Serena’s serving speed cause for concern

PARIS – In theory, the loss by Serena Williams and sister Venus in the third round of the Roland Garros women’s doubles Sunday might have had a silver lining.

But there  also was a dark cloud.

Williams has had little match play in the last few months. So the necessity to go out and play every single day, between singles and doubles, was clearly having a cumulative effect.

Not that the sisters didn’t give it significant effort against No. 3 seeds Andreja Klepac of Slovenia and Maria José Martínez Sánchez of Spain.

But it wasn’t enough.

They could have lost in straight sets – probably should have, as Klepac and Martínez Sánchez served for the match at 5-4 in the second set.

But they fought to win the second-set tiebreak before fading in the third set and lost, 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-0.

Slow-motion serving by Serena

The concern after this match went well beyond the defeat in doubles.

Because by that third set, Williams was just lobbing her serve in.

She admitted she hasn’t gotten the velocity back on her powerful delivery yet, since having daughter Olympia and having to work hard to get her core muscles back on point.

But 117 km/hour? That’s less than 73 mph. Almost in reverse slow motion, by Williams serving standards.

Below are some of the speeds of Williams’s serve in that one game she served in the third set. Most of those were first serves.

It wasn’t just on the serve. 

At one point, down in the match, Williams had an opportunity to put away an easy overhead with a roar – and perhaps dent something in the process. In her previous matches, she had done just that.

But this time, Williams opted to hit a slow-motion overhead that wouldn’t have cracked an egg on contact.

Playing Sharapova Monday

If there’s an issue with the shoulder, arm or something in between, it could cast a completely different light on Williams’s fourth-round clash with Maria Sharapova in singles Monday.

The two haven’t met in 2 1/2 years, since the quarterfinals of the 2016 Australian Open. But it’s a highly anticipated matchup even if the head-to-head is heavily lopsided in Williams’ favor – 19-2, to be exact.

Sharapova’s two victories both came back in … 2004.

Williams has no interest in anything but continuing that dominance.

But if she can’t serve any harder than that, she’ll have a lot of trouble.

Was she saving her arm for the singles? Will it feel better when she comes out on Monday? And – worst-case scenario – if Williams feels she can’t serve full out, she’d certainly consider pulling out.

No chance she wants to lose to Sharapova, if she’s not fit to compete.

So much to contemplate ahead of this encounter.

Old grudges

The doubles match was a particularly delicious matchup in the sense that there was most definitely no love lost between Serena and Martínez Sánchez.

Here’s what it looked like:

The enmity dates back nearly a decade.

In 2009, at this very tournament, the two faced off in a fourth-round singles match that was won, 6-4 in the third, by Williams.

But early in the match, Williams hit a shot she was certain grazed Martínez Sánchez’s arm. The Spaniard wouldn’t cop to it, saying it had hit her racket. There wasn’t anything chair umpire Emmanuel Joseph, who hadn’t seen it, could do if Martínez Sánchez didn’t admit to it and concede the point.

“I looked at her dead in the eye, I said: ‘Why? Just be honest if the ball hit you or not,’ ” Williams said. “I mean, hello, it totally hit her. She was just, like, she wouldn’t even look at me. She looked down, and I just have no respect for anybody who can’t play a professional game and just be really professional out here,” she said.

“So the ball hit her body, and therefore, she should have lost the point instead of cheating,” Williams added. “I would never do that. I’ve never done that. I’ve never sunk low, and I would never do that to anyone on this tour and I never have.”

The microphones on court picked up some strong words. “I’m going to get you in the locker room for that; you don’t know me,” she said. And then, to Joseph, she added, “She better not come to the net again.”

The two met again a few months later, at the US Open. And they met twice more in singles, the last time in 2012. Williams won all of those.

Williams is savvier these days about the on-court microphones, you’d think. But it was clear that she had not forgotten the incident, all these years later.

She reminded chair umpire Kelly Thomson Sunday to make sure she enforced the rule. And the way these two teams were going at each other at the net, it well could have happened again.

Interestingly, they had met just once before in doubles. That came at the end of that 2009 season.

