No Vika as Fed Cup final rosters revealed

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With her family issues ongoing back home in Los Angeles, the chances were remote that Victoria Azarenka would play.

But the announcement of the rosters for the Fed Cup final between Belarus and the U.S., to be played in Minsk Nov. 11-12, confirms it. They’re subject to change, of course.

On board for Belarus will be Aryna Sabalenka, Aliaksandra Sasnovich, Vera Lapko and Lidziya Marozava.

CoCo Vandeweghe, Sloane Stephens, Shelby Rogers and Alison Riske will make up the U.S. team.

Notable absentees include Venus Williams, who just wrapped her season Sunday at the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore, and Madison Keys.

Stephens and Riske replace the injured Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lauren Davis, who were on the squad that defeated the Czech Republic in the semifinals back in April.  Riske played the first round against Germany in early February.

Williams last played in the U.S.’s win over Poland in the quarterfinals in 2016. Keys, battling wrist issues, has played just once since 2014, in a playoff tie last year.

rosters

Tough year for Azarenka

For Azarenka, it has been a year to forget since Wimbledon. She had planned to take part in the WTA event in Luxembourg last month. But she found herself in court in California that week, part of the ongoing custody battle she’s facing with the father of her son Leo.

One deal-breaking issue has been the former No. 1 taking her son on the road with her when she plays tournaments. So the notion of bringing Leo back home to Belarus, where Azarenka has extensive connections, presumably would be exponentially out of the question.

It will be the first Fed Cup final for the U.S. since 2010. It will be the first Fed Cup final ever for Belarus.

The Americans are heavily favored, although recent form hasn’t been all that great.

Since the US Open, Vandeweghe had played just two tournaments (and won just one match) until defeating both opponents in her pool group at the Zhuhai event this week.

Stephens, who also is in Zhuhai, lost her first round-robin match to Anastasija Sevastova and plays Barbora Strycova Friday.

The US Open champion also had played two tournaments after New York, both first-round losses. She managed three games in one match, and four in the other.

Singapore WTA Tour Finals wrapup

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In the end, the WTA’s season finale in Singapore was a microcosm of the season on the women’s circuit.

One day, a player looked like a world beater.

The next day, she looked as though she didn’t belong anywhere near the top.

Poor followed very good and was followed by average in the order we came to expect in a topsy-turvy 2017.

But in the end, it was the two most seasoned players who came through.

Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams handled the almost-unplayable slowness of the Singapore court. They handled the round-robin format that seemed to stymie some of the younger players so programmed to the regular elimination format. 

And if Wozniacki held up the big trophy at the end, it was Williams who continued to write the story of the season.

The 37-year-old didn’t win the Player of the Year award – even in this season, you really had to win a major to get that one. But she deserved it.

A renaissance season for Venus

That Williams will finish No. 1 in prize money for 2017 speaks to her results. Among the players in the top 100, Williams played fewer weeks this year than anyone not sidelined with longer-term injuries (Stephens, Keys et al) or a suspension (Sharapova).

Williams’s longevity, her unquenchable and ongoing thirst for the fight, and her willingness to leave it all on the court despite the challenges she deals with continued in the season finale.

The tennis, mercifully, improved throughout the week. Perhaps the court sped up a little with regular use. Perhaps the players gradually adjusted to it. But in the end, the surface was a significant sidebar.

It allowed Wozniacki, a premier defensive player, to have the time she needed to do what she does best. And yet, even the 27-year-old Dane felt the urgency to finish off some points more quickly than she might have otherwise.

It’s been a long season.

The surface also hurt Williams, who found herself in some marathons earlier in the week and by the second set of the final, had simply run out of legs.

Disappearing doubles

On the doubles side, the decision last year to ditch the round-robin format used in singles and adopt a single-elimination format for the eight qualifying teams relegated it to a footnote for the week.

Had it not been for the retirement of Martina Hingis (who along with partner Yung-Jan Chan was eliminated in her second match, following her confirmation that this would indeed be her swan song), it might have passed virtually unnoticed.

For the four teams eliminated in the first round, the notion of working all season to get to Singapore, to fly all the way to Singapore, and to play just one match is a little unfair. 

But it was made necessary by the fluctuating crowd support in Singapore. 

The first edition in 2014 was a huge success on the attendance side. And while the WTA Tour kept the attendance figures on the down low in the intervening years (the numbers are not even available for 2016), they cut early-week day sessions. They cut the legends’ event. They reduced the “Rising Stars” component to a regional Asian event that also passed unnoticed.

(Remember 2015, when 22-year-old Caroline Garcia, already ranked No. 35, was considered a “rising star”? A little crazy. But a final between Garcia and Naomi Osaka that year certainly had more marquee value than this year’s finals between … Priska Nugroho and Pimrada Jattavapornvanit, and Megan Smith and Ya-Hsin Lee.)

Singapore results and grades

Singapore

[1] Simona Halep
Grade: C-

In her first round-robin match against Garcia, she looked like a world beater. It was Halep’s first match as the new world No. 1, and she played the part to perfection.

In her second, against Wozniacki, she won just two games. In her third, against Elina Svitolina, she won just seven games and was eliminated. 

She finishes the season ranked No. 1. But she didn’t finish it playing like a No. 1. Her challenge in 2018 will be to marry up those two concepts.

[2] Garbiñe Muguruza
Grade: C

The WTA Tour Player of the Year, the Wimbledon champion, didn’t finish her season the way she wanted to.

She began the week well against overwhelmed Singapore rookie Jelena Ostapenko. But then, it unraveled with a desultory loss to Karolina Pliskova. The defeat at the hands of Williams was a bruising one. Still, it was a straight-sets loss.

The Spaniard has the mien and posture of a champion. But there’s something missing. It seemed as though she might be the one to come through and take a firm grasp on the top spot, in this window of opportunity caused by the absence of so many champions. But it didn’t happen. It’s an ongoing mystery.

