THE BUZZ: A PRESIDENTIAL REFLECTION: KATRINA ADAMS ON SERENA AND RACE

By Bill Simons

A PRESIDENTIAL REFLECTION—ADAMS ON SERENA AND RACE: During the Australian Open, when IT asked Katrina Adams, the first African-American President in the 134-year history of the USTA, to talk about the 2001 incident with Serena and Venus Williams at Indian Wells, she said, “It has nothing to do with the tournament. It has to do with the environment. What they experienced was unfair to them. It was unethical, it was racist—it was an unfortunate situation. If you’re a 19-year-old, you’re not [fully] an adult. If you experience that, you’re not going to go back to that area. And guess what? I experienced it, I do experience it. But I got to do what I got to do. That’s the way of the world. But they don’t have to subject themselves to that treatment. I know they’ve gotten over it and they’ve matured and they said they would go back … so we’ll see. Maybe they will.”

CONSPICUOUS BY THEIR ABSENCE: At the Aussie Open, Serena‘s support group did not include her mother or father, her sister Isha or her former longtime hitting partner, Sascha Bajin.  Does this tea leaf reading mean that Patrick Mouratoglou‘s influence is on the ascendance?

GOOD FAN, BAD FAN: A bad fan yelled out at the wrong time during the Nadal vs. Smyczek match at the Aussie Open. But when Serena was struggling mightily against Garbine Muguruza in the fourth round in Melbourne, a fan yelled out “more topspin” to the American. Williams listened to the free, unsolicited advice and went on to win the match and the tourney.

MILESTONES: For the first time in history, three African-Americans—Serena, Venus and Madison Keys—reached a Grand Slam semifinal … By winning in Brisbane, Federer won his 1000th match. The only others to do that in the Open era are Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl … Seemingly retired Mardy Fish is planning a comeback, including an appearance in Indian Wells … Andy Murray and his longtime girlfriend Kim Sears are planning to wed April 11 at his luxury hotel in Scotland. Also, Tomas Berdych and Ester Satorova announced their engagement.

SERENA WATCH: Arguably the most interesting player in tennis, our great drama queen, just made one of the most interesting tournaments in the world all that more intriguing … Few players pull out of tourneys more often than Serena, so it is reasonable to wonder whether she will in fact show up at Indian Wells … Once there, the big “hot or cold” question is: How will she be received by the crowd? … Venus‘ withdrawal from her 2001 match against Serena has proven to be the most controversial withdrawal in the Open era. Since having to cope with Sjögren’s Syndrome, Venus has withdrawn 12 times … While talking about her backless Nike outfit in Melbourne, Serena said that when it comes to fashion this year, “It’s all about the back.” A month later it’s still all about the back: i.e., going back to Indian Wells … Will more African-American fans attend the BNP Paribas Open this year? Will Richard or Oracene Williams show up? And what about celebrity appearances (such as Spike Lee or Oprah)? …  While many great stars—Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, Maria Sharapova—have won Indian Wells since Serena started her boycott, the Williamses absence has opened the door for other winners. (And don’t tell us that Vika Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic, Flavia Pennetta, Daniela Hantuchova, Jelena Jankovic and Vera Zvonareva are B-listers) … In the 14 years since Serena and Venus last played in Indian Wells, no American woman has won … Coincidentally, 2001, when Serena last won, was also the last year an American man, Andre Agassi, was victorious … If Serena wins this year’s BNP Paribas Open, she will have won more Indian Wells titles than any other woman … Is Serena different from the rest? Madison Keys said, “You can almost get overwhelmed if you start focusing on Serena being on the other side of the court … Her ball’s not like anyone else’s. It comes hard; it comes deep. You never  have the feeling … [you] can control every ball” … Since so much will be focused on Serena at Indian Wells, will Sharapova step up and rain on the Serenian parade? … On the same day Serena announced that she would be playing Indian Wells, Charlie Sifford, the Jackie Robinson of pro golf, passed away … As of press time, Venus is not playing the BNP Paribas Open. Are the Williams sisters far more independent then we thought? Is this year’s BNP Paribas Open the most anticipated tournament in years?


The Buzz: The End of Magic and Other Reflections From the Worldwide Tour

By Bill Simons

JUST WONDERING: Now that the best players in men’s and women’s tennis—Djokovic and Serena—have prevailed at the Aussie Open, what are the chances that we will get a true Grand Slam winner this year? … Can Djokovic replicate the dominance he showed in 2011, and can Serena capture the French Open and Wimbledon to claim a Serena (non-calendar) Slam like she did in 2002-3?

THE END OF MAGIC: During the Aussie Open, a reporter told Serena, “You were doing some mystical stuff or magic [out there].” But Williams, a Jehovah’s Witness, said she would have none of it: “I’m not involved in mystics or magic.”

THE CURIOUS DEMENTIEVA CONNECTION: After losing to Venus at Indian Wells in 2001, Russian Elena Dementieva was asked who would win the Serena vs. Venus semi. She stirred controversy when she said, “I think Richard will decide who’s going to win tomorrow.” Then last fall Dementieva was by Shamil Tarpachev‘s side on TV when the Russian tennis czar launched his ill-considered attacks on the champions he absurdly called “the Williams brothers.”

GO FIGURE: After Rafa‘s loss to Tomas Berdych in Melbourne, writer Nick McCarvel told him he played “a so-so match.” Nadal retorted: “No, not so-so, very bad. You can say [it], no problem” … This year’s Aussie Open was the first time Novak Djokovic and Serena won the same Slam … Both Nadal and Murray suffered bagel losses at the Aussie Open (at the hands of Berdych and Djokovic, respectively) … US Open wonder CiCi Bellis has reportedly been working with Nick Bollettieri, Sloane Stephens is back with coach Nick Saviano, and Genie Bouchard, who was a Saviano student, has hired Vika Azarenka‘s longtime coach Sam Sumyk. Meanwhile, Vika is working with Simona Halep‘s former coach Wim Fissette.

CRUSH CITY: After recalling how Serena bounced back from devastating losses to Sharapova at Wimbledon and Sam Stosur at the US Open, Pam Shriver said, “When she wants revenge, it’s crush city.”

OBVIOUS ANALYSES: After falling to Madison Keys at the Aussie Open, Petra Kvitova said, “I’m not the first to lose here and I won’t be the last.” … After getting through his first-round match, Lleyton Hewitt said, “Obviously, it helps” … When reflecting on her Aussie Open fourth-round match against Madison Brengle, Madison Keys said, “Obviously we are representing our name pretty well.”

ANIMAL FARM

Venus Williams said, “This old cat has a few tricks left in the bag.”

Mary Carillo said, “Koalas are stoned on eucalyptus all day long.”

• A bird pooped on Lindsay Davenport while she was watching Madison Keys beat Petra Kvitova.

Nick Kyrgios‘ mother Norlaila said her son “might appear cocky, but it’s mostly a front. He has got to shield his inner self because it is very pressured out there. … He can growl like a lion … [or] even break a racket … I just ask him not to do it on purpose.’’

RIGHT—WOMEN CAN’T COACH: Not only did Lindsay Davenport inspire Madison Keys, who reached the Aussie Open semis; not only did Mary Joe Fernandez get the Williams sisters to show up and play Fed Cup in Argentina; also, Amelie Mauresmo coached Andy Murray to the Aussie Open final, and then, when her French Fed Cup team was down 2-0 to the often powerful Italians, she benched No. 1 player Alize Cornet in favor of Caroline Garcia, who kickstarted a three-match comeback for the win. All of which begs the question, has any man or woman had a more successful three weeks of coaching in men’s and woman’s tennis?


Serena: The Long Road to Indian Wells

A 14-YEAR-OLD TALE OF LOUD JEERS, DEEP WOUNDS, PUSH-PULL QUESTIONS, BEHIND-THE-SCENES LOBBYING, CLEVER RUSES AND THE ARC OF THE MORAL UNIVERSE

By Bill Simons

Serena did it.

She won the 2015 Australian Open, a historic triumph. As a journalist, I was neutral. Inside, I was thrilled.

After all, I’ve followed Serena since she was a 12-year old tag-along with Venus in Oakland. She’s American, and one of the greatest champions ever—one who has learned from triumph and humiliation, and danced with death and despair.