Williams and Williams qualified for the year-end Tour finals in doubles, and faced Martínez and Nuria Llagostera Vives in their first match. 

serving

They lost that one as well, 2-6, 6-4, 10-8 in the match tiebreak.

History will note that the sisters were a right mess in that one.

serving

Photos: Venus keeps dubs skills sharp

PARIS – Her sister has some singles duties to attend to on Saturday in the late afternoon/early evening.

But Venus Williams, eliminated from the singles in the first round, could still keep her doubles skills honed in her absence.

Williams was on a practice court at the neighbouring Club Jean Bouin, along with hitting partner Jermaine Jenkins.

Her partner was her assistant of two years, Zebe Haupt, who played as a junior in his native Australia.

A little impromptu mixed doubles, to keep things sharp.

Here’s what it looked like. (We’d have shot video, but only television rights holders are allowed to shoot, as of the start of the main draw last Sunday).

Serena vs. Goerges

Little sister has to deal with No. 11 seed Julia Goerges of Germany in her third-round singles.

Surprisingly, the two have not met in nearly seven years, since the Rogers Cup in 2011. They also played here in Paris, in the second round of the 2010 French Open (Williams won both; the clay matchup went 6-1, 6-1).

The winner will play …. get this … Maria Sharapova in the round of 16. 

Serena and Venus – together again

PARIS – It has been a couple of years since Venus and Serena Williams teamed up for doubles at a Grand Slam.

That came at Wimbledon in 2016. And they won the title.

They are back this year at the French Open, despite Venus Williams’ disappointing first-round loss in doubles.

And after shaking off some rust in the first set of their first-round match match against Japanese mighty mites Shuko Aoyama and Miyu Kato, they prevailed 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 to advance.

In actual, real terms, that two-year absence isn’t that long. Serena Williams had only played one major since then. That was the 2017 Australian Open. And since she was playing doubles all on her own, with little Olympia, that actually would have been triples and therefore unfair.

Outstanding finals ratio

The sisterly pair has 22 titles together, including 14 majors (six at Wimbledon) and three Olympic golds.

Perhaps even more impressive, they have those 22 titles in 23 finals. In other words, only one time, once they reached the final, did they fail to take home the champions’ trophy. 

That came all the way back in 1999, in San Diego. They lost to Lindsay Davenport and Corina Morariu.

Quite frankly, that’s ridiculous.

They have won the French Open doubles title twice. In 1999, they defeated Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova in the final. In 2010, they beat Katarina Srebotnik and Kveta Peschke (who are both still playing, albeit with different partners).

Here are some pics of the sisters in action together through the years.

Can they do it again?

You kind of figure the sisters can do anything they set their mind to.

But of course, life is different now.

Williams has a tough second-round singles match against No. 17 seed Ashleigh Barty Thursday. And when and if she loses in singles, it’s hard to know whether she will want to stick around the tournament just to play doubles.

As well, Venus will have to pick up her game. While Serena was roaring and intense and all over their first-round match, Venus had trouble keeping the unforced errors down.

(The size differential between the sisters and their Japanese opponents was substantial – FranceTV)

That was even more important, given she was playing the ad side.

Their next match will be between the winner of savvy veterans Sara Errani and Kirsten Flipkens, and a young French wild card team.

Their third-round match could be the No. 3 seeds, Andreja Klepac and Maria José Martinez Sánchez.

Can Venus Williams make a run? (video)

PARIS – Can Venus Williams, who turns 38 shortly after the end of the French Open, make a run?

The American is seeded No. 9 and remains, improbably but gloriously, the top-ranked American.

She reached the quarter-finals in Rome and the fourth round in Paris before going on to reach the Wimbledon final on grass a few weeks later.

But this year, she has not played much except for a successful period in the U.S. at Indian Wells and Miami.

Williams lost early in both Madrid and Rome, both times to an in-form Anett Kontaveit. 

Good early draw

It appears Williams is in a nice little section of the draw, one that will allow her to perhaps ease into this Grand Slam.

She has Brit Johanna Konta, who is not a particular friend of the clay, as a potential third round before she jumps into Jelena Ostapenko territory.

But that’s way in the future.

Williams has never seriously threatened at the French Open. She made one final – all the way back in 2002, when she lost to sister Serena. Other than that, she has four quarter-final finishes.

