used to be. She was beaten in her fourth-round match, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 (3) by Karolina Pliskova, the Czech who finally escaped her nerves and the third round of a Slam. Venus won’t retire — “I love what I do,” she said — but neither will she regain what she once had.

Serena still is the best of the women, ranked No. 1, and with her tidy victory over Yaroslava Shvedova, 6-2, 6-3, has won more Grand Slam matches 308, than anyone in history, male or female. 

But the days when Serena and Venus are on the same court in a Slam, either facing each other, as they have 27 times, or playing consecutive matches — on, say, Centre Court at Wimbledon or Arthur Ashe at the Open — regrettably are finished.

So it was probably expected after Venus' defeat that she would be asked if she would walk up, above the interview room, to Ashe court to watch Serena, whose match was underway. “I haven’t thought about that,” said Venus. “I still have other stuff to do. Maybe she will win quickly, and then I won’t have to think about it.”

Serena did win quickly, and someone wondered if she had followed Venus’ match. “I was really trying to warm up,” said Serena. “I really get nervous when I watch. So I didn’t get to see much. I knew that she lost when it was over, but I didn’t really watch what was going on.”

What was going on was the writing of yet another chapter of sports inevitability, a potential young star — Pliskova is 24 — taking the stage while the older, familiar player is moved out of the spotlight. Venus still can compete, but not like before.

The crowd at 23,000-seat Ashe probably was cheering for itself as much as it was for Venus. We’re all trying to hang on to the present, which all too soon becomes the past. Only days ago it seems Venus was the teenager on her way up. Now she’s the veteran. This was her 18th U.S. Open.

Venus showed her courage, down triple-match point in the 11th game of the third set and breaking Pliskova to get even at 6-6. Then Venus showed her vulnerability, making mistakes in the tiebreaker that she wouldn’t have made a decade ago.

“I think (in) the breaker I went for a little bit more,” she said of her tactics, “but I didn’t put the ball in enough. You know I went for some aggressive shots, didn’t necessarily put them in.

“She played a great game. I was going to try and stay in there, continue to get points.”

That’s the way opponents used to talk after they lost to a younger Venus.

“I did what I could when I could,” was Venus’ assessment. “That’s the match.” Once upon a time, Venus did what she wanted.

Which basically is what Serena has been doing the last few years, winning Wimbledon in July, a 22nd Slam triumph to tie Steffi Graf for second on the all-time list. There have been stumbles — "hiccups" is the tennis term — such as last year’s U.S. Open, when Serena was upset by Roberta Vinci in the semifinals. For the most part, she’s stomped along.

“I feel like I’m going out there and doing what I need to do,” said Serena, now in the quarterfinals. “I’m not overplaying. I’m not underplaying. I’m just trying to play my way into this tournament.”

She’s done that. On Monday, she followed older sister Venus onto the big court at the big time in the big city to complete a double-bill that we may have very well seen for the last time.

4:55PM

Rain on the new Open roof — and noise underneath

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — People seem to be fascinated by what’s over their heads. Didn’t the Drifters have a hit song in the 1960s, “Up on the Roof"? And every time there’s a new stadium that’s under cover, such as the Astrodome, bless its history, or an old stadium that’s under new cover, such as Wimbledon Centre Court, we’re enthralled.

When the Astrodome opened in 1965 with an exhibition game between the Astros (neé the Colt .45s) and the Yankees, there was a home run by Mickey Mantle and complaints that no one could see the ball through the then-translucent roof. Still, so enamored were we by the structure that it was proclaimed the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Such naiveté.

Now there are domed stadia, ballparks and arenas, some of the coverings permanent, some retractable, from Seattle (Safeco Field, retractable) to New Orleans (the Superdome, permanent). And still we can’t get enough, especially the officials who have a new toy.

Centre Court at Wimbledon needed a roof practically since Victoria was queen of England. The 2000 men’s final, won by Pete Sampras, was halted so many times by rain it lasted seven hours. Naturally, when at last the $120 million retractable covering was ready, for the 2009 tournament, the weather was beautiful until early in the second week a few drops dripped. Elation. Close the roof. Thank you, Mother Nature.

So it was here at Flushing Meadows for the U.S. Open tennis championships. Five years running, 2010-14, the men’s final had to be delayed or postponed by everything from hurricanes to drizzles. Call in the architects. The new roof over the main court, at 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, was finished a few weeks ago. U.S. Tennis Association officials even had media previews of the closing and opening.

Hey, if you can’t interview Roger Federer, that’s the next best thing.