[3] Karolina Pliskova
Grade: B

With one-week coach Rennae Stubbs on board, the on-court coaching consults definitely took an uptick – especially for non-Czech speakers. Pliskova had already co-opted Barbora Strycova coach Tomas Krupa for 2018, so it can go no further. But hopefully some of the other players in Singapore will give it some consideration, because Stubbs, a great athlete who mastered the entire court during her career, has something to offer.

Pliskova looked like a world-beater against a rusty Williams in her first round. In her second, against Muguruza, she looked great again. But then she was crushed by Ostapenko in what essentially was a meaningless match (beyond the money and ranking points). At 25, with plenty of experience behind her and in her second tour of Singapore, Pliskova definitely should have handled that “dead rubber” match with more aplomb. 

[4] Elina Svitolina
Grade: C

Svitolina gets some slack because it was her first appearance at the Tour Finals. The players have to arrive early, do a lot of media and promotion. The entire routine of a tournament is completely turned upside down. The week before the matches actually begin must feel endless.

She was thrashed by Wozniacki in her first match. But she fought valiantly and played some very good tennis in her marathon loss to Garcia in her second match – arguably the match of the tournament. 

But it was clear at that point that she’d had enough. Faced with the possibility that she wasn’t yet out of contention for the weekend after that match, her attitude and words suggested she’d just as soon not even entertain that notion. That’s not what you want to hear from one of the eight best players in the world.

[5] Venus Williams
Grade: A+

In the absence of her sister Serena, you wonder how different this season would have looked without Williams’ throwback effort.

She created the spark in Singapore that was missing with the rest of the field (And that, despite a desultory and somewhat disrespectful effort in her press conferences; those on hand were only doing their jobs, and had travelled a long way to do them).

For the 37-year-old to win the whole thing would have been a storybook ending. It couldn’t quite happen. But in the end, she wasn’t the best player on the week. So it was fitting.

[6] Caroline Wozniacki
Grade: A+

Wozniacki won the biggest title of her career in Singapore. And it was a perfect marriage of surface and playing style.

The commentators were gushing with praise about how she was playing her best tennis ever. But if they paid more attention to her on a day-to-day basis, they might revise that. The Dane has been playing excellent tennis all year. If she fell a little short in most of her tournament finals, she nonetheless made eight of them this season. And she improved her ranking from No. 19 at the start of 2017 to No. 3 at the end.

The muddy court was ideal for arguably the best defensive player in the game. But it was her veteran’s ability to adjust her tactics to take best advantage of it that won her the title. Wozniacki took advantage of the opportunities that did present themselves in points, and added a little more when she needed to.

[7] Jelena Ostapenko
Grade: C

Of all the players in Singapore, Ostapenko’s 2018 season is going to be the most fascinating.

Her win at the French Open, while well-deserved, was aided by the inability of some of her colleagues to seize their moment. With her inexperience, and insouciance, she had no such baggage and was the last one left standing.

But even on the Singapore court, the weakness of her serve cost her. When Williams pounced on her second delivery with impunity later in their round-robin match, the carefree ability to hit winners took a hit. And the surface hurt her in the same way it helped Wozniacki; the winners were harder to come by. And when a player used to hitting those winners isn’t getting them, they try to add even more. And that led to errors.

Only in her final match did Ostapenko exhibit that insouciance again. But there was nothing at stake for her; she was going home regardless. That was telling. Again, as with Svitolina, it was her first trip.

As well, coach Anabel Medina Garrigues wasn’t there, having left to take the Fed Cup captaincy in Spain. A calming influence, Medina Garrigues can take some credit for that French Open victory. The next coach is going to have a tough act to follow.

[8] Caroline Garcia
Grade: A

The last to qualify for Singapore by virtue of back-to-back wins at big events in Wuhan and Beijing (and an injury to main competitor Johanna Konta), the WTA Tour Finals were a coming-out party.

Of all the Singapore rookies, she was the only one who clearly lived the experience to the fullest – win or lose.

Smiling, talkative, a battler on the court, perhaps the time is now for the French player of whom so much has been expected. She let her game flow for much of the week, and it was a beautiful thing.

Given how much tennis Garcia had played in the late stages to get there, her resistance through all those hours on the court was impressive. The three best matches of the week all had her on one side of the court.

Keys, Stephens win all-American day

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NEW YORK – Whatever happened, there was going to be an all-American women’s singles final Saturday at the US Open.

What was left to be determined Thursday was who the participants would be.

Among the embarrassment of American riches in the final four, only two could advance to the final day.

It was going to be either Venus Williams or Sloane Stephens. And it was going to be either Madison Keys or Coco Vandeweghe.

In the end, it was the two youngest – Stephens, 24 and Madison Keys, 22.

Both of them pulled off bravado performances of very different kinds in the semifinals.

First to get to the finish line was Stephens, who defeated Venus Williams 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 victory that had a little bit of everything.

By the third set, when both were playing well at the same time and giving it everything they had, it was nerve-wracking and dramatic and in doubt until the very end.

“I just wasn’t playing well. I just wasn’t playing well. Those are moments where you have to dig deep and figure out how to get the ball on the court and have a big game. I can’t be tentative and try to figure out how to put that ball in,” Williams said of that first set. “But I figured out a lot, but she played great defense. I haven’t played her in a long time. Clearly she’s seen me play many, many times. I haven’t seen her play as much.”

No solace for Venus

It didn’t matter what the question was, Williams wasn’t having much of it during her press conference. She wasn’t the least bit interested in talking about tributes, or about what a superb season she’s having, or any of that. She showed up to win, and she didn’t get the job done.

Keys
Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens, 13 years apart but neck-and-neck at the end to try to get to the US Open women’s singles final.

