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.


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


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.


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.”

Australian Open: Madison Keys—On the Edge of Glee, On the Edge of Greatness

By Bill Simons

MELBOURNE, Australia—Madison Keys is a nice girl. She’s unburdened by the ‘tude or vanity of “look at me” types.

Her toothy grin has an unguarded innocence, on the edge of glee.

She is named for a mermaid, and says stewing over losses ruins all the fun of competing. She chuckles when admitting that her sisters keep her humble, and doesn’t hesitate to