Her first opponent will be Qiang Wang of China.

Here’s what she looked like, during a rather leisurely hit Thursday afternoon.

WTT draft features familiar faces

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – World Team Tennis, the exhibition league founded by Billie Jean King that takes place after Wimbledon, held its draft Tuesday.

And among the faces this summer will be 16-year-old Amanda Anisimova, who is in the fourth round of the women’s singles at this week’s BNP Paribas Open.

The league plays for the last two weeks in July, with the final in early August. It’s an opportunity for a lot of lower-ranked players and doubles specialists to pick up some extra cash. And look for other names to perhaps join the various teams for a couple of matches during the short season.

The 2017 champions are the Orange County Breakers, who defeated the San Diego Aviators 22-18 at the La Costa Resort and Spa just outside San Diego.

This year, Jack Sock returns to the Springfield Lasers. As well, Genie Bouchard will be back with the New York Empire and Venus Williams will make a few appearances with the Washington Kastles. 

Here are the draft selections, including the “franchise” type players each team is allowed to protect before the draft begins.

The first overall pick was by the Kastles. The D.C.-based team selected Tennys Sandgren to head to the nation’s capital.

Washington Kastles

Venus Williams (protected)
Mike and Bob Bryan(protected)
Madison Brengle (protected)

Tennys Sandgren (1st overall pick)
Robert Lindstedt
Nicole Melichar

Philadelphia Freedoms

Sloane Stephens (protected)
Taylor Townsend (protected)
Fabrice Martin (protected)

Amanda Anisimova
Kevin King
Kevin Anderson

Springfield Lasers

Jack Sock (protected)
Abigail Spears (protected)

Vania King
Miomir Kecmanovic
Daniel Nestor

New York Empire

Mardy Fish (protected)
John Isner (protected)
Genie Bouchard (protected)
Neal Skupski (protected)

Tatjana Maria
Dennis Novikov
Maria José Martínez Sánchez

San Diego Aviators

Naomi Broady (protected)

Marcus Willis
Marcin Matkowski
Anna-Lena Groenefeld

Orange County Breakers

Yanina Wickmayer (protected)
Andreja Klepac (protected)

Marcelo Demoliner
Stéphane Robert

Venus prevails in too-early sisters clash

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

prevails

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

Indian Wells media day missing famous faces

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Tennis is in a rather extraordinary place at the moment in the sense that many of the best players – the most compelling stories – aren’t currently in the top eight.

So that meant that on Wednesday at the BNP Paribas Open, with all due respect to the top-eight players who attended the mandatory media availability / WTA All-Access hour, the players fans and media might most want to hear from at this moment in tennis were not the players who were made available.

It’s not a criticism as much as it is a window into procedure on the pro tours for these kinds of pre-tournament media availabilities.

Serena Williams (unranked, a wild card) is officially returning to action after being out since the 2017 Australian Open. Not there.

 

Victoria Azarenka (No. 204, a wild card) is back at a tournament for the first time since last year’s Wimbledon. Not that she hasn’t been in the tennis news for other reasons, with her ongoing custody dispute. Not there.

Maria Sharapova (No. 41), is back at the tournament she has won twice, for the first time since 2015. Not there. She did, though, have a match to play Wednesday night.

Novak Djokovic (No. 10), has been out since losing in the fourth round of the Australian Open, and having played just four matches all season. He won the tournament in 2008, 2011, and three consecutive times from 2014-16. 

A procedure on his elbow after the Australian Open left Djokovic’s participation in doubt as the tournament neared. But he’s here, and brings mentor Andre Agassi to the desert for the first time.  Not there.

All four of the above have been world No. 1. All four have won the BNP Paribas Open – and all of them have won it more than once. 

Men and women all at once

An added twist, which is often the case here.

Media availabilities for both the men and the women (for whom the main draw matches began Wednesday) were both on Wednesday. 

And that meant that at times, male and female players were available at the same time, and so if you wanted to speak to both, it was challenging.

The women tend to lose those one-on-one battles for attention. It’s not fair, but it is what it is.

In a dream scenario, the alphabet soup of tennis (WTA, ATP, ITF) would all collaborate together to coordinate and get maximum exposure for all players.