Williams was the sentimental choice who obviously won’t have that many more opportunities to win another major. But the 37-year-old ran out of legs in the end.

She made a lot of errors, but she didn’t have a lot of options. Whenever the rallies went past a certain length, Stephens won most of them. “Yeah, it was definitely well competed. In the end, she ended up, you know, winning more points than I did. That’s what it adds up to,” she said. 

A month ago, unthinkable

Stephens’  sub-900 ranking just over a month ago has been well-documented. And she needed to use a protected ranking just to get into the US Open, It will be a first Grand Slam singles final.  

It also will be the first for Keys, who crushed Coco Vandweghe 6-1, 6-2 in the nightcap.

“I think it’s amazing. I definitely never envisioned it happening this way, but I couldn’t think of a better person to have this first experience with,” Keys said.

Keys
Venus ran out of gas, though not out of will, by the end of the third set against Sloane Stephens Thursday.

After Williams came back with a roar in the second set, Stephens just tried to stay positive.

“I wasn’t making that many mistakes in the first set. Venus made a lot of errors. I think in the second set, obviously playing Venus, she’s an amazing competitor and she’s been here many times before. She wasn’t going to just give it to me. I think she really stepped up her game in the second set. I mean, you don’t expect anything else from multi-Grand Slam champion. She’s been here before,” Stephens said. “I tried just not to get too down on myself. I knew obviously in the third set I would have to fight my tail off and get my racket on every ball.”

All Keys, from first to last

If the first semifinal was dramatic, the second was one-way traffic – for Keys.

Madison Keys, despite a “something” in her right leg, was pretty sprightly after reaching the US Open women’s singles final Thursday.

The 22-year-old put up a performance of such quality and bravura over Coco Vandeweghe, there wasn’t a single solitary thing her countrywoman could do to stop her.

Even a medical timeout to have her right upper leg wrapped at 6-1, 4-1 didn’t interrupt Keys’ flow. All it did was take a match that would have lasted less than an hour and nudge it over the one-hour mark.

“None of it had anything to do with the occasion. It was more Madison played an unbelievable match. I didn’t really have much to do with anything out there,” Vandeweghe said. 

Vandeweghe was, needless to say, quite upset.

“She was playing a great first set. I thought at some point she might start running a little bit colder than what she was doing. But I mean, it’s really not over until the last point. I was fighting as hard as I could for as long as I could, but she stayed hot the whole time,” Vandeweghe added. “It’s a little bit frustrating right now how I’m feeling of that it wasn’t so much of my say-so. I don’t feel that way very often in my tennis, so I think it’s a little bit of an opportunity lost for me.”

Keys knew she couldn’t have done it much better.

“I played really, really well. It was kind of one of those days where I came out and I was kind of in a zone. And I just kind of forced myself to stay there. I knew I was going to have to play really well in order to beat her. And, you know, I feel like once things started going, it just kind of fell into place. Luckily I was able to close it out the way that I did,” she said. “

Venus, Stephens fly flag in double QF win

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NEW YORK – Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens did their part.

You’re up, Coco Vandeweghe and Madison Keys.

The 37-year-old Williams and the 24-year-old Stephens both survived third-set tiebreak wins by near-identical scores Tuesday at the US Open.

The fact that both advanced to the women’s singles semifinals, and will play each other, guarantees there will be at least one American woman in Saturday’s final.

In the day session, Stephens continued her wondrous month of winning with a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (4) victory over No. 16 seed Anastasija Sevastova. It is a run that has taken her from outside the top 900 in July to just outside the top 30 with her effort here.

She’s already almost all the way back to where she was before a foot injury suffered last summer required surgery in January. 

“A month ago, before I started winning a lot of matches, I was really worried, about my protected ranking, not having enough  tournaments, not being able to play,” Stephens said during her on-court interview. “Once I realized my life is good, I play tennis, I have fun every day, that relieved a lot of stress. I was able to play loose, play my game and – Bam! Semifinals.”

Stephens calm, cool and eager

StephensThe tennis during her win over Sevastova of Latvia wasn’t necessarily the best. But it was very good at times.

And the drama was topnotch as Stephens looked to be running out of energy in the middle of the second set.

But she fought. Calm-looking on the outside, there was nothing of the pre-absence Stephens who sometimes could look as though she wasn’t as invested in the outcome as maybe she should have been.

She was down a break in the third set – very nearly, two breaks. Stephens got that back, and then went down a break again.

The American kept running, even when her legs were probably telling her to stop. She fought as she never used to fight. And she won.

“Yeah, it’s incredible, amazing. Like I said before, if someone would have told me when I started at Wimbledon that I’d be in the semifinals or making, well, three semifinals back-to-back, I would have said they’re crazy. Just happy to be playing really well and happy that my foot is good and I don’t have any pain and my body is holding up,” she said. 

Venus v Kvitova: perseverance personified

Noisy Arthur Ashe Stadium was one-way traffic for Stephens’ match against Sevastova.

For the first night match, Williams had to face off against Petra Kvitova, already a popular player and one whose emotional and near-miraculous comeback from a horrific home invasion has struck a chord with tennis fans.

Still, this is America’s Slam. And Venus, at 37, perhaps has never been more appreciated or revered as she has thrived through some personal trials of her own.

Stephens

The tennis was superb, as it has so often been when these two power players have met before. Both women were on the attack – and both were fighting on defense with everything they had. Most of the points were short, and the velocity was breathtaking.

Up a set but down 0-3 in the second, the roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium was closed because of some expected thunderstorms. All that did was ensure the place would be even noisier by the time the players were deep into the third set.

By the end of it, Williams had several chances to break Kvitova and close it out at 5-6 in the third. She had an open court for her forehand, but she missed it in the net. She had a very makeable return on a second serve, but sent it sailing long.