All day Monday and Tuesday, like people watching for an invading force, Open execs searched the skies for even a cloud. Nothing. Finally, Wednesday, it turned. A bit of rain Wednesday evening. A great deal of joy for the USTA, if not for Rafael Nadal and Andreas Seppi, who competed in the first indoor match ever for the Open. If not the last.

Thursday was wet, and play was chased from the outdoor courts for a long while. But not from Ashe, where the stars performed. Andy Murray, the No. 2 seed, beat Marcel Granollers in straight sets. Then Venus Williams won over Julia Georges. It was different, but it was tennis.

No roars from jets ascending from LaGuardia but a constant din, like 5,000 crickets chirping or neighbors talking gossip across the back fence. As at all roofed stadiums, whatever the sport, the noise was unavoidable, although not particularly irritating.

“I don’t think it was too different to the other night when I played,” said Murray, referring to Tuesday, when he played the late match with the roof open at the Open. “But when the rain came, it was certainly loud.”

Murray the Brit (he’s Scottish not English) not surprisingly was selected on that night in June 2009 to be part of first full match under the Wimbledon roof. There were gasps and then cheers when the mechanism was deployed.

Murray was not totally overjoyed by what he heard at Arthur Ashe Stadium, or more specifically what he didn’t hear. It’s as if the tennis is being played in a hangar.

“You can’t hear anything, really,” said Murray. “I mean you could hear the line calls but not so much when the opponents — you know, when he was hitting the ball or you were hitting the ball.

“We’re not used to it. That’s what make it so challenging. Because we use our ears when we play. It’s not just the eyes. It helps us pick up the speed of the ball, the spin that’s on the ball, how hard someone’s hitting it.”

Venus Williams, in her 18th U.S. Open, was unperturbed by what others considered by the noise or anything else.

“You know,” she said about the pre-roofed Ashe Stadium, “there was a lot of noise last year. Over time you start to forget about the noise. So I think as a player, the higher the stakes the less you year. I do enjoy the quiet.”

To which one must add, “Shhhh.”

8:28PM

Venus Williams remains ageless and remarkable

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — The years go on and, for Venus Williams, so do the games. She is long past the point of no return — and interpret that any way you choose. The serves no longer are ferocious, but they are effective. More importantly, her tennis is timeless.

No one asks her when she’ll retire. Or even if she’ll retire. And why should she?

Venus can live with the game she plays at 36, which unsurprisingly isn’t the one she had at 26. If there are no more Grand Slam championships, there at least is a sense of accomplishment.

It’s her younger sister, Serena, who has been atop the women’s tennis stairway, the way 15 years ago Venus was in that enviable position. On Monday, Venus, in her opening match of the 2016 U.S. Open, was in the final slot of the afternoon program at Arthur Ashe Court, a winner, if not easily, 6-2, 5-7, 6-4, in 2 hours and 42 minutes over Kateryna Kozlova of the Ukraine.

Then, when Venus was being debriefed in the main interview room below the stadium, Serena, the No. 1 seed, was on court, defeating Ekaterina Makarova of Russia, 6-3, 6-3.

“I always admired her game,” Venus said in sisterly admiration of Serena, who will be 35 in September. “Just so fearless.”

Of Venus, we could say, just so amazing. Tennis is a sport that wrenches wrists and ruins ankles and knees. No less, it wears out psyches. There comes a moment when a player, having hit balls since she or he was a child, says, “That’s it, enough.” But Venus never gets enough.

Maybe because she has a fashion house — the New York Times ran a full spread on the designing and planning of dresses and tops — which gets her far enough away from tennis that it’s almost an escape to get back. Not the other way around.

Venus has appeared in the four Grand Slam events a total of 72 times, more than anyone else. When told, she replied, “That’s crazy.” More accurately, that’s persistence.

“I’m grateful and I’m blessed,” she said about a career that began in a tournament at what then was the Oakland Coliseum Arena in 1994. “All I’m hoping for is just health that I can keep the record going.

“I don’t know when I’m going to stop playing. I don’t have any plans now. I’m playing too well to be thinking about stopping. I appear to be getting better and better each and every month.”

An exaggeration, but an allowable one. When in 2011 she disclosed she had been stricken with an autoimmune disorder, Sjogren’s syndrome, the suspicion was Williams was finished as a competitive player. And for a few tournaments she appeared to lack energy, although not intent.

Then these past few months, Williams for the first time in seven years made it to the Wimbledon semifinals, the finals of the Bank of the West Classic and, with Rajeev Ram, the finals of the Olympics mixed doubles, indicating that she still was a factor.

“As an athlete,” she said, “you’re always aiming for perfection. You want more and more. It’s never enough.”

That thought would be echoed by the American public, which in a sport built upon personalities and recognition, there are virtually no substitutes at the time for Venus or Serena, the one-two punch for every tournament in the U.S.

