Serena Williams now out of Rome, too

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Serena Williams has been busy on social media, plugging her sponsors and projects – of late, in particular, her docu-series currently running on HBO.

And, of course, her adorable baby girl.

What has received barely a mention? Her tennis.

The last pure tennis posting came more than two months ago, when Williams officially announced her return to the Tour at Indian Wells.

And even that had a promotion for her Serena gold-toned “S” pin, supporting the resource center named for her late sister Yetunde Price.

So she’s coming back. When? That’s still an open question.

Williams travelled to Europe and  has been training at coach Patrick Mouratoglou’s academy.

But she opted not to return this week in Madrid, judging she needed more practice time.

And now, it won’t be in Rome next week, either. Williams has pulled out of that tournament as well.

(Rome, it should be mentioned, was the city where she met her husband Alexis Ohanian, and also the city where he proposed).

She remains entered in the French Open, which begins in less than three weeks.

But unless Williams decides to take a wild card into one of the last tuneup events the week before, in Strasbourg, France or Nürnberg, Germany, she will go in without a single match on clay since she lost in the 2016 Roland Garros final to Garbiñe Muguruza.

Her last match, the fourth match since her comeback after maternity leave, was a first-round loss to Japan’s Naomi Osaka in Miami, on March 22.

 

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Serena, Azarenka enter Madrid and Rome

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After playing Indian Wells on wild cards, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka have both entered Madrid.

But this time, they are using their special protected rankings.

For Williams, that ranking is No. 1, and it puts her on the list directly behind the actual No. 1, Simona Halep.

For Azarenka, that’s No. 6. And that puts the Belarussian, who is in the semifinals of the Miami Open this week, between Jelena Ostapenko and No. 7 Caroline Garcia on the list.

Neither player has entered any tournaments before Madrid, which takes place the week of May 5-12. That includes Stuttgart, the prestigious indoor clay event that attracts a very strong field.

Of course, that could change. Should either want to play, no doubt a wild card would be forthcoming.

Madrid, then Rome

The two also have entered Rome, also with those protected rankings.

Azarenka has already signed on for the French Open. Williams has not – at least, not yet.

The deadline for the second Grand Slam of the season is April 16.

Azarenka entered several tournaments over the summer of 2017 through early 2018, including the Australian Open. But she ended up not playing any of them because of her well-documented issues with the custody of her son, Leo

At last word, Azarenka could not bring her son outside the state of California. But if her appearance in Miami hopefully indicated a decision to return to play on a more full-time basis, she was quite non-committal about it after losing her semifinal match to Sloane Stephens Thursday.

From the sound of it, she really doesn’t know what her next move will be.

Maria Sharapova, who withdrew from Miami with her recurring forearm injury, has entered Stuttgart, Madrid, Rome and the French Open. 

Father on hand as Serena faces Osaka (video)

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MIAMI, Fla. – Richard Williams, the father of Serena and Venus, was on hand Wednesday as his youngest daughter prepared for a tough first-round opener against Indian Wells champion Naomi Osaka at the Miami Open.

Now 76, Williams looked well, if a little frail.

There have been reports he was seriously ill, had suffered a stroke during Wimbledon in 2016.

Although given that information came from estranged wife Lakeisha, with whom he is enjoying a rather contentious divorce, take it for what it’s worth.

Williams and Lakeisha Williams’s divorce is scheduled for a jury trial in September or October, with the date to be set in mid-August.

Here’s a little taste of Williams’ warmup. 

Draw gods cruel as Osaka gets Serena in Miami

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The Indian Wells runs by finalist Daria Kasatkina and champion Naomi Osaka were a superb breath of fresh air for the WTA Tour.

The two sparkling 20-year-olds ran through many of the top players of the last decade on their way to the final Sunday, even if the final was somewhat of an anticlimax.

But getting to the top isn’t nearly as hard as staying there.

Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki, Karolina Pliskova, Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber and Venus Williams – all of whom fell to the two youngsters this week – have demonstrated that staying power, to various degrees.