So the momentum coming into the deciding tiebreaker was not with Williams.

Champion rises at key moment

But like a champion, Williams regained it with the snap of a finger and played an absolutely brilliant decider to win 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (2). She lost her visor in the middle of it. No matter. She was called for a foot fault on match point. No matter.

“Our last few matches, I mean, if you can imagine the quality of this match was high, I would say the others were even higher. A lot of times in those matches I just felt a little unlucky. Like she would hit these amazing shots out of nowhere, and all I could do was say, ‘well done’. I never really did anything wrong in those matches,” Williams said. “Sometimes you have opportunities and sometimes you take them and you don’t But it’s not like you get opportunity after opportunity after opportunity in these sorts of matches. You have to take the ones you have. I was happy to have a little more luck today, actually.”

Arthur Ashe Stadium opened 20 years ago, and that was Williams’ first US Open, as a 17-year-old. She made the final, losing to Martina Hingis. Williams won the single title in 2000 and 2001, but hasn’t come close again since making the final in 2002 – 15 years ago. She has reached the semis only twice since then.

Reaching the Australian Open final earlier this year was already quite a feat. Williams has won more matches at Grand Slam tournaments this year than any other player.

But winning in New York, at 37? Off the charts. 

Can she win two more?

“I think she can. I hope so, actually,” Kvitova said, smiling.

“Sport is, you know, a little microcosm of life, and it shows the human spirit, just being out there on the court, fighting against all odds. If you’re down, you keep going. Great champions came back from injuries or circumstances they could never have planned for,” Williams said. “You never know whose life you’ll touch just by being your best.”

Two more Americans Wednesday

Madison Keys and Coco Vandeweghe, the two Americans in the second set of quarterfinals Thursday, will have a tough act to follow after what Williams and Stephens did on Tursday.

StephensBut four Americans in the semifinals?

The younger folks might not remember. But for Williams, when she was coming up in the game, it was situation normal.

Perhaps, if you stick around long enough, everything good comes around again.

“There was a time in tennis, when all my rivals were American. (Jennifer) Capriati and (Lindsay) Davenport and Monica Seles. So I love to see these young Americans coming up playing big,” Williams said during her on-court interview after the match. “I would love to have that again – top four, top five playing in the semifinals.

“That would be huge.”

Venus d. Genie in packed Atlanta ATP exho

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It was definitely out-of-the-box thinking for a smaller ATP Tour event.

Typically, these tournaments will bring in some legends of the game to add some box-office bite.

But the BB&T Atlanta Open thought differently. It booked American tennis legend Venus Williams and Canadian Genie Bouchard to play an exhibition Sunday night.

The 250-level event, the first American hard-court tournament in the leadup to the US Open, officially begins main-draw action Monday.

The initiative was an instant success; the tickets moved in a hurry, and they even added more seats later, after the March launch.

Atlanta is a big-time tennis market that is vastly underserved by the professional game. As well, the city’s percentage of African-American residents (per the 2010 US Census) was 54 per cent.

Bringing in Venus was smart thinking. And they couldn’t know, back in March, that the 37-year-old would be coming in fresh off the Wimbledon ladies’ singles final.

 

When the men visited the women …

The only comparable cross-pollination of the men’s and women’s Tours was a misguided idea hatched by the Rogers Cup tournaments in Montreal and Toronto in 2013.

The women draw very good crowds in Toronto, especially by WTA Tour stand-alone standards. But nothing like they do in Montreal. And so the organizers decided it would be a “great” idea to fly in some of the early losers from the men’s event in Montreal to play an exhibition at the women’s event. They also had several men’s legends matches.

Feliciano Lopez and Bernard Tomic volunteered (for $20,000 US and expenses, of course).

Ironically, Venus Williams was a first-round loser at the women’s event in Toronto that year. But she wasn’t offered that same opportunity to go to Montreal and play an exhibition.

Luckily, the idea – which came up late in the game and with rather little fanfare and was the result of a government funding program – quickly was cross-checked going forward.

A full house in Atlanta

On Sunday night in Atlanta, the place was packed for the two women. They might not even get a crowd that good for the men’s final next Sunday.

For some photos of the two, click here.

The two players were premiering some summer kits. Bouchard was wearing the red and blue other Nike athletes were wearing in tournaments this week. Williams’ dress was, to say the least, spectacular.

Venus
Part of the exhibition gig is making nice with the more well-heeled patrons, which Williams and Bouchard did before the match.

Bouchard has had a busy week. After her first-round exit at Wimbleldon, she was in Las Vegas training with physical guru Gil Reyes (and hitting tennis balls under the watchful eye of Andre Agassi, too).

And then, she flew to New York City on Monday to do some Nike promotional work with golfer Michelle Wie.

The Canadian returned to Vegas for some more training before she headed to Atlanta for this one-night stand. Bouchard will play two World Team Tennis matches in New York City Thursday and Friday. She then will head to Washington, D.C. on the weekend for next week’s Citi Open.

Williams’s next stop is Philadelphia. She will play World Team Tennis Monday night.

It’s not a significant fact, but Williams defeated Bouchard 6-4, 7-6 (4).

Muguruza soars to first Wimbledon title

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WIMBLEDON – The women’s singles final was turning out to be everything you could hope for.

Then – suddenly, unexpectedly – it wasn’t.

It was a rout.

And 23-year-old Garbiñe Muguruza earned her first Wimbledon title, her second Grand Slam title, going away.

For the Spaniard, they may be many more. But on the other side of the net, 37-year-old Venus Williams may look back with regret the opportunity lost.

It was her best opportunity during a nine-year Grand Slam drought to hold up the big trophy once more.

And for reasons that may only ever be truly known to those close to her, she crumbled.