Now in Melbourne there was another night of triumph to celebrate. So I approached her coach Patrick Mouratoglou. The bright Frenchman wouldn’t give me any match quotes, but beaming with a broad smile, he gushed, “You know what, Bill, Serena’s playing Indian Wells!”

Wow, I was elated. But then I had a more cautionary feeling of deja vu. I’d danced this dance with Patrick before. Last year, he said Serena would play Indian Wells, only for her to pull out later.

———

Over the past dozen years, as much as I wanted to see another elite American man emerge, more than anything I wanted to see the Williamses and Indian Wells resolve their differences, so that the sisters would go back and play where once they were scorned.

Sure I know, Serena can be vain. As for being a diva, she read the manual with care. Amply flawed, she can infuriate. Many times I’ve been stung by her sense of entitlement. Then again, she’s achieved wonders and taught us things no one else has. Is she the best ever? The debate is warm. Is she an inspiration to millions? No question.

Yes, most of our good readers insist, “It wasn’t that big of a deal at Indian Wells. Fans were simply upset because Venus pulled out of her semi against Serena. The booing wasn’t that bad, no way did race have anything to do with it, and wasn’t their father behind all the shenanigans?”

I was there. It was not pretty: neck-bulging howls, raw jeers. There were over two hours of derision, and no one intervened to call for kindness. I agree with current tournament CEO Ray Moore, who said it “was [an example of] ugly human traits.” A white woman would not have been treated that way. A white woman would not have been treated that way. There was absolutely no credible evidence that any kind of fix was in, and the doctors confirmed that Venus was suffering from knee tendinitis.

To me, it was the worst day in American tennis since the late 1940s, when the African-American Oscar Johnson entered the National Junior Championships in St. Louis and was “greeted” by an official who said, “Well, I’ll be damned. But, you won’t play here, boy.”

Yes, fans were brutal to Martina Hingis at the French Open, but the young Swiss’s outrageous moves brought on the catcalls. Serena, just 19, hadn’t done anything wrong. Clearly, that problematic afternoon exposed the uncomfortable, often unspoken rift between tennis’s largely white and affluent audience and African-American players and fans. Yet it was dismissed as just a tennis spat—no big deal.

But race remains a core issue of our society, just as it has always been. Like climate change, it impacts everything.

For me, nothing was sadder in tennis than the reality that America’s two greatest female stars felt so wounded that they refused to return to our greatest tournament west of the US Open: a rift like no other, such a symbolic gap. Many preferred to sweep it aside. Denial can be a comfort.

When the US Open Stadium was not going to be named after Arthur Ashe, most said, “Come on, just forget it. Nothing can be done, move on.” Not me.

So—again and again—for 14 years, I asked all the parties involved about healing the situation. When I spoke to the sisters about it, I’d often get a frosty response: “You gotta be kidding” scowls were commonplace. Similarly, tournament, WTA and USTA bigwigs (need I name names?) weren’t exactly thrilled to wrestle with my prickly questions when they’d rather be chatting up their latest success. At one point at Wimbledon, I mustered the courage to approach my pal, Venus and Serena’s father Richard Williams. “Hey, friend,” I began, “you’re a devout Christian. Turning the other cheek is so much a part of your… “

Forget it. The often fun-loving patriarch was livid. In a rage, he growled and let me have it. ‘Twas not pleasant.

Over the years, “sister fatigue” set in. When I asked about Indian Wells, my press corps colleagues would roll their eyes. Officials and players seemed to quietly curse, “Not again!”

———

Dr. King told us, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Mandela added, “Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”

Time heals, and there are unintended circumstances. In 2011, after Serena recovered from a near-death bout with pulmonary embolism, she told Doug Robson she was so eager to get back on tour that she “would even play Indian Wells—anything to get back.”

Supposedly, it was a joke. I didn’t care. For the umpteenth time, I asked her at Wimbledon if she would consider returning.

“Oh, that was so yesterday,” she told me. “I’ve moved beyond all that.” I sighed. Okay, Serena, whatever. Then, 17 months later, Mandela died, and at the 2014 Aussie Open I asked, “You have your schools in Africa, you’ve written poignantly about the [slave] forts in Africa, and have read Mandela closely. His message was … all about forgiveness. He [told South African blacks] to work with the [largely white] Springboks rugby team for reconciliation, and he sat his prime jailer in the front row at his inauguration. Could that spirit affect your thoughts?”

Surprisingly, Serena replied, “Yeah, it actually crossed my mind a couple of days ago, after I saw the movie [Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom].”

“Do you think you could [go again]?” I continued. “It would be such a wonderful event for American tennis and your career.”

Serena repeated, “It crossed my mind … when I went to the movie … I think Mandela was a really amazing man. I felt really honored to have a chance to meet him, to get to know him a little bit.”

Just after that press conference, I sought out Serena’s coach and pal Patrick in the media cafeteria. I’d been pursuing this for years. Finally, I had my opening and, in a lengthy conversation, I “let ‘er rip.” I told the personable Frenchman what really went on that day in the desert and encouraged him to urge Serena to return. I contended it could have as much impact as any of her wins. It would be in the spirit of Mandela and would be healing for our culture.

Voila! Four days later, almost out of nowhere, Serena’s name appeared on the Indian Wells entry list. Go figure. I couldn’t help wondering if my intervention had had any impact.

But actually showing up at Indian Wells proved to be too daunting a prospect for Serena. She withdrew. To many, it was no surprise. For me, it was a disappointment—an opportunity lost. I wrote, “Forgiveness—for all of us—is such an elusive tonic. Let’s only hope there will come a day when we can transcend one of tennis’s most perplexing chapters … Serena’s plight shows us that the often bumpy road to reconciliation is crowded with many an inexplicable twist and curious turn.”

But frankly, I’d had it. At that point I didn’t give a damn if she came or stayed home.

A year passed. Then the Ferguson, Missouri controversy flared. Serena wrote an intense tweet: “Wow. Just wow. Shameful. What will it take?” So in Melbourne, I couldn’t help myself. I asked her about the tweet, and after she gave me a milquetoast answer, I transitioned to my usual “What about coming to Indian Wells this year?” She promptly shot me one of her put-upon, how-dare-you looks—just a slightly bruising glance—as if to say, “Not this again.” Then she turned to her manager Jill Smoller and asked, “Am I on the entry list?” Jill said no, and Serena added, “I don’t know. I like my vacation time that I get at Indian Wells.”

A tad snarky, I thought. Well, there goes another year. But little did I know that the powers that be—agent Jill, Ray Moore, BNP Paribas Open owner Larry Ellison and WTA Chief Stacey Allaster had been having quiet (if Nixon can get himself to China, Serena could go to Indian Wells) meetings on how to orchestrate her return.

Then one week later Serena won the Aussie Open, and Patrick spilled the beans, telling me she was going to play.

But I wanted to hear it from Serena. After her group press conference, I approached her and said, “So I hear you’re going to play.” She again did her smooth routine: She turned and asked, “Jill, am I on the entry list?” Again, Jill said no. Serena turned to me and said, “Well, I guess I’m not playing.”

Oblivious to the ruse, I couldn’t help myself, so I used a cheery endearment and said, “Sweetheart, it would be so wonderful if you came. People would give you such a great reception, why don’t you just do it?”

She laughed a knowing laugh.

Thirty-six hours later, on the plane home, I reflected on the questions that had long circled. Just how central an element was race in all of this? Should officials have done more to mute the rage of the crowd in order to urge them to be respectful? Should they have done more to get the sisters to come back? Should Venus and Serena have buried the hatchet long ago? Should the media have done more? And what would happen if they ever did return?

Two days later, jet-lagged to the max, I stumbled into my office and got the joke.

Serena had just begun an elaborate, smoothly orchestrated rollout to announce she’d be playing. She posted a well-produced, long-in-the-works video which included a sophisticated (“Come hit with me in Indian Wells”) charity promotion that supports a group seeking justice for prisoners and low-income defendants.

Plus there was a thoughtful essay by Serena in Time magazine, in which she remembered that at first she and Venus “were outsiders.” As a black tennis player, she wrote, “I looked different. I sounded different. I dressed differently.”

She recalled that she and Venus scored early wins at Indian Wells, and it held “a special place in my heart.” But “nothing could have prepared me for what happened in the final. As I walked out … the crowd immediately started jeering … Throughout my whole career, integrity has been everything to me … The false allegations that our matches were fixed hurt, cut and ripped into us deeply. The undercurrent of racism was painful, confusing and unfair … At one of my most cherished tournaments, I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid … When I was booed … by what seemed like the whole world … doubt became real. I didn’t understand.”