They know, from experience, that it’s not what you do this week. It’s what you do next week, and the week after that, and the week after that.

Osaka is about to find out exactly what a challenge that is as she heads to the Miami Open. Because the draw gods have been particularly cruel to her.

After getting Maria Sharapova in the first round at Indian Wells, Osaka has drawn … the unseeded Serena Williams in the first round of the Miami Open.

That is just plain mean. For both of them.

A perfect draw storm

It might not have happened, but for the fact that the Miami tournament and the BNP Paribas Open are back-to-back. The 10-day span of the second straight Premier Mandatory event means Osaka’s pre-Indian Wells ranking is still used for seeding purposes.

That’s not just for Osaka, of course, but for all the players.

The Japanese No. 1 will be ranked No. 22 on Monday. But she was ranked No. 44 coming in, therefore was not the recipient of a first-round bye. Had Monday’s rankings been an option, she would not have had to face anyone – let alone eight-time Miami Open champ Williams – in the first round.

It also would have given her an extra couple of days to rest, process and make the significant adjustment from the weather and surface in the desert to the humid conditions in Miami.

Williams, whose official ranking stands at No. 495 after the BNP Paribas Open, can use a protected ranking to enter tournaments (although she received a wild card in Miami). 

But protected rankings do not allow for a player to be seeded. So for the moment, the longtime No. 1 will be a rank-and-file player in the draw of every tournament she plays.

Waiting for the winner  of Osaka vs. Williams will be Elina Svitolina, the world No. 4. So that’s no picnic for her, either.

That is one tough section of the draw. And two of them will be out before the tournament gets through the first weekend.

Kasatkina gets some draw luck

Contrast that with the first-round match that has two teenaged wild cards and 2017 Grand Slam junior champions, Whitney Osuigwe and Claire Liu, facing off. Or wild card Bernarda Pera and Lara Arruabarrena. Or even … qualifier vs. qualifier. 

Kasatkina, who went down rather meekly in Sunday’s final just two days after outlasting Venus Williams in the best women’s match of the tournament, got the better end of the deal in Miami.

By far.

She will be No. 11 in the world on Monday. Still, her pre-Indian Wells ranking puts her as the No. 19 seed in Miami. She has a first-round bye and will play the winner of Belinda Bencic and a qualifier in the second round.

The Miami draw holds plenty of intrigue from the very first rounds, as the other dangerous wild card, Victoria Azarenka, will meet American teenager CiCi Bellis in the first round. The winner of that will play the struggling Madison Keys.

Serena, Azarenka head Miami WC list

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – The Miami Open announced its main-draw and qualifying-draw wild cards Wednesday.

And it confirms, as she indicated following her defeat at Indian Wells, that Victoria Azarenka will follow up with a second tournament in Miami.

Azarenka was given a wild card along with Serena Williams, who has won the event eight times.

American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who was the No. 1 doubles player in the world before a horrible knee injury suffered at Wimbledon kept her out seven months, has also been given a singles wild card.

Amanda Anisimova, the 16-year-old who reached the fourth round this week at Indian Wells (and is a client of IMG, which owns the Miami event) also gets one along with ITF junior world champion Whitney Osuigwe, junior Wimbledon champion Claire Liu, and Bernarda Pera, the Croatian-turned-American who impressed at the Australian Open in January.

Ajla Tomljanovic, the Croatian-turned-Australian who is based in Boca Raton, Fla., also received a wild card. Roberta Vinci, who is retiring this spring, was given a wild card into the qualifying tournament.

Men’s wild cards skew young

On the men’s side, the wild cards are definitely Next-Gen – and international.

Christopher Eubanks (USA), Nicola Kuhn (Spain), Mikael Ymer (Sweden), Miomir Kecmanovic (Serbia) and Nicolas Jarry (Chile) all received wild cards.

Notable among those who did not receive free passes is Miami resident Genie Bouchard, who did get one this week at Indian Wells.