As well, two of the most compelling of those top eight male players were both scheduled for 3:15 p.m. at one point. At least Juan Martin del Potro was later pushed back 15 minutes, as Alexander Zverev kept the original time slot.

Venus Williams was there – she squeezed in as the No. 8, and therefore honored the mandatory commitment and perhaps saved herself a fine. Had she been No. 9, she, too, would have been absent.

Here’s what Williams had to say.

Roger Federer and Dominic Thiem both scheduled their media availabilities for Thursday.

In the end, perhaps no one wanted to slight the top eight players present at the tournament (in the women’s case, the top eight ranked players in the world and in the men’s case, eight of the top 10 with Rafael Nadal and David Goffin out) by leaving them out to sub in accomplished former champions.

And perhaps the WTA and ATP are eager to showcase some of the other contenders for the men’s and women’s singles titles.

But the storylines that will most be watched in the sports world at large (and on a macro level, even in much of the tennis world) will not revolve around Kevin Anderson or Jack Sock or Thiem or Karolina Pliskova or Jelena Ostapenko or Caroline Garcia.

At least for the moment, it will be about Serena, and Vika, and Novak, and Maria.

Still.

Singles match No. 1,000 for Venus is a win

It might not have been the prettiest match of her career.

But a lot of round numbers came to be for Venus Williams Saturday, as she dispatched Arantxa Rus 6-1, 6-4 in the first rubber of the U.S.’s Fed Cup tie against the Netherlands.

According to the WTA Tour, it was singles match No. 1000 of Williams’ illustrious career. And it was singles win No. 20 in Fed Cup.

Here are some of the numbers behind the milestone.

(The ITF has her record at 758-223, so it’s her 982nd match. The WTA has her with 17 more wins and just one more loss – because they include qualifying matches. But hey, why ruin a good narrative).

“It’s never easy. It’s always a challenge. I think that’s why you play the match. It’s never a win until it’s over,” Williams said during her on-court interview. “On paper, it looked like I should win the match but it was a battle. And it’s a battle I’m glad the US won.”

Williams said the slight altitude in Asheville, North Carolina (a little over 2,000 feet) meant she had trouble finding the right balance, especially in the second set. “I like to go big. I was trying to find the balance between going big and too big,” she said.

Williams-Ohanian family representing

Sister Serena Williams was on the sidelines cheering. Williams is penciled in for the doubles, but who knows if she’ll play – if the U.S. clinches it with the first singles match of the day Sunday, they would skip straight to the doubles dead rubber).

So was Venus’s niece Alexis Olympia, with brother-in-law Alexis “Senior” chronicling the moments.

Venus is now 20-2 in singles in Fed Cup. This was her first tie since 2016.

Her only two losses came to Russians.

Elena Dementieva beat her 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5) in the 1999 final in Stanford, Calif. The other defeat was a  5-7, 6-4, 6-2 loss to Anastasia Myskina in the 2005 semifinals in Moscow.

As it happens, both those women – long retired – were on court just last week, having a hit-and-giggle as part of the St. Petersburg WTA Tour event. 

And Venus is still truckin’ at the top.

Match No. 1? Well, both the WTA Tour and the ITF agree on that. It came in Oakland, Calif. on Halloween, 1994 – a 6-3, 6-4 win against No. 58-ranked Shaun Stafford.

Venus, Serena to play Fed Cup in NC

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.

Venus Williams gets her hit (video)

Venus Williams, the only returning Australian Open women’s singles finalist from a year ago with her sister not yet back on Tour, is a huge fan of the 8 a.m. practices.

(Well, maybe not a huge fan. That probably requires a 6 a.m. wakeup call and not too many people are fans of those. But it’s nice and quiet on site, and there are no distractions).

Here she is on Thursday, going through her paces on the practice court.

The hair is in its full glory. Hopefully Venus will also let her tennis game fully hang out.

She opens her tournament Monday on Rod Laver Arena against a very, very tough opponent.

After a five-month absence in 2017, Belinda Bencic (a former No. 7) returned in the fall at the lower ITF level and has barely skipped a beat getting back to form.

Bencic’s last stop was Perth, Australia where she carried Roger Federer to the Hopman Cup title.