Serena wrote that what happened haunted her and Venus, but “most of all, it angered and saddened my father … [who] had to sit and watch his daughter being taunted, sparking cold memories of his experiences growing up in the South.

“Thirteen years and a lifetime in tennis later, things feel different. A few months ago, when Russian official Shamil Tarpischev made racist and sexist remarks about Venus and me, the WTA and USTA immediately condemned him. It reminded me how far the sport has come, and how far I’ve come too. I have thought about going back to Indian Wells many times … I said a few times that I would never play there again … It scared me. What if I walked on court and the entire crowd booed me? The nightmare would start all over.

“It has been difficult for me to forget spending hours crying in the Indian Wells locker room … driving back to Los Angeles feeling as if I had lost … a bigger fight for equality. Emotionally it seemed easier to stay away. There are some who say I should never go back … [Others] say I should’ve returned years ago. I understand both perspectives very well and wrestled with them for a long time. I’m just following my heart on this one.

“I’m fortunate to … [now] play for the love of the game. And it is with that love in mind, and a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness, that I will proudly return….

“I was raised by my mom to love and forgive freely. ‘When you stand praying, forgive whatever you have against anyone, so that your Father … may also forgive you.” (Mark 11:25) I have faith that fans … have grown … and know me better … Indian Wells was a pivotal moment of my story, and I am a part of the tournament’s story … Together we have a chance to write a different ­ending.”

There are few second chances in life. Let’s hope this scar has healed, and that this time we get it right. We can even imagine the Indian Wells crowd giving Serena a standing, welcome back ovation to honor willingness to forgive. And if they did that, it could be, as writer Chris Bowers noted, “a massive moment in the evolution of human dignity.” But it’s even more than a matter of dignity. Sounding like Arthur Ashe, Michael Eric Dyson contended in The Nation that “Serena’s decision suggests the majestic arc of forgiveness in black life that has helped to redeem America. Without such forgiveness, America may have well flowed in the blood of recrimination … Instead black folk have consistently proved to be moral pillars of American conscience, from Martin Luther King Jr. to [Trayvon Martin's mother] Sybrina Fulton. Black athletes in particular have carried the water of grievance for black life … and have represented the heartbeat of black resistance to racism.”


Riffce Rules: From Johnson Ranch Racquet Club to Two Huge Junior Wins


By John Huston

The first junior player since Grigor Dimitrov to win the Eddie Herr and Orange Bowl back to back, Sam Riffice got his start on the courts of Spare Time’s Johnson Ranch Racquet Club in Roseville, where his mom Lori has been a pro for 22 years. Lori Riffice knew she “wanted to be a mother and have fun on the tennis court” with her son, so she reached out to another Spare Time pro, Amine Khaldi of Gold River Racquet Club, for assistance in developing Sam’s game. “Amine is a hard worker, he’s younger, and I knew he could push Sam,” says Lori. “We’ve worked well together from the beginning. It was great teamwork.”

Teamwork is a key word for Khaldi, too, whose enthusiasm for Sam and his game is clear. “Sam is a great player,” he says. “It’s all about passion, and he has a spark. He loves the game. We’d work on technique, and Lori helped him work on repetition.” Lori Riffice agrees: “On the court, I wasn’t always coaching. I wanted Sam to figure [things] out and see what Amine wanted him to learn. In the long term, Sam is on his own out there on the tennis court.”

It’s exactly that sense of independence and self-reliance that drew Sam Riffice to tennis. “I played several sports, like basketball, baseball, football and soccer,” he says. “I loved tennis the most because it’s an individual sport, and only I was out there playing. No one could tell me what to do while I was [competing]. And my mom was my [first] coach, so it was really fun playing tennis with her almost every day.”

A trip to the fan-friendly BNP Paribas Open with Khaldi at the age of 12 was one key moment in Riffice’s early development. “The trip with Amine to Indian Wells was really inspirational,” says Sam. “I got to see all of my favorite players up close and even got to meet [Roger] Federer.” Khaldi points out what Sam absorbed from the experience: “Sam saw the hard work the pros do. He came back from Indian Wells knowing, ‘I want to work even harder.’”

At 13, in addition to working with Khaldi at Gold River, Riffice also began training with the USTA in Boca Raton. “The benefit of coming to Boca Raton is that Sam has full-time training,” explains Lori. “The national coach [Sylvain Guichard] worked with me and Amine about the structure … The USTA is doing a great job with the upcoming juniors. They really have their best interests in mind. We’ve been included in all the decisions. We feel very lucky that the opportunity has been given to us.”

Late last year, Riffice scored ITF title wins in Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina. “Sam’s success last fall is a continuation of what he’s been working on,” says Lori. “He’s taking them to a higher level. The ITFs play a big role in giving him broader perspective on where his game needs to be.” Reached while competing in Ecuador and Peru, Sam points out another valuable aspect: “The ITFs I won in the fall gave me a lot of confidence going into Eddie Herr and the Orange Bowl. I was really happy with my game.”

Lori Riffice was on hand to support Sam throughout his back-to-back wins at Eddie Herr and the Orange Bowl. “On the three-hour drive [between the tournaments] I made him do schoolwork on his laptop,” she notes. The transition from Eddie Herr’s hard courts to the Orange Bowl’s clay required some problem-solving. “Sam’s first-round opponent at the Orange Bowl was a young man from Mexico that he’d played at Eddie Herr,” says Lori. “He’d beaten him 1 and 0 at Eddie Herr, but at the Orange Bowl, he dropped the first set 6-0.”

Riffice quickly found his footing and turned things around, losing only one game in the next two sets. “It was a very exciting week,” Lori says. “Sam played his best tennis at the Orange Bowl.” Though Riffice won most matches in straight sets, he names a come-from-behind battle as the highlight of his young career. “My favorite match is the one in the Orange Bowl finals, where I beat Matias Siimar 7-5 in the third,” he says.

While the Orange Bowl and Eddie Herr wins are standout accomplishments, both Riffices and Khaldi continue to look forward and strive for improvement. From Spare Time clubs in the Sacramento Valley, to the USTA Training Center in Boca Raton, on through to competing at international events, Sam Riffice is learning along the way. “Sam is always focused on his fitness and schoolwork, and what he wants his next move to be,” says Khaldi. “He has something special.”


Reconciliation and Understanding: A Remarkable Conversation With BNP Paribas Open CEO Raymond Moore On Serena Williams’ Return

Inside Tennis Editor and Publisher Bill Simons spoke with BNP Paribas CEO Ray Moore about Serena Williams’ return to the tournament, how it happened, and her remarkable growth over the years:

This is quite stunning news about Serena. What was your reaction?
I was elated. Carried away—it was fantastic. Still is—I’m still excited, still haven’t come down. It’s great news for us.

What do you think it will mean? She’s Serena, the No. 1 player of our era and possibly of all history. Now she’s coming back home, so to speak. What’s your feeling?
My feeling is genuine excitement and acceptance. It seems that Serena has matured unbelievably, and by unbelievably I mean unbelievably well. She’s evolved. She’s 33, and who knows how much longer she’ll play? She’s embraced a great nonprofit charitable cause. Maybe she’ll follow in the footsteps of someone like Arthur [Ashe].
I had a couple of conversations with her prior to this event taking place. I talked with her in November and December. We agreed on the last call that she shouldn’t think about it or make any decision until after the Australian Open. Because our entry list closes in the middle weekend of the Australian, there was no pressure on her. If the press like yourself had seen she was entered on the Monday of the second week of the Australian Open, then suddenly the focus becomes different for her.

You know me, I have a concern for this. I asked her early on in the tournament. She turned to Jill [Smoller, Serena's agent] and asked “Am I entered?” and Jill said, “No.” Then she said, “I like my vacation time.” Right after she won the tournament I saw her coach and friend Patrick [Mouratoglou], who said, “Hey Bill, guess what—she’s going to play Indian Wells.” Then when I personally asked Serena again, she said no. She wanted to handle it her way.
Let me tell you, not only did she handle it her way, she handled it with aplomb. The piece she wrote [for Time, on returning to Indian Wells], which she wrote herself, hit all the right notes, and it’s a very sophisticated piece. It shows clearly the evolution and maturing of a fantastic athlete.