Currently ranked No. 116, Bouchard has never played the qualifying in Miami. She was in the main draw there from her first appearance in 2013, when she was ranked No. 123 and taking her first steps as a pro. That year, she did receive a wild card.

Also notable is the absence of former Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli, who announced she was coming out of retirement and hoped to make her return in Miami.

That, now, will not happen. Bartoli does hold another wild card in Monterrey, Mexico the following week.

Here’s the compete list.

Men’s Main Draw

Nicola Kuhn
Mikael Ymer
Chris Eubanks
Miomir Kecmanovic
Nicolas Jarry

Women’s Main Draw

Serena Williams
Victoria Azarenka
Claire Liu
Amanda Anisimova
Whitney Osuigwe
Bernarda Pera
Bethanie Mattek-Sands
Ajla Tomljanovic

Men’s Qualifying

Joao Souza
Casper Ruud
Axel Geller
Elias Ymer
Patrick Kypson

Women’s Qualifying

Ann Li
Antonia Lottner
Katie Boulter
Tereza Smitkova
Allie Kiick
Xiyu Wang
Roberta Vinci
Emiliana Arango

Venus prevails in too-early sisters clash

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – For the 29th time as professionals, sisters Venus and Serena Williams met on a tennis court Monday night.

It was the third round of the BNP Paribas Open.

And it was the earliest the sisters – who seemed, until life intervened, destined to meet in every Grand Slam final for forever – had met since their very first meeting in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open.

That was more than 20 years ago. And each meeting since then has had its own story, a distinct chapter in a book with pages of footnotes with hidden subtexts that only two people on the planet could ever understand.

In this case, it was younger sister Serena’s first tournament back in nearly 14 months, after a baby and a wedding and some frightening post-birth complications. The last time they met, in the 2017 Australian Open final, the two shared a secret known to few: Serena was already expecting little Alexis Olympia.

Big sister prevails

Venus won, for only the second time in their last nine meetings, the 12th in 29 total meetings.

prevailsThe 6-3, 6-4 score was made more competitive by the elder sister’s failure to serve out the match at the first time of asking. Very nearly, she failed to serve it out the second time as well. 

But she did, with her serve reaching 120 mph on a regular basis. Venus won just four more points than Serena overall – we can use first names here, because chair umpire Juan Zhang decided to go that route.

But it didn’t seem that close. It felt this close to a Serena breakthrough moment at times. But while there were flashes, she “isn’t there yet”, as she has reiterated a few times this week.

“I think this is the best she’s played in a while. She didn’t make a lot of errors. She served very consistently. You know, she just did everything great. For her, I think it was a really good match,” Serena said.

“Her level is super high and it was very difficult to close out the match, just getting one ball back. Like I said, I have had a few more matches. Even though I haven’t even played that much this year, the matches in the last year count,” Venus said.

In their own bubbles

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The two sisters were transported to the stadium for the evening-session match via golf cart. This is general practice: the players share a cart, studiously avoiding each other, sometimes buried deep in their Beats headphones. 

That ride, shown on the big screen inside the stadium, seemed endless even to those who watched. Even with the company, it seems such a lonely ride.

prevailsVenus was in the second seat, Serena hanging on the open bench facing in the opposite direction. Their backs were to each other. They didn’t speak.

As they took the court, Serena entered first, Venus last, the privilege granted to the higher-ranked player.

And it’s the first time it would have happened since 2002 Wimbledon, when Venus was No. 1 and Serena was No. 2. (They don’t introduce the players as they walk on the famed Wimbledon Centre Court, a subtle distinction).

Serena kept Venus waiting, big sister at the net ready for the coin toss while little sister fussed with her sports drinks and made sure the plastic bag they came in was properly disposed of.

Once there, they didn’t look at each other. They posed for the obligatory net photos like two strangers. Venus had a slight smile; Serena had a sort of a tense-looking smirk. Venus’s left arm and Serena’s right may have been slightly touching. Or perhaps not.