Early promise unfulfilled

Until 4-5 in the first set the final was a battle of shaky forehands at times. But the errors were interspersed with some baseline exchanges of breathtaking quality. It was a heavyweight battle of championship caliber.

Muguruza
Williams, alone with her thoughts for a brief moment during the trophy ceremony.

Williams had two set points, 15-40 at 4-5 on Muguruza’s serve.

A forehand into the net. A missed service return. Muguruza managed to hold.

Williams never won another game in the 7-5, 6-0 defeat.

The American’s forehand deserted her in the next game and as doubt settled into the mind, and the cumulative physical effort of six previous matches settled into her legs, her younger opponent’s championship mettle took over.

At 6-5, 30-15 as Muguruza served out the first set, Williams’s nerve failed her.

A great defensive retrieval by Muguruza went high in the air, heading for the corner of the court.

It was nowhere being an automatic out. But Williams’ feet didn’t move. It was a “Oh, please, let that ball be out” moment.

Except it wasn’t. And when it took a sideways hop off the court, it was too late for Williams to recover. One point later, the first set went to Muguruza.

“Yeah, I went out there and maybe I was too aggressive, you know, too hungry to win the point. I was missing few shots maybe too early. But they were long, so I was not that worried because I knew that eventually they were going to go inside maybe deep. So with the match and feeling more comfortable, feeling more in the court, they were getting in,” Muguruza said. “I thought it was just a matter of time, of going through the first nerves of the match, then that’s it.”

Was that the moment Venus, in her own mind, knew it was over?

Second-set disaster

A match is never over until the handshake. But as the second set began, Williams was pressing.

She double-faulted into the net – her service motion collapsing down as it has done, at times, in key moments during her career.

At 0-2, Williams threw all caution to the wind, but not necessarily in a good way.

Muguruza had come to the net more than Williams in the first set, mirroring their forward-thinking efforts through the fortnight.

But now, Williams was doing it out of desperation, illogically, foolheartedly.

Had the legs run out of steam in her seventh match in less than two weeks?

Perhaps.

Was she panicking as she saw this golden opportunity to hold up the namesake Venus Rosewater dish above her head one last time slip away?

Even for a time-tested veteran of so many tennis battles, that possibility can’t be discounted.

Williams was behind the baseline on some of those attempts, which seemed to be more a matter of bailing out of rallies than being aggressive in a positive way. At times, she didn’t even get near the service line on the way up, making the passing shots elementary. On one butchered volley, facing yet another break point, the feet never got sorted and the miss was monumental.

The message it sent to her opponent was resounding.

Muguruza stays the course

And Muguruza, to her great credit, kept doing exactly what she had been doing. She hit hard, she missed rarely. As she said after the victory, she might have been nervous, but she was composed.

When the Spaniard faced break points, the speed on her strokes went up a measured five miles an hour.

By the time it was 5-0, and Muguruza was serving for the title, Williams had surrendered.

Muguruza
Two years after her first appearance in the final, Muguruza gets her name etched on the trophy. (Wimbledon.com)

It’s an astonishing thing to see a grand champion just give up on such a big occasion. Even if the mountain to climb seems insurmountable, tennis’s scoring system allows a player to come back even if they’re just a single point away from losing the match.

She barely moved in that final game.

When it was over, the reaction of the crowd was eerily quiet. It was the quietest moment of the entire match, which was played under the Centre Court roof because of some misty weather outside.

When the roof is closed, every sound inside is amplified. The ball sounds like it’s hit harder. The grunts from both players sound louder, and the applause is in stereophonic sound.

But the combination of the match ending on a line-call challenge, and the disappearance of the five-time champion in its latter half left the crowd stunned. Even the perfect acoustics couldn’t up the volume to where it should have been, to the level Muguruza deserved for her big moment.

Maximizing Muguruza

At 23, she now has four career titles. Just four. And two of them are Grand Slam titles.

Since the beginning of 2016, in 33 tournaments, Muguruza has made just two finals. Both were Grand Slam finals. And she won both of them.

“It is very hard to find, like, a recipe to feel good fitness-wise, (tennis-wise), mentally. I think in this tournament I put everything together, which is very hard,” Muguruza said. “Normally, you know, you’re tired, I feel pain here, my confidence is not there. So I felt this tournament I find somehow, you know, to put everything together and perform good at every level.”

Williams was highly gracious afterwards, as she has never failed to be no matter what.

Whatever emotions she may be feeling, whatever was preventing her from showing her best in the second set, she was keeping deep inside her.

As she did the on-court interview with former player Sue Barker, Williams said the right things. But her voice lacked conviction – until she looked into the camera and spoke to sister Serena, at home awaiting the birth of her first child.

“I tried my best to do the same you do,” Williams said. “But I think there will be other opportunities. I do!” With an arch grin, Williams was off.

Muguruza
Muguruza gets a nice hug from an always-gracious five-time champion

Close to the vest

There was no further elaboration in her post-match media conference. There rarely is, with Williams. She keeps it private, nearly always. If there’s any conclusion tobe drawn, it’s that her answers were even shorter and less revealing than usual. 

Asked about the seismic shift between the first and second sets and whether she was fatigued, she said this:

“Yeah, there’s errors, and you can’t make them. You can’t make them. I went for some big shots and they didn’t land. Probably have to make less errors.”

Asked again if she was also feeling a little tired, she didn’t respond.

“Yeah, I think she played amazing. She played amazing,”

So that’s that.

Two years ago, when Serena defeated Muguruza in the final on the same court and Muguruza couldn’t hold back the tears, the 23-time Grand Slam champion had a feeling.

It took two years, and it took a crushing win over her big sister, but Serena was right.

 

Wimbledon Day 12 – Ladies’ final day

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WIMBLEDON – If, on the day of the women’s single draw, someone told you Venus Williams vs. Garbiñe Muguruza was going to be the ladies’ singles final, would you have laughed?