A year ago in Australia I had a long talk with Patrick about this and how it would be a real moment of potential reconciliation. I tried to explain that while Serena has had this absolutely fabulous career, this was something special she could be remembered for in a whole different way, and it would have meaning far beyond the courts. We all mature, but how would you say Serena has grown, specifically?
I’ve said this so many times when people talk to me about racism. I say, “You don’t understand—you have to talk a mile in someone’s shoes. You have to understand what’s happened to them in their life, how their opinions have been shaped.” Unfortunately, the situation here in Indian Wells in 2001 was [an example of] ugly human traits. When it actually happened and the booing was taking place, I turned to the person I was sitting next to and said, “You know, she’s 19, and I cannot imagine a male tennis player ten years older than her handling it the way she is.” I only learned from her letter that she was crying in the dressing room afterward and all the way home.

You said she could go in the footsteps of Arthur Ashe.
In my personal knowledge of players, you have to talk about Arthur and Andre Agassi in the highest terms. There aren’t many like them. Now, I just have a feeling—from talking with her, from her letter, and from her embrace of the Equal Justice Initiative [which seeks legal representation for poor defendants and prisoners denied just treatment]—that when she’s finished playing we haven’t heard the last from her.

What was the process like? Did Serena say she was thinking of playing but was concerned? What happened?
Two years ago, I talked with Stacey Allaster and said, “Stacy, we really have got to find a way to get Serena and Venus back here. How do we do it?” Stacey helped. She put together phone calls. I ended up talking to Serena’s agent Jill Smoler a couple of times. I met Jill here at the tournament in 2013, and put together a meeting with Jill and Larry Ellison and Stacey. It ended with Serena entering the [2014] tournament at the Australian after Nelson Mandela passed away. But there wasn’t any personal contact between Serena and myself, or Larry and Serena. It was only through Jill and people surrounding Serena. We all know what happened then—in the wake of Mandela’s death she said she wanted to embrace forgiveness and to play. At the time, I didn’t quite believe that she would be able to pull it off. I just didn’t get the feeling she was strong enough, or that all the forces surrounding her wouldn’t put obstacles in her way. I think that’s pretty much what happened in 2014 after the Australian.
I just think she wasn’t quite ready emotionally. Now, I have no idea, because I’ve not talked with the family, this is just my summation. In her letter, which I think is very explanatory and descriptive, she says, “I don’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore.” I think that’s a great statement, because she doesn’t. I appreciate and respect that she’s using that mantle of being a great tennis player, maybe the greatest woman of all time. She’s ready. She truly believes in forgiveness and she’s not editorializing on who was right or wrong.
With her initiative, there’s no linkage on our part, although we did speak about things like that. She made her own decision. I am personally in awe, and totally respectful and grateful.

You’re a man of South African heritage who worked very closely with Arthur on issues relating to race. Mandela said that sport has the power to change the world. Serena is just a tennis player at a tennis tournament, but in the context of our real lives do you think this could be an impulse for reconciliation and understanding?
Absolutely. That’s exactly where I think it’s going, and that’s what it’s about. Serena embracing a cause like Equal Justice Initiative, everyone needs to believe in that because there are stories on television every single week about people who have been wrongly imprisoned for years. I think it’s great, and I actually think that this is a rebirth of Serena, who I think will become an advocate for the underprivileged.

Have you given thought on how best to welcome her back?
You know, Bill, we haven’t had time to even digest this, because this was sprung on me last night at home by Jill. At 9 o’clock last night, I was just getting through my first glass of red wine. All I know is that we will now begin to make plans. Certainly she will be welcomed as the true champion she is, and we will try to make her stay here as comfortable as humanly possible.

Did you ever get tired of people like me asking about this issue over the years?
No, I never got tired of it. I just wished that I wasn’t so hapless, in not being able to sit down with Serena and Venus and Richard and Oracene and say, “This is how we feel.” It was a totally helpless feeling, and I really did not enjoy it. With the benefit of hindsight, would it have been better to do that? I believe it would have, but maybe not. Maybe Serena wasn’t ready. Now she’s ready.


Serena to Return to Indian Wells: The Long and Winding Road to Forgiveness

In one of her first press conferences at the Australian Open, I asked Serena Williams if she was going to play Indian Wells. She responded, as she often does, with a twinkle in her eye. “I don’t know,” she quipped, “I like my vacation time.” Then, just after she won the title, I spoke with her coach and good pal Patrick Mouratoglou. He declined to give me a quote about the match, but with a certain glee he told me, “You know Bill, she’s going to play Indian Wells!”

Great, I thought. But I was cautious. We had gone through the same thing last year, when he told me she would be playing and she was on the entry list, before she eventually withdrew.

So, after her final press conference, I approached Serena and asked once more if she was going to play. Again, she said no, she wasn’t. But I couldn’t resist. I looked her in the eye, smiled, and said, “C’mon, Serena. Why don’t you play? Everyone would love it.”

Obviously, today Serena announced she will play, which is something I’ve been hoping for and pursuing since the troubling day in 2001 when, as a 19-year-old, she received such an unkind reception. Below is my piece from last year on the long and sometimes perplexing road towards forgiveness.—Bill Simons

SERENA’S JOURNEY—LOOK WHO’S COMING TO INDIAN WELLS? COULD SERENA BE ON A LONG WALK TO FORGIVENESS?

By Bill Simons

Before I arrived in Melbourne, there were three “big issue” questions, relating to religion, human rights, and race, that I wanted to ask the players about.

I hoped  to ask Argentina’s gentle giant, Juan Martin del Potro—a devout Catholic who was delighted when he met the Pope—what he thought of the new pontiff: his open, compassionate mindset and transformative views. But Delpo was beaten in the second round, before I could get to him.

Then I wanted to talk with Maria Sharapova. On the surface, she seems as American as can be. If you buy her image, she is a LA fast-lane type (who gets a bundle to endorse Porsche), a fashion maven, and a sharp business woman.

All the while, she works hard to sustain her deeply felt—and also lucrative—Russian connection. Sharapova’s involvement with the upcoming Winter Olympics is a big part of her Russian branding. And few others, this side of Federer, know more about branding than Ms. Maria.

Sharapova carried the Russian flag in the London Olympics. She will be a NBC Olympic commentator at this winter’s games, providing thoughts on Sochi, where she lived for four years as a child, and where her grandparents and extended family still live. Plus, rumor has it that she will be involved in the ceremonies of the games. (We say: Light that Olympic flame, Maria, or at least bring the Olympic torch into the stadium.)

More to the point, I knew that Sharapova would probably be guarded if asked to comment on her homeland’s controversial anti-gay laws, which criminalize speaking out for gay rights. Not surprisingly, she basically blew off my question (see the previous post on InsideTennis.com), referring back to a diplomatic, noncommittal response she gave to the New York Times in December.

But most of all, I wanted to ask Serena Williams about Indian Wells. I was there in 2001, when fans—unhappy that sister Venus had abruptly pulled out four minutes before her semi against Serena—vented their anger at Venus and Richard Williams, and at Serena during her subsequent final against Kim Clijsters. With little substantiation, a tabloid story had claimed the controversial Richard basically controlled the outcome of the sisters’ previous matches, and Russian Elena Dementieva inferred the same thing after losing in the quarters to Venus. Fans, perhaps unhappy that they’d spent good money for a match that never happened, let Serena, who was just 19, have it for over two hours during the final.

The jeers were loud and unrelenting, the spirit mean. No steps were taken to counter the unruly behavior. Most observers felt race was not at all involved. I was there, close to Richard and Venus in the stands, and I strongly feel otherwise. It was not pretty, and a white teen would not have had to endure such anger (unless she pulled a stunt like Martina Hingis‘ in the ’99 French Open final against Steffi Graf). Still,  for years, I have been hoping Venus and Serena would end their subsequent boycott of the event, one that’s now lasted over a decade. Tournament officials took few steps to reconcile the unhappy situation, asserting that when they did reach out, the Williamses resisted.

That rang true, and to this day, there are some bitter voices around Serena and Venus.

Over the years, I had gotten to know and like their father, who loves to stir the milkshake. We often joked and laughed. He liked me, and had a penchant for pulling off off pranks. But one day, on the Wimbledon media terrace, I said, “Hey Richard, you’re a Christian. How about picking up on the Christian teaching of turning the other cheek and having the girls go back?”