And then, it took 14 minutes to play the first two games, seven minutes and 35 seconds for Serena to hold serve in the second game.

So much unknown

When Venus beat Serena at Wimbledon in 2008, little sister did not take it well at all even if she did have a hug for her big sister at the net. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Among all their matches, it might have been one of the ones with the more unpredictable outcome.

Logic dictated that Venus, who had a superb 2017 and a lot more match play in her tennis bones, would have a relatively easy time of it.

Serena always calls her sister her toughest opponent – even when she’s going full throttle. So the added elements of the new mother’s return would just make it even more challening.

But Venus had played just two official tour matches so far in 2018 – both in Australia in January – and had lost both. So she wasn’t exactly match tough even if she did post two wins in Fed Cup last month, over two Dutch players ranked outside the top 100.

And it’s Serena, so you never know.

The occasion might have summoned up an hour or so of vintage play, enough to remind her big sister of her eight losses in their last nine meetings. Serena has often played her best tennis against her sister because she feels, more than with any other opponent, that she has to.

While big sister has always been gracious in defeat, and sometimes of late their matches had that air of inevitability, little sister Serena has never felt that way.

As with most little sisters, Serena always wanted to win.

Serenity for Serena, and an early test

prevailsWhen Venus won their 2008 Wimbledon clash, Serena could barely look at her, barely summon up a smile for a beloved sister who won what would turn out to be the last of her five WImbledon titles, and her perhaps her final major title. Her competitiveness is peerless.

This time, when it was over, the hug was genuine. And Serena was sanguine.

“You know, it’s good that I don’t have to say that this is the best tennis I have ever played – and I lost. My room for improvement is incredible. So I have just got to keep saying each tournament my goal is just to be better than the last,” Serena said.

She faced the opponent who always gives her the best measure of what she needs to do, where she needs to be. Now, she knows. So it’s back to work for 10 days or so before Miami.

“I haven’t played in over a year. It’s definitely not less disappointing. I wish it were, but it’s not. But then again, I (don’t) wish it wasn’t. Then I wouldn’t be who I am,” Serena said. “Yeah, so I just have a long way to go, and I’m looking forward to the journey

Serena back at it Friday (video)

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – A little more than 12 hours after her successful return to court Thursday night at the BNP Paribas Open, it was back to business as usual on the practice court for Serena Williams.

Basic black seems to be the theme for the week, but the voluminous coiffure from Thursday night’s match tied up nearly for work time.

At the end of the video, Williams and hitting partner Jarmere Jenkins play a game of “no miss”.

Not sure if they were going by number of hits, or time elapsed. But the number of hits, we can attest personally, came out to … 119 before Jenkins missed into the net.

He missed long a few times as well before that, but Williams handled it.

A lot of tennis players could do that 119 times, if they’re any good at all. But few of us can do it at that pace (and without passing out). Williams didn’t run that much – it’s a fairly cooperative exercise – but she seemed barely out of breath.

Here’s what 119 looks like.

Some pics as well.

On comeback night, Serena asked about drugs

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – The first match of the next phase of Serena Williams’ career – the one that includes a husband and baby – began Thursday night at the BNP Paribas Open.

The victory over Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan, while a straight-set, 7-5, 6-3 win, had its solid moments and its rocky moments.

But the ice is broken now. And 14 months after her last match, the Australian Open women’s singles final against sister Venus, the 36-year-old is back.

The questions during her press conference were mostly the expected ones, and Williams seemed in particularly expansive form in answering them.

But one member of the credentialed media chose this night to ask Williams about the backdated therapeutic-use exemption she was granted nearly three years ago, at the 2015 French Open.

The TUE was part of the batch of documents leaked by the Fancy Bear hacker group shortly after the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.

Williams answered firmly, passionately about her belief in competing clean – especially now that she’s a mother, but also before that.

Listen here:

Williams said that she needed the TUE to be able to take a decongestant because without it, there was no way she would be able to play the French Open final.