Or would you have been intrigued by the journey?

Williams, 37, has enough of a track record this yea  with the Australian Open final that her being there on the final day was not completely out of the realm of possibility.

Especially on grass. And especially at Wimbledon.

Had sister Serena been here, the scenario would have been quite different – not only for Venus, but for the rest of the field. 

Mowing down the youngsters

Presuming Williams didn’t have one of those days she can have because of the Sjogren’s disease, where she wakes up and just has no energy, there was no one in her way she couldn’t overcome to get here.

She faced a series of three hard-hitting youngsters, all born in 1997, and handled them all in straight sets. Not easily – the lack of fear from the new generation is as potent a weapon as a big forehand – but with consistency.

In Johanna Konta, she faced a woman who carried a country of tennis fans on her back. Konta also had been through the wringer during this tournament, surviving Caroline Garcia and No. 2 seed Simona Halep and, most dramatically, 21-year-old Donna Vekic in the second round.

Konta won that one 10-8 in the third set. And with that, her first trip past the second round at her Home Slam, she was on her way. But against the five-time champion Williams, she just didn’t have enough.

Nine-year drought

And so Williams will be in search of a sixth Wimbledon title. It would be her first since 2008, when she defeated her sister here.

The presence of the woman is such that her stature in the game goes far beyond what she has actually accomplished over the last 15 years. Her career had come in two waves: before sister Serena surpassed her, and afterwards.

Williams has not won Wimbledon in nine years. And other than Wimbledon, she has not won a Grand Slam title since she defeated her sister in the 2001 US Open final.

It was an event held on a Saturday night for the first time. And the schedule change came, in large part, because the two sisters were expected to be fighting it out for major titles for the next decade.

Now, in Williams’ tennis dotage, she is adding a third wave. And perhaps it might be the best wave of all.

“I don’t think about my age. I know I have a lot to give, still. I don’t feel any particular age. So it’s not a factor,” Williams said. “I’m still in love with this part of my life, and I don’t want it to end.”

It has never seemed as crucial to Williams to be the best, to win it all, as it always has to her sister. She never, outwardly at least, carried the same fierce ambition. But the determination must have always burned inside of her. If it didn’t, she wouldn’t be here on this day, ready to make some history.

For Muguruza, a second title awaits

Meanwhile, her opponent is just getting started.

Muguruza’s problem, in this matchup, is that everything she does well, Williams does better on a good day. And Williams does a few more things that Muguruza doesn’t do.

Is it a (relatively) easier task than it was two years ago, when Muguruza made her first major final but had Serena Williams in front of her? Probably. But that doesn’t make it easy.

Most impressive about Muguruza in defeat in 2015 was that despite the mismatch in experience, she was hardly overwhelmed. She competed well, and she made it close.

“I just remember that everything went very quickly. I didn’t realize it. And suddenly I was in the trophy ceremony,” Muguruza told the BBC. “I’m going to take my time and really breathe out there, and enjoy, also. Because it’s very fast.”

 

Venus Williams is a different challenge.

Back in 2013, when Muguruza was still a teenager, Williams pulled out a victory 7-5 in the third at a small WTA Tour event in Brazil.

More recently, in the quarterfinals of Rome this year, on clay, Muguruza was the winner in three sets. It was the kind of match that signalled the Spaniard was coming out of the torpor that can affect first-time Grand Slam champions.

After winning the French Open in 2016, Muguruza had struggled with injury, with expectations, with pressure self-imposed and from the outside. Once the French Open was over this year, and the weight of defending that title (she didn’t) was off her shoulders, Muguruza is showing some of her best tennis again.

But Venus Williams isn’t Magdalena Rybarikova, the Slovak Muguruza defeated in the semifinals Wednesday.

With Rybarikova, Muguruza was able to get to the net first in many instances. But she had more opportunity to do so against an opponent a little frozen by nerves, and one who doesn’t hit the ball nearly as hard.

Against Williams, that will prove a far more difficult task. Surprisingly, Muguruza has come to the net more during this Wimbledon than Williams has.

Part of that was that Williams played a series of those young ball bashers, and the opportunities were harder to carve out. But how much each will move forward in this final will be a fascinating dynamic to watch.

In the end, it seems the two will have to mostly slug it out from the baseline. 

Whoever slugs best on the day will emerge the winner.

Muguruza received a surprising amount of support from the crowd when she played Serena two years ago.

This time around, Williams is obviously the popular choice. As with Roger Federer on the men’s side, advancing age brings sentimental support.

There are never any guarantees that any Grand Slam champion will win another one. But in their mid-30s and beyond, the opportunities to do so are cherished all the more by the players and fans alike.

Muguruza will be up against that. She also will be up against a public that, in large part, doesn’t think there is any other tournament all season long besides Wimbledon.

Williams has won “their” tournament five times. She is therefore “theirs”. Muguruza is going to try to become one of theirs on Sunday.

Experience wins out as Venus, Muguruza make Wimbledon final

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WIMBLEDON – So often in sports, Cinderella stories can end before the clock actually strikes midnight.

The fairy-tale finish line sometimes is a little ahead of the actual one.

The more experienced, like Venus Williams and Garbiñe Muguruza in the Wimbledon semi-finals, have a more developed sense of pacing. They know, because they’ve done it before, where the true finish line is and have a better sense of direction about getting there.

That real finish line at Wimbledon is on Saturday. And the player who crosses it first will be holding up the Venus Rosewater Dish on famed Centre Court.

Venus will try for No. 6, at 37

At 37, Williams is writing a final chapter to her 20-year tennis career that is quickly becoming even more of a page turner than the many compelling chapters that came before.