Richard went ballistic—it wasn’t pretty.

More recently, in 2011, towards the end of the time when long-sidelined Serena was recovering from a near-fatal bout with a pulmonary embolism, writer Douglas Robson visited her LA home. He wrote that he “asked … about returning to Indian Wells. Williams said she did not want to go into it. But as a visitor left her home, she called out, ‘At this point I would play Indian Wells—anything to get back!’”

Naturally, I followed up, asking Serena soon after if she would indeed consider returning. She dismissed the question with trademark withering humor. Her message was, “Oh, that was so yesterday—I’ve so gotten beyond that.”

But then things advanced. Serena hooked up with Patrick Mouratoglou, a reflective Frenchman, who has helped her take extraordinary steps on and off court. She’s now less a girl and more a woman. Plus, Nelson Mandela, who she met, admired, and studied, became ill and eventually passed. His message was clear. Forgiveness, the most difficult thing we can achieve, is the most important thing we can achieve.

On top of all this, sister Venus returned to the desert for a promotion at a tennis shop near Indian Wells, and said some benign things about the region.

Observers read the tea leaves, and I wanted to ask again about Indian Wells. After her third-round win over Daniela Hantuchova in Melbourne’s extreme heat, Serena was tired and—perhaps due to a not-yet-revealed injury—in a funk. It was a bad time to broach the subject. But I knew I just had to. Who knew whether I would have another opportunity? (And sure enough, in the next round, Serena lost to Ana Ivanovic.)

“You love to laugh,” began my lengthy question. ”But you also have a serious side. You have your great schools in Africa that you’ve opened, you have written poignantly about those [slave] forts in Africa and have read Mandela closely. Mandela’s message was pretty much about forgiveness and reconciliation. He said [blacks in South Africa should] work with the Springboks rugby team for reconciliation. He put his prime jailer in the front row at his Presidential inauguration. Do you think that spirit could affect your thoughts about what happened in the desert? There is a new generation of people now who would love to see you there. Would that ever cross your mind as a possibility?”

Serena replied, “Yeah, it actually crossed my mind a couple days ago, or after I saw the movie [Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom].”

I followed up, asking,  “Do you think you would [go again]? It would be such a wonderful event for American tennis and for your career. Is that something you might consider in the future?”

Serena replied, ”It crossed my mind not too long ago when I went to see the movie.  I thought about it.”

Then I continued, saying “the movie was pretty strong, hey?” Serena responded by saying, “I think Mandela was a really amazing man.I felt really honored to have a chance to meet him, get to know him a little bit, and get to know his story a little better.”

Serena’s response was modest, and she was exhausted. Still, in context, it was also extraordinary.

For years, she had bristled at any public suggestion that she should return.

As luck would have it, after the press conference, I ran into Serena’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou in the media cafeteria. We talked tennis at length and then parted. But I had to go back. There was one more thing.

I told Patrick there was something very important he could do. As Serena’s coach and partner, he could encourage her to do something that had the potential to have as much impact as any of her wins. I argued that if Serena went back to Indian Wells, it would be so fully in the spirit of Mandela that it would be healing for our culture.

He listened, taking in my wide-ranging contentions.

Five days later, word came out that Serena Williams had at last placed her name on the Indian Wells entry list.

Was there a connection between all this and Serena’s move?

Who knows? And, most importantly, we will see if Serena follows through and actually shows up. There’s a long way to go.

If she does, let’s hope the good people who go to the BNP Paribas Open give a good reception to a good woman making a good gesture.

It would be good for many, and good for the soul.

Forgiveness matters.


Australian Open: Novak Djokovic, the Happy Warrior, Wins the Happy Slam

By Bill Simons

“Supposing truth is a woman, what then?”

—Friedrich Nietzsche

Listen up, guys.

No doubt about it. The two finalists in the 2015 Australian Open were guy’s guys. But truth be told, fellows, much of the pizzazz at this year’s Aussie Open related to woman. The opening day story was the departure of No. 5 seed Ana Ivanovic. In the second round Maria Sharapova barely avoided being booted out, and during the mid-days of the tournament, feminine themes rang loud: there was the surge of young American gals, and the golden run of the legend who led the battle for equal pay in tennis. “This old cat has more tricks up her sleeve,” Venus Williams told us, as she inspired many en route to the quarterfinals.

Then there was the dazzling “a star is born” run by Madison Keys, and a sizzling woman’s final between the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, the two greatest stars in the woman’s game: glamour blaster Maria Sharapova and the glorious mama of Big Babe tennis, Serena Williams.

Even the men’s side of the draw had feminine story lines. Writers spoke of the joy of the always-joking Novak Djokovic, who was in love, recently married and now a papa. After his quarterfinal win, the scoreboard showed an image of his infant son watching his daddy play. More than this, Djokovic would never have made it to Melbourne if it weren’t for a woman—his late coach Jelena Gencic, who discovered and shaped him as a tennis player and a man.

Likewise, Andy Murray’s career in some measure has been about the First Lady of Mens tennis. His mum Judy, a former Scottish tennis star, has been front and center throughout her son’s career. Even one of the better back stories of this Australian Open final has a feminine touch: In the 2013 final, Murray was distracted by a drifting feather—his whole game was disrupted, and he went on to lose to the Serb.

This year, the feminine beat went on. Murray’s fiancée Kim Sears was caught cussing and dropping X-rated bombs in the direction of Tomas Berdych, and there was significant hand-wringing about Murray’s bold choice to hire Amelie Mauresmo as his coach. The lesbian French champion, who Martina Hingis once likened to a man, was now being questioned because she’s a gal. Go figure.

Then again, there was much to figure out about today’s compelling men’s final.

This was the third meeting between Djokovic and Murray in the Aussie final, and Djokovic had prevailed in both previous matches. Not surprisingly, the Serb came out on fire, hitting all-out with laser precision, on or near the lines. From the start, he was hitting a tad flatter and harder and with his usual flexi-brilliance. This was Djokovician tennis—modern hard court tennis—at its best. Like a cat, the man with jelly joints pounced. And soon he broke serve.

But then the Scot bristled, said no way, and began prevailing in powerful, long, excruciating rallies. The very physical dance was on.

The Serb edged to the front by a nose. The Scot countered—they traded blows and traded breaks. The momentum switched, the margins became thin, the rallies grew longer: such fierce firefights. There are few—make that no—secrets between these two, who were born just a week apart. They’ve battled since they were 11-year-old wannabes. Pound, blast, slide, stop, screech, cross-court, reverse direction, let cord, lob winner, the crowd howls, deep breath, whatever it takes to win.

In the first-set tiebreak, Djokovic surged from 2-4 down thanks to a double fault and a wretched forehand volley from Murray, and drew first blood.

Novak’s and Andy’s games mirror each other and are a kind of blueprint for the modern game: great two-handed backhands, lightning speed, brilliant defense, strong returns, fierce belief, never give up.

But what came next was a set like no other—a set with little flow and less form. Suddenly, Djokovic’s left ankle gave way. His legs wobbled, his movement grew awkward. In the moment, one worried: Could he go on? Murray broke quickly, but then his concentration waned. Was this rope-a-dope? Later, Murray said he got distracted and that “it’s not legitimate” to distract your opponent, but he didn’t know if Djokovic was doing that on purpose.

Novak promptly came back to claim a 4-3 lead when protesters calling for refugee rights got on court, disrupting the match.

Murray took refuge and regrouped, forcing a tiebreak and sprinting to a 7-4 win to gain the second set and even the battle. The crowd roared, and his love Kim Sears (in a T-shirt that read “Parental Advisory: Explicit Language”) cheered.

But Sears was less happy when Murray failed to hold a 2-0 lead in the third set, couldn’t convert a critical break point at 3-3, and then donated a decisive double fault to gift Djokovic a break. The Serb scored s 6-3 third-set victory.

Now the wheels came off for Murray. Physically spent, livid, snarling and needlessly berating himself, he was hapless—shades of when Roger Federer beat him 6-0, 6-1 in London last fall. In contrast, Djokovic—swinging freely and in the zone—smelled blood and came in for the kill. Ultimately, he won 12 of the last 13 games.