She was indeed, very sick at the time – constantly hacking. The TUE was for prednisolone; the leaked document dated June 8, 2015 for a six-day exemption between June 5 and June 10.

June 8, 2015 – it should be noted – was a Monday. It’s more than likely, given the way these organizations operate, that they wouldn’t have officially issued the document over the weekend. But they may well have issued a verbal or official consent for Williams to take the medication.

At any rate, Williams used the inopportune opportunity to give a clear, strong statement about how she feels about competing clean.

The GMOAT hits on Stadium 1

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Serena Williams is in the house.

The 36-year-old hosted a charity tennis event Tuesday – straight off an appearance at the first all-female Tie Break Tens event at Madison Square Garden in New York City,.

Wednesday morning, she had her first hit at the BNP Paribas Open in the relatively private confines of the main stadium.

Williams, unseeded, was one of the dangerous floaters – probably THE most dangerous floaters in a draw that contains several.

The way the draw, which took place Monday, shook out, she ended up drawing Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan in the first round.

No first-round bye

To put it all in perspective, Williams probably doesn’t even remember what it’s like to PLAY a first round at Indian Wells, especially because she didn’t play the event from 2002 until her return in 2015.

With its 96-player draw, the 32 seeded players now have first-round byes.

The last time it happened was … 1999, when the Indian Wells draw was just 64 players. Williams, then 17, beat Jessica Steck of South Africa in the first round and upset world No. 2 Lindsay Davenport in the second round. She went all the way to the title, beating No. 5 seed Steffi Graf 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 in the final.

Here’s what she looked like on court this morning.

Venus, Serena to play Fed Cup in NC

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MELBOURNE, Australia – Serena Williams will make her official return to tennis playing for her country.

The USTA announced Tuesday that Serena, sister Venus and Coco Vandeweghe are the first three nominees for the USA’s World Group I first-round tie against the Netherlands.

Asheville, NC, not too far from the sisters’ homes in Florida, will host the tie.

Their participation will undoubtedly give the event a boost even if the US team, minus the sisters, are the reigning Fed Cup champions after defeating Belarus in the final last November. And according to the venue’s ticketing website, it appears the 5,000 or seats for the two day event Feb. 10 and 11 are already gone.

So the Williams sisters are just value added. 

For them, it has the added bonus of counting towards their eligibility for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, without having to compromise their tournament schedule or involve much additional travel.

Vandeweghe was the top gun during the successful 2017 campaign.  The USTA will name the fourth member of the squad at a later date.

She’s finally back

Serena Williams hasn’t played an official match since winning last year’s Australian Open while two months’ pregnant. She returned exhibition in Abu Dhabi a few weeks ago against Jelena Ostapenko, but chose not to come to Australia for the first Grand Slam of the season while she continued to get match-fit after some tough postpartum health issues.

The original posters advertising the first-round Davis Cup tie in North Carolina didn’t have the Williams sisters. Ticket sales were still impressive.

She has played relatively little for the US during her long career. Serena has played Fed Cup only in six seasons: 1999, 2003, 2007, 2012, 2013 and 2015 (the first three came the year before an Olympic year).

Her last matches were nearly three years ago in Brindisi, Italy, a playoff tie to earn a promotion for the U.S. into World Group I.

Williams won both her rubbers against Camila Giorgi and Sara Errani. But Lauren Davis and then Christina McHale were unable to win the third, deciding singles rubber. And even Williams’ participation in the deciding doubles with Alison Riske wasn’t enough; they lost to Sara Errani and Flavia Pennetta, and won just three games.

This will be the 10th year Venus Williams has played Fed Cup. But it will be her first tie since a quarterfinal round two years ago in Hawaii, right after the 2016 Australian Open. The U.S. easily defeated a Polish team that was without Agnieszka Radwanska on that occasion.

The Netherlands are led by Kiki Bertens, who was the No. 30 seed at the Australian Open and lost to No. 2 seed Caroline Wozniacki in the third round.