Her 6-4, 6-2 win over No. 6-seeded Brit Johanna Konta Thursday was a master class in consistency and focus from a player whose technical flaws haven’t always allowed her that luxury. She’s been there, if not for many years. She’s done that. And she knew what to do.

For Konta, who didn’t play poorly but who didn’t play well enough, it was the best Wimbledon of her career by far. And it certainly offered hope that Great Britain can one day have a matched set: a modern women’s champion to go with modern men’s champion Andy Murray.

“She dictated the match from the very first ball till the very last one. I think she just showed her true qualities and why she’s a five-time champion here, just a true champion that she is,” Konta said. “It was very difficult for me to get a good foothold in the match. The few opportunities that I did get, she did incredibly well to take them away from me. I don’t think I did too much wrong out there. I think it was all credit to her.”

Forehand battle

The difference came with the forehands. For both, it’s the weaker side. But Williams wouldn’t allow it to be a weakness on Thursday. Instead, she went about breaking down that side in her opponent.

Konta has improved the shot, to be sure. And in doing so she has brought herself into the top 10. But the ghosts of the older, poorer technique tend to appear like unwelcome weekend guests in extreme moments.

That’s true not just of Konta, but of any less-experienced competitor vying to achieve beyond what they’ve done before, against an opponent who has already done it.

Williams had a huge part in making that happen.

And after Konta had break points to go up 5-3 and serve for the first set – and didn’t make them – it was all but over. When your opponent is down break point, down to a second serve – and fires it in at 106 mph – you have to know you’re in for a tough day.

Muguruza to second Wimbledon final

Earlier, Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza ended the self-title “fairy tale” of 28-year-old Magdalena Rybarikova with an efficient 6-1, 6-1, dismantling. It took just 65 minutes and sent a loud message to the rest of the WTA Tour: I was lost, but now I’m found.

There was no doubt Rybarikova froze in the biggest moment of her career. Who wouldn’t, really? The Slovak might have dreamed of some day making the semifinals of Wimbledon. But after the year she has been through, with two surgeries and a long fight back up the rankings at the lowest levels of tennis, who knew it would be this year?

“Because she was the favorite, she had the pressure, she’s supposed to win this match. She handled it absolutely amazing. But I just wanted to play good match. I just wanted the crowd to enjoy that. I don’t think so they did because was very fast match,” Rybarikova said. “Even we had some very good rallies, but I was, like, sometimes I could not believe. Sometimes I really was great, and she played even better.”

Absent was the free-swinging, serene, grass-court craftswoman who upset soon-to-be No. 1 Karolina Pliskova earlier in the tournament. But such are the twists and turns of Cinderella stories. They tend to finish before the end – Jelena Ostapenko at the French Open being a notable exception.

Rybarikova admitted she was nervous, that her legs were a little weary, and that she didn’t handle the big occasion the way she would have liked. Mostly, though, there was too much Muguruza to counter.

The logic is that even if Rybarikova went no further, she could still close the book on a spectacular tournament. For Muguruza, who has played on the final Saturday here and has hoisted up the champion’s trophy at Roland Garros, the story needed to continue.

Muguruza find old self

Muguruza’s renaissance this Wimbledon has been somewhat unexpected, and throughly impressive. The reasons for it can only be speculative. But the one big difference for her this fortnight has been the presence of countrywoman Conchita Martinez at her side.

“I think she’s helping me to deal with the stress of the tournament, because it’s a long tournament. I’ve been here already since a while. … So she just knows, you know, how to prepare, how to train, what to do,” Muguruza said. “Not that I’m doing something different, honestly. But, you know, to have her by my side gives me also this little confidence on having someone that has won before.”

Spanish combo clicking

Martinez, who is both the Davis Cup and Fed Cup captain for Spain, won Wimbledon in 1994 and looks to be the chill to Muguruza’s ice. 

Muguruza’s regular coach, Frenchman Sam Sumyk, is not here as he returned to California to await the birth of his first child with wife Meilen Tu, a former player and currently a player agent.  Their frosty relationship has played out in public many times. Under his guidance, Muguruza won the 2016 French Open. But she hasn’t won a tournament since. She has not even made a final.

She said Sumyk is in regular contact.

“Conchita and Sam are really working together. Before I do something, they both decided. So it’s not that that magic is not happening. I think I’m here because I’ve been working not only the last few days, but longer time, getting ready for this kind of moment,” she said. “I think a lot of things are clicking also with her and the team this week, so it’s very nice.”

There have been some inexplicable early losses, including a 6-1, 6-0 loss to Barbora Strycova in Muguruza’s first match at Eastbourne the week before Wimbledon. But there have been recent glimmers of hope, including a three-set win over Venus Williams in Rome.

The player who destroyed Rybarikova Thursday was the old, aggressive, take-no-prisoners Muguruza. She took the net away from her more forward-thinking opponent by taking it over herself, It was welcome shift in tactics in the tournament, bringing back an element that had disappeared in recent months in tandem with Muguruza’s decision to forego doubles.

Been there, done that

When it comes to Saturday’s final, Martinez can be of significant help once again to her younger charge. She has not only been there; she has been almost exactly there. And she did that.

When Martinez won Wimbledon in 1994, she defeated a player who remains the oldest woman to reach a Grand Slam final in the Open era in Martina Navratilova.

Navratilova was a Wimbledon legend; Martinez was the Spanish outsider, although an accomplished one given she was the No. 3 seed. 

Martinez was 22 then; Muguruza is 23. Williams is 206 days younger than Navratilova was in that 1994 final.

Will history repeat? Or will Williams add another major title to her resumé, her first in nine years?

If she does, at her age, it will be a victory for the ages.

“There were definitely some issues. I had a lot of issues. This year has been amazing in terms of my play, playing deep into the big events actually. Of course, I’m excited about being again in another final. Try to take it a step further,” Williams said. “There’s still a lot to be done. I have one more match that I’d like to, you know, be the winner of. I have to go out there and take it and play well. But I like to take courage in the fact that I’ve been playing well this tournament and this year, and all these moments have led to this.”