Just as he did against Stan Wawrinka in the semi, Djokovic soared to emphatically shut his foe out in the final set. The 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-0 win gave him his eighth Slam, tying Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Fred Perry and Ken Rosewall. Sages quickly debated whether Djokovic could now win his first French Open and dominate the way he did in 2011.

We also simply wondered how the Serb pulled off his win. His coach Boris Becker explained, “[Novak] has a ‘never say die’ attitude. He’s a real street fighter. He was hurting, and it was a very physical match for both of them, but Novak found a way. That fighting quality has to come from within, and that comes from how he was raised [as] a boy.”

During the awards ceremony, the Serbian man spoke of his Scottish foe’s future bride, and wished for the couple to have children.

But for now, Andy would like to figure a way to upgrade his vulnerable second serve; and how not to net his forehand when he’s drained and his legs are burning. He’d like to figure out how not to get so emotional; how to sustain his fight deep into matches; and, bottom line, how to beat the best hard court player in the world, the No. 1-ranked man—the foe who has won eight of their last nine matches.

But it may not happen Down Under.

After all, we know that Pete Sampras and then Roger Federer made Wimbledon their own. Even more so, Rafa “King of Clay” Nadal has dominated the French Open. Now Djokovic has put his imprint on the Aussie Open. The man who’s won five times here—including four of the last five years—might be “The Happy Warrior,” for he’s made “The Happy Slam” his own.

Even after a very physical battle, Djokovic put things in an emotional, sensitive way, when he said his win had a “deeper meaning, [and a] more intrinsic value to my life because now I’m a father and a husband. It’s the first Grand Slam title I won as a father and a husband. [I] just feel very, very proud of it … I try to stay on the right path and committed to this sport in every possible way … [I] try to use this prime time … where I’m playing and feeling the best at 27. This is why I play the sport, to win big titles and to … play for the people around me. I know how much sacrifice they put in … and I try to thank them and not take anything for granted … There are circumstances … that define these beautiful moments. Getting married and becoming a father … gave me a new energy, something that I never felt before. Right now everything has been going in such a positive
direction … I’m so grateful … I try to live these moments with all my heart.”

So when you lift that trophy, Novak was asked, do you “always think about the lady who has done so much for you—Jelena Gencic?”

“Of course,” he replied. “She’s not only there when I lift the trophy. She’s there very often in my mind. Next to …  my family … she has done the most … for my career, for my life. This trophy, as much as it’s mine, it’s hers.”

 


Australian Open: Serena Slaps Sharapova to Gain Historic 19th Slam

By Bill Simons

MELBOURNE, Australia—We see a lanky, rail-thin blond: she’s elegant, beautiful, and except for her sounds and adventurous serves, almost flawless. Perhaps she’s from central casting. The supermodel who bangs a tennis ball. She’s an entrepreneur and risk taker who has her own cleverly-named (laden with sugar) candy company.

What we don’t see is Siberia, a vast desolate tundra, where Maria Sharapova was shaped. We don’t see Chernobyl, a nuclear wasteland that killed and devastated, and that Maria’s parents fled in fear.

And we don’t see Yuri, Maria’s tough-as-Putin papa, who was (and still is) a driving force behind women’s tennis’ second-best player; the man who left his wife behind to come to America with $700 in his pocket, and who plopped his kid on a bicycle to peddle her off to a tennis factory where she started to perfect those mean groundies she unleashes.

But Maria hasn’t forgotten. She told IT, “Oh yes, I remember that bicycle … I take the time sometimes to think about … think about where I came from, the hurdles I had to go through … He was a tough cookie.”

These days, every TV in America informs us that this woman has a shriek that frightens children. We sense that this is one tough, willful lady, and on this drizzly evening in Melbourne, the siren named Sharapova again collided with her nemesis, her Kryptonite—ghetto gal Serena Williams.

Broad shoulders, rock-hard legs, fierce intent—tennis people know one thing: don’t mess with Serena. You can look, but don’t touch. In 2004, Maria scored a breakout Wimbledon win over Serena. Since then, for 11 years, Maria has battled to overcome a wretched mid-career shoulder injury that could have ended her career, won four more Slams, evolved into a nifty clay court player and become the richest woman in sports. But in all this time she hasn’t laid a finger on that imposing force of nature we simply know as Serena.

And this night was no different than their 15 other meetings stretching over the past 11 years.

Yes, the theater was huge. “It’s the ultimate showdown,” said one broadcaster. For the first time in 11 years, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds would be playing in the Aussie Open final.

Twice earlier in the tournament, Serena had wobbled badly, and a nasty fever and cough had her wheezing big time. For her part, Maria barely survived two match points in the second round against a little-known Russian.

But this was the final. Unfortunately, from the start, Sharapova met an old foe: her serve. Nervous and under great pressure, she double faulted away the fiercely contested six-minute opening game.

Williams, battling tough, would never relinquish the lead.

Never mind that Serena looked awkward when running down drop shots, or that when the roof was suddenly closed at 3-3 in the first set, she had a coughing meltdown and upchucked offstage. Through it all, Serena was dialed in. She dearly wanted to win her first Aussie title in five years.

So there she was. She leaned into returns, created incredible angles, moved with great speed for a large 33-year old and played brave defense as she collected the first set 6-3. She hit eleven punishing winners. Maria had three.

Fans muttered, “Please, spare us another women’s Slam final blowout.” But Maria was on the ropes, reeling from an incredible “Serenian” onslaught. Sharapova glanced haplessly to her corner. “What can I do?” she seemed to ask, her frustration clear.

The Twittersphere was loud. Maria “has to do something different,” noted savant Richard Evans. “This is less a head-to-head than a boot to the neck,” observed the perhaps too truthful Jon Wertheim.

Well, at least Sharapova has a lovely neck. But then again, she has a lovely tennis game, and even when she was being run ragged, corner to corner, she remained Siberian-tough.

“I actually believe that we attract what we’re ready for,” she told IT. “Yes, I haven’t won against her many times, but if I’m getting to the stage of competing against someone like Serena, I’m doing something well. I’m setting up a chance to try to beat her … I’m not just going to go home … That’s  just not who I am and not who I was raised to be. I’m a competitor … I love playing against the best.”

No kidding. Yes, we know—Serena showed us a lightning-fast start, fierce serves and her best level of play in the tourney. Too often, all Sharapova could do was wave futilely as Serena’s groundies whizzed by, a distant blur.

Maria was being pummeled when she dropped the first set, but she dug deep and battled back. Her down-the-line backhands, cross-court forehands, gutsy serves and fierce returns drew admiration, and got her tantalizingly close to breaking Serena and changing the battle. Sure, Maria bent, but she didn’t break.

But Serena is Serena. She’s worked hard with her coach Patrick Mouratoglou. At times, she didn’t believe. But her French coach did. When she suffered a dismal loss to Simona Halep at the WTA Championships last fall, she just wanted to go home. Mouratoglou was blunt: We all have doubts, but fight on—win your next match. And during the off-season he worked hard with Serena on the rhythm of her serve. And at this stage, on this stage, it paid off big time.

“Normally, I would feel sorry for someone like Maria,” Serena confided after scoring her 6-3, 7-6(5) win. “She is such a wonderful … fighter. You want to see someone like that do well … But when you are in a sport competing against someone, even my own sister … all the time you want to win … [And if you] give her any room for moving, she’s going to go for it to a new level.”

Maria was going for it in the second set. She took it to a new level as she stepped up her serving, her returns, her belief, her whole game. She wouldn’t go away. Her jabs were bothersome. But Serena’s serve and forehand are body blows that get you in the gut.

The heavyweight Williams rebuffed every surge by the middleweight Sharapova. Yes, at 2-2 in the second set, Maria hit two laser-like winners. So what? Serena, in rhythm and offering her best serving performance since Wimbledon 2012, boomed three aces and a service winner: take that, in your face.

Serena’s serve is, along with Steffi Graf’s forehand, the biggest weapon in WTA history and today it once again bailed her out of trouble. She never seemed to doubt that she could hold. So it was no surprise that the second set went to a tiebreak in a match that was a theatrical triumph.

The final not only gave us breathless on-court firefights, but also a 12-minute rain delay on a court that has a roof, a first-class coughing fit (and an upchuck, two championship points saved by Maria, and a hindrance call on Serena for shouting “C’mon!” (which she accepted with new found calm, rather than freaking out like she did at the 2011 US Open against Sam Stosur). But nothing was more bizarre than the end of this clash, when Serena seemingly sealed the Aussie Open deal with an ace.

Wrong!

A let was called. Serena couldn’t believe it. She struck a pose, hands on hips. The phrase “You can’t be serious” came to mind. Serena later confided that she’d thought, “Man, I am not meant to win this tournament? Do I go [to the] ‘T’ or [hit my serve] wide, then? So I just tossed it and hit it as hard as I could.”

That was plenty hard—another booming ace. Then she paused: an erire moment—time stopped. She shook hands with her deflated foe and then it came: another explosive celebration, bounding athletic leaps, bulging eyes, a swirl of disbelief, complete delight. Her 16th straight win over Maria gave her a 19th Grand Slam, just three short of Steffi Graf. It meant she was the best American ever, beyond Martina Navratilova—who gave Serena her trophy—and Chris Evert. But is Williams the greatest ever? (She sure looked the part tonight.)

So we asked Serena to talk about all she’s done, and her place in tennis history. “I don’t think about it,” she said. “I think if I do I will become very happy ..  and impress other people and I don’t want to do that. I want to play next week, next month, next year.”

We continued: “Maria just said we attract what we are ready for. Do you think within yourself that you are ready to get to the Steffi Graf level [of 22 Slams]?”

Serena replied, “I am definitely ready for it. I am not afraid of it. I am going for it, but at the same time there are a lot of people who want to win Slams … so I have to enjoy the moment when I can.”

And we bet she will. After all, these days it seems Ms. Williams can do just about anything she sets her considerable mind on doing. Just ask a certain Siberian siren in red, who this evening was battered blue under an Australian roof.


Australian Open: The Slam Champ Who Reminds Us of the Church Group Doing a Stage Version of Barbarella

THE MADONNA OF MELBOURNE, BETHANIE MATTEK-SANDS, IS 2015′S FIRST GRAND SLAM WINNER

By Bill Simons

MELBOURNE, Australia—The Madonna of tennis, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, may have had a losing record in 2014. Her best-ever singles ranking may only be No. 30. And when we ask her burly and likable husband about her earnings last year, he may mutter, “$85,000 doesn’t cut it.”

But so what. The newly-minted Aussie Open women’s doubles champion is—along with her partner, Czech Lucie Safarova—the first Grand Slam winner of the year. Nobody can ever take that away from the nymph from Neenah, Wisconsin, our Bethanie.

She and Safarova beat five different seeded teams, including Taipei’s Chan Yung-Jan and China’s Zheng Jie in the final, who they downed 6-4, 7-6 despite trailing in the second set and having to deal with loud crowd support for Chan and Zheng at Rod Laver Arena. The tournament was Safarova and Mattek-Sands’ first time playing together, and the first time since 2007 that a first-time doubles pairing won a Slam.

Afterward, Mattek-Sands told Inside Tennis that she didn’t know whether her fans would be dancing in the streets of her hometown, but “everybody was up in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Arizona, Florida. So it was pretty cool.”

Also pretty cool: how the well-traveled pro, who won the Aussie Open mixed doubles in 2013, has stirred up our predictable, same-old-same-old tennis world over the years with her zany, outrageous outfits.

The well-tattooed fashion maverick of the 21st century first emerged at Wimbledon with a “dime-store-cowgirl-meets-soccer-player” outfit that British papers called the fashion “crime of the century,” and a “design for living beneath the bread line.” Eleanor Preston quipped that Mattek’s outfit reminded her of “a church group doing a stage version of Barbarella.”

Mattek-Sands continued her fashion offensive at the U.S. Open when she appeared in buff brown shorts and a silky top with frilly short sleeves. Fan comments included: “Oh my God, is that a Victoria’s Secret outfit?”; “It’s like Madonna went wild in a thrift store”; and “Those socks remind me of the ones they give you in the hospital so you don’t get blood clots.”

Then she donned an odd Cher-in-Pennsylvania-Dutch-country outfit, topped off with assorted skimpy accessories, prompting Greg Garber to conclude her outfits “are sort of like car crashes—even though you know it’s wrong, you can’t help but look.” More recently, Jon Wertheim wondered why Bethanie’s Indian Muslim partner Sania Mirza drew a fatwa for indecent tennis outfits, while Mattek-Sands went unpunished by the fashion police—or anyone else, for that matter.

In 2008, Mattek-Sands said she reached her first Grand Slam fourth round (against Marion Bartoli at Wimbledon) because she was in love; in fact, her soon-to-be-husband gave her a diamond ring between the first and second round. She’s also said she wears her outfits (which now are much tamer) to “keep up with what the crowd likes. Some love it or hate it. If they love or hate it, they’ll come see it. I think it helps tennis.”

‘WHY DON’T YOU GET IT? THERE AIN’T NO SUCH THING AS CLIMATE CHANGE’: After Pat McEnroe referenced the Northeast blizzard and said, “It’s like the worst storm in a century,” Brad Gilbert noted, “it seems like we get one of those every year.”

POETIC PROSE: Rafa Nadal’s English skills have improved brilliantly and his usages are often inventive and infused with their own unique beauty. All this prompted Nick McCarvel to tweet, “Love bad Nadal grammar that ends up waxing poetic: ‘When you have injuries, are difficult the comebacks.’ Brilliance #AusOpen.”

WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE: It seems a tad cruel to flash shots up on the Diamond Vision screen of a twitching linesman who has just blown a call.

HIGH (AND IMPORTANT) PRAISE: Serena said Madison Keys could become “the best in the world … She has potential to be No. 1 and win Grand Slams.” Sounds fine to us.

IT WAS CHILLY IN MELBOURNE: A nasty coaching controversy was brewing over Danny Vallverdu—the former Andy Murray coach who reportedly is now performing miracles for Tomas Berdych. So it’s hardly shocking that the Andy Murray vs. Berdych semi was an icy affair. There were swearing fiancées, glancing body shots, “if looks could kill” glances, odd ball controversies, bizarre celebrity entrances, public putdowns (by Murray) and a feminist shout-out by the triumphant Brit for his coach Amelie Mauresmo—who was once criticized here by Martina Hingis for being too masculine, and more recently dissed for being too feminine as an ATP coach.

Murray’s 27-year old fiancée Kim Sears appeared to drop a couple of F-bombs in the direction of Berdych’s Czech fiancée, Ester Satorova. Afterward, Murray defended his love, calling it “completely normal” amid “tension.” While highly critical of the media, he backed Mauresmo by noting the good job Lindsay Davenport is doing with Madison Keys, saying, “Women can be very good coaches as well.” BTW: Murray’s mom Judy, once a fine player herself, has been a key part of Andy’s tennis life from the get-go.

ORIGINALITY COUNTS: Victoria Azarenka, who has had a topsy turvy career, said it was “very important to stay original to who you are.” Translation: forget all the handlers who relish conformity and well-produced, safe personalities who don’t shake up anything.

HAND JIVE: Roger Federer got stung on his finger by an insect … Casey Dellacqua said Madison Keys’ shots were so powerful, it was as if her racket was being knocked out of her hand … Just after her stunning win over Petra Kvitova, Keys said her hands “were still shaking” … Last year, Rafa Nadal lost the final to Stan Wawrinka in part because of bloody hand blisters.

WHAT PMAC AND MARGARET COURT HAVE IN COMMON: From her first-row seat during the second men’s semi, the highly religious former Aussie great Margaret Court offered up more than one frosty glance to four boisterous, flag-laden Serbian fans high in the stands. Later, when the same quartet of intrusive fans wouldn’t stop barking, Pat McEnroe interrupted his wrap-up and told them to shut up.

MARATHON MATES: Stanovic III, that’s what some called the Stan Wawrinka vs. Novak Djokovic semifinal clash. And why not? The Euro duo have met in three straight Aussie Open semi-classics. But this year’s battle lasted only 3:30, a virtual sprint, and had an anti-climatic 6-0 win by Novak in the last set. Djokovic lost his strength and focus mid-match, even losing track of the score at one point. But he got his game back on track and now meets his rival since childhood, Andy Murray, for the third time in the Aussie Open final.

CURIOUS QUESTION: Chris Fowler asked which would come first: the Raiders winning a Super Bowl, or a US man winning a Grand Slam. (And, sorry Raiders, but the question is a very sad commentary on US men’s tennis.)

BEST ACTIVE PLAYERS TO NEVER WIN A SLAM: Tomas Berdych, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov.

A MILLION A SLAM: Venus Williams has played in 65 Slams and won about $65 million.

A SPORTING GESTURE: Before a recent match Venus lost the coin toss. When the ump thought she’d won it, the sporting Venus insisted she’d lost.

BEATS MARTINA, LOSES TO DAVENPORT: Venus beat Aga Radwanska, who is coached by Martina Navratilova, but lost to Madison Keys, who is coached by Lindsay Davenport.

OUR FAVE FAN DIALOG OF THE DAY:

Fan No. 1: “Do you miss Roger Federer?”
Fan No. 2: “Not at the moment.”

RUSSIAN DOMINANCE: Maria Sharapova has won 22 of her last 23 matches against fellow Russians.

TEEN TERRORS: Teens aren’t doing all that well on the tour these days. But this was the third year in a row that a teenager reached the Aussie Open semis: Sloane Stephens in 2013, Genie Bouchard in 2014, and Madison Keys this year.

DOING A LOUSY JOB: Speaking of Makarova, she’s one of the most media-shy players since Steffi Graf and she says she likes “playing in the shade.” So why then has she reached back-to-back semis at Slams?

FINALS STATS: The Serena Williams-Maria Sharapova match will be the first Aussie Open women’s final to feature the top two seeds since 2004 … Williams has prevailed in her last 15 meetings against Sharapova … This is only the fourth time in the last 45 Slams that the women’s final features the top two seeds … This will be the 19th meeting between Williams and Sharapova. Williams holds a 16-2 advantage.

 


Australian Open: Serena Wins, but the Rock Island Rocket Has Launched

By Bill Simons

MELBOURNE, Australia—The other night, everyone was recalling the late, great Vitas Gerulaitis‘ defiant boast after defeating his nemesis Jimmy Connors: “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.” After all, Tomas Berdych, who’d lost to Rafa Nadal 17 straight times, finally triumphed over the Spaniard. “Nobody beats Tomas Berdych 18 times in a row” became the one-liner of the night.

Similarly, after Madison Keys beat Venus Williams, many quipped, “Nobody beats both Williams sisters in the same tourney.”

Well, it’s actually happened eight times. But why let a few facts get in the way of a good yarn.

After all, there was plenty of sympathy for 19-year-old Keys. It’s hard to dethrone any ruler. And Queen Serena Williams has ruled for good reason. Many a feared foe has simply left. (Where have you gone Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Li Na?) Others such as Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova, Aga Radwanska and Vika Azarenka rarely trouble her, and her prime “rival,” Maria Sharapova, hasn’t defeated her for 11 years and 15 meetings—Serena was injured when Maria last won.

Most of all, when Serena wants something, she usually gets it. After a five-year drought, she wants to win in Melbourne. And she wants to break out of a certain logjam: Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Serena have each won 18 singles Slams. Plus, she’s a caring little sister and the best revenge player in tennis history. Certainly she was eager to avenge Venus’ quarterfinal loss to Keys.

More than anything, Serena is a competitor with abundant pride. She knows what is hers—tennis preeminence—and doesn’t want to lose it anytime soon. She didn’t want to lose to Elina Svitolina and Garbine Muguruza when she started terribly and fell behind fast. And she didn’t want to lose her No. 1 ranking, which would could happen if she lost today. In other words, the Queen did not want to lose to the teen, who was hoping to become the first teen Grand Slam champ in 11 years.

After Serena drubbed Dominika Cibulkova in the quarterfinals, a writer told her, “You were doing some mystical stuff or magic [out there].” But Serena would have none of it: “I’m not involved in mystics or magic,” she insisted. And for a brief while against Keys, Serena’s brand of magic was nowhere to be found. After all, Williams, the Nike woman in neon green with pink accents, was often outhit by Keys, the Nike girl in pink with green accents.

The 19 year old unleashed stunning aces, an even dozen, and as “The Rocket,” Rod Laver, looked on, she ran Williams around Rod Laver Arena, blasting shots that had Serena—who has joked that she would like to be an NFL linebacker—reeling: on her heels, almost requiring a standing eight count.

But in tennis, neither punches to the gut nor creative impressions matter that much.

Melbourne’s teen darling—who captured hearts, and whose form shouted “I am the future!”—lost in straight sets today.

Yes, Serena was fighting a nasty bug in her chest and a feisty insect on court. Worse yet, Keys was hindered by her gimpy left abductor. It’s tough enough to beat one Williams, even with Lindsay Davenport as your coach. It’s tougher to beat two Williams sisters. But to beat Serena on one leg? Puh-leez.

Still, Madison tried. Why not? She has such easy, blast ‘n blur power. On her way to scoring 27 overall winners to just 19 for Serena, she came out swinging, and soon broke. Serena muttered to herself. Fans asked, “Is this kid for real?”

We said yes. Williams said: Enough. Her mindset: I’m Serena, everyone knows my shots have a weight and a power like no other—everyone knows I am one of the great fighters in all of sports. I will prevail.

At 1-1 in the critical first-set tiebreak, she stepped into a 112 mph Keys serve and blasted a winner. She was only up a modest mini-break. But that was enough, as she powered her way to a 7-5 tiebreak win to collect the first set.

Keys seemed overwhelmed.

Movement is important to every player. It’s key for Keys, and she couldn’t move well. She could be the future of tennis, but on this cool Melbourne afternoon, the future was not now. Her dismal loss of the first game of the second set opened the floodgates. She couldn’t keep up, handle Serena’s power, or even hold serve. In a flash she fell behind 1-5.

Then came the greatest 7/11 tennis game ever. On the brink of defeat, down 6-7, 1-5, Keys saved seven match points in an astonishing 11-minutes game. Yes, Madison flubbed the simplest of overheads (everyone in the arena saw that all-too-human error coming). But few imagined Madison would play such sublime ball. “She just went for broke,” said Williams. “She had nothing to lose times a million.”

Madison had a different view. For starters, she admitted, “You can almost get overwhelmed if you start focusing on Serena being on the other side of the court … Her ball’s not like anyone
else’s. It comes hard; it comes deep. You never have the feeling … [you] can control every ball.”

As for her fighting off all those match points, the kid said, “Anytime I had a second serve on her match point, it was really, ‘Just don’t double-fault … Try to keep fighting, try to stay in the match.’”
Yes, she held serve in the most stunning high-profile game of the tourney. “She’ll always have that,” noted one tweet. But soon she was out of the match, losing 7-6(5), 6-2. No. 1 Serena, who at 33 is the oldest-ever Aussie Open finalist, beat a 19 year old—and now she’ll be going for her 19th Slam against No. 2 Sharapova.

Serena generously hugged Madison at the net. A while later, she told IT that the almost-20 year old ranked No. 20 can “go really, really far … She can be the best in the world … She has potential to be No. 1 and win Grand Slams. It’s exciting … It’s great to see her do so well as an American … She just has this desire to be the best. That’s what it takes.”

Serena added that Keys fought to the very end, and that she not only hits  “a very, very hard ball, but she also hits it very deep … I wasn’t really ready for that.”

Years ago, a teen from a Southern Illinois river town, Jimmy Connors, burst onto the tennis scene. Now we ask, is tennis ready for a kid from a Northern Illinois river town, Madison Keys, the Rock Island Rocket? According to Serena, Madison has arrived “just in time … It’s really good timing to get her in the mix.”

Madison herself dismissed any claims that she lost because of her injured thigh. Rather, she said she was pleased she’d held strong in the long baseline rallies and stayed calm throughout the tourney. Yes, she went dark on Twitter while in Melbourne, but she lit up the tennis universe.

“This week has definitely showed me … that I can play the top players and do well,” she said. “I can play the No. 1 player in a pretty close match … For me, that’s inspiration for every time I’m on a practice court, to keep working, to keep getting better.”

But tennis is a brutal taskmaster. A couple of other African-American teens who reached Slam semis (Sloane Stephens, 19, at the 2013 Aussie Open, and Alexandra Stephenson, 18, at the 1999 Wimbledon) soon struggled mightily.

Yet with her big coach, her big game, her big grin, her big heart, and her big Melbourne wins, we sense that the Rock Island Rocket has lifted off. Now, as the planetary Venus said, “The sky’s the limit.”


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