Asked what she loves the most about tennis, Venus had an emotional response. “I love that I love it,” she said. “So when you love something you put the work in.

“I love the challenge. Definitely I like the pressure. I like high stakes. All of that makes it just perfect for my personality.”

And makes Venus perfect for tennis. She’s ageless and remarkable, a legend who refuses to stop acting and playing like one. The game has been fortunate to have her.

8:50AM

Newsday (N.Y.): Serena Williams reaches Wimbledon final, but sister Venus ousted in semis

By Art Spander
Special to Newsday

WIMBLEDON, England — Serena Williams never lost her serve. Sister Venus had trouble even holding hers. And so one last all-Williams final at Wimbledon, where they’ve made so much history — and, in Serena’s case, still making it — is not to be.

Serena needed only 48 minutes to crush Russia’s bewildered Elena Vesnina, 6-2, 6-0, on Thursday in the first women’s semifinal on Centre Court, dropping only three of a possible 31 points on her serve. “Serve is very important for me,” Serena affirmed.

Read the full story here. 

Copyright © 2016 Newsday. All rights reserved.

12:22PM

Federer, Venus keep beating time Father Time — and opponents

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — It’s the old guy who’s taking the beating. Not Roger Federer. Not, on the ladies side, Venus Williams. It’s Father Time — Mother Time, if you will — getting smacked around like one of those official Slazenger balls they use at Wimbledon.

We keep hearing about the next generation, about the youth movement, about the future of tennis. So far this Wimbledon, future is very much of the past, of two players who, as Federer’s former coach Paul Annacone said about his onetime pupil, “wrestled Father Time to a stalemate.”

Federer did better than that against Marin Cilic, Thumped him but good. Came from two sets down in their quarter-final Wednesday, came from a situation where we were hoping Federer, a month from his 35th birthday, wouldn’t be embarrassed by Marin Cilic.

But it was Cilic who was not so much embarrassed as stunned. Federer saved three match points, beat Cilic 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-3, and now will face the Canadian Milos Raonic in one of Friday’s semis.

Venus, of course, advanced Tuesday. Her semi is Thursday against Angelique Kerber, and because Kerber — the Australian Open champion who beat Venus’ sister Serena in the final in January — is eight years younger than 36-year-old Venus, you’d think Kerber would win.

But we also thought Cilic, after winning the first two sets, would win. Especially because we thought Federer was too old. On the contrary, he’s too good. Maybe he doesn’t win an eighth Wimbledon. Maybe he doesn’t win an 18th Grand Slam. What he’s done is enough. Now and forever.

Federer saved seven breakpoints out of eight. Three of those were match points. Against Cilic, who won the U.S. Open in 2014, against a man with a huge serve and a big forehand. Against a player who had Federer off balance and out of sorts.

“Yeah, I mean I remember just being in trouble the whole time,” agreed Federer.

What others will remember is that Roger Federer somehow won a match even he was unsure he could win. “It’s not like, ‘Oh my God,’ all of a sudden there’s match point, all of a sudden there’s a breakpoint to save," he said. "It just was continuous, for an hour or two. After I lost the second set, anything you touch and do is crucial.

“You always know at that point, as well, he’s going to have his chances.”

Chances mean little unless they can be used to one’s advantage. “Huge disappointment for me losing this way,” said Cilic. How many times do you think that thought has appeared after matches against Federer? You have him beat. Then you don’t. All the magic without a rabbit or a hat.

“I managed to hit pretty good shots,” said Cilic, “but he ended up hitting great passes. Nothing that I could do there.”

In another semi, Raonic made Sam Querrey feel much the same. Querrey, who was born in San Francisco and grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, was the first American male to get to the Wimbledon quarters since Mardy Fish in 2011. Querrey had upset top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the third round. Against Raonic, he was always trailing — other than the third set.

“I felt like I had some momentum there,” said Querrey. “Had a breakpoint the first game of the fourth set. If I can somehow get that point, it might change the match around, move it more to 50-50. He threw in a good kick serve as a first serve, which he hadn’t done. Then I was back on my heels a little bit, kind of always playing catch up.”

Then Raonic was headed for a 6-4, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4 victory and a battle against Federer. “I’m happy to have another shot at him,” said Raonic. So, of course, was Cilic.

“He plays at a great level most of the time,” said Cilic of Federer. “His physique allows him to play an aggressive game. From the back court, players can’t hurt him.

“He’s not superhuman. But I don’t believe he’s slowing down. He possesses great speed. That’s something you’re born with.”

Whether he was born with a fighting spirit doesn’t matter. He has it. So does Venus Williams. They keep beating the old guy.