The Women’s quarterfinals – what they said

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WIMBLEDON – With the help of the Centre Court roof, all four women’s quarterfinals were completed Tuesday.

One was played outdoors on No. 1 Court. Two were played under the roof on Centre Court (one ending with the scream of an overeager British fan).

And the last one began on No. 1 Court, and was completed three hours later under the roof.

The two women’s singles semi-finals, to be played Thursday, are set.

No. 6 Johanna Konta of Great Britain is the highest seed remaining. She will play No. 10 Venus Williams.

quarterfinals

The other semifinal will feature 2015 finalist Garbiñe Muguruza, seeded No. 14 against the fairy tale of this fortnight, Slovakia’s unseeded Magdalena Rybarikova.

Here is what they said.

[6] Johanna Konta (GBR) def. [2] Simona Halep (ROU) 67 (2) 76 (5) 64

Konta: “I guess to be in the semifinals of my home Slam, and to do that in front of a full Centre Court, I mean, it’s pretty, pretty special. I think the level of tennis that both of us played today, it was just a tremendous match. … I feel very happy with how I was able to maintain my level throughout the whole match, and really just tried to stick very closely to how I felt I wanted to play out there, and did that kind of through the thick and thin.”

Halep: “I think was a great tennis. Both of us played a good level. I was very close, again. In the tiebreak maybe I could serve better and stronger a little bit. Then in the third set, the serve game that I lost was a little bit tough to still believe that I can break her because she was serving pretty well. … I think everything was okay. Many positives from this match. And she played really well, so she deserves to win.”

[10] Venus Williams (USA) def. [13] Jelena Ostapenko (LAT)

quarterfinals

Williams:  “I know she had to be feeling confident. She played a great match. Not a lot of errors. I never played her. Watched her. Didn’t really know what to expect. The grass, of course, changes the game. So just a lot of factors. I was really happy to come out on top. … ”

Ostapenko: “She was playing good today. She was serving well. I think I didn’t start the match very well. I was missing a little bit. But, yeah, she was serving really well. It was very tough to break. Because of that I had more pressure because I had to keep my serve. … It was also a good match today for me. … I had kind of, like, some pressure because, as I said, she was serving really well today. She started the match good. She made a lot of aces. But, yeah, I was not, like, feeling nervous. I just couldn’t really play my best today.”

[14] Garbiñe Muguruza (ESP) def. [7] Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS) 63 64

Muguruza: “I’m very happy and very pleased also with this match, because obviously Kuznetsova is a very tough opponent. We all know she has been and is a great player. I managed to play a good level during all the match. I earned the victory. … Before I was more emotional. You know, I was showing more emotions on the court. Now I’m trying to handle it better. I think that’s experience. Like I said before, the year I made final here, I felt like I was a completely different player. Now I maybe feel more solid mentally, going out there knowing what to do. I think it’s with experience and the years.”

Kuznetsova:  “I think in the start I had some options on her serve. I had love-30, 15-40, couldn’t turn it around. Then I just lost silly break, quite fast one, the first set. Then it was again everything even. Second break in the second set, it’s pretty simple. But these small moments, small chances really matters a lot. I think Garbiñe recovered very good today. She defend very good.”

[PR] Magdalena Rybarikova (SVK) def. [24] Coco Vandeweghe (USA) 63 63

Rybarikova: ” I just recently played ITFs in Surbiton. I was thinking that I was nervous more there than today. I have no idea how come I was that calm. Obviously I was nervous, but I was not like I would shake. Sometimes I can get really nervous and really tight. But this match I was quite positive. I was saying to myself, if I’m not going to make this serve, I still can break her because I had a lot of chances before so I can still make. If not, then I have third set. I was still up. So you still have to believe. Somehow I was not nervous. But I don’t understand it quite well, but that happened. … Always some player who surprise. Now I was lucky to be me. Yeah, I’m really grateful for that.”

Vandeweghe: “That’s why Grand Slams are the hardest tournaments. They’re over two weeks and you have to play well for two weeks. … I think (Rybarikova is) playing the best tennis of her career right now. She’s won a lot of tournaments. And she’s playing really well. She’s in the semifinals.”

Video absolves Venus of fatal fault

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WIMBLEDON – The Palm Beach County police issued a statement on Friday about the fatal car crash involving Venus Williams.

The police viewed new evidence – video from the gated community in which the Williams sisters have residences. And in their estimation, it absolved the 37-year-old of responsibility in the crash.

Two weeks after the accident, 78-year-old Jerome Barson died of his injuries.

Fault or not, Williams carries a heavy heart about the tragedy.

In her press conference after her first-round win at Wimbledon earlier this week, she became quite upset and had to leave for a brief period to gather herself.

The USA Today story on this is here.

Here is the statement.

“Based on the evidence obtained in the ongoing investigation, it has been determined the vehicle driven by Venus Williams lawfully entered the intersection on a circular green traffic signal, and attempted to travel north through the intersection to Ballenisles Drive.

“As Williams was traveling through the intersection, a Nissan Altima entered the intersection traveling south, and made a left turn in front of Williams’ vehicle, causing her to stop advancing through the intersection to avoid a collision.

“The traffic signal then cycled to green, at which time Barson continued westbound and entered the intersection. The front end of Barson’s vehicle collided the right front of Williams’ vehicle.” 

The original investigation determined Williams was at fault. The police say the investigation remains active.

Lawsuit still ongoing

The lawsuit filed by Barson’s family continues. The USA Today story details the extensive injuries suffered both by the deceased man and his wife, who also was in the vehicle. 

(If you can’t see the video above, click on the USA Today story link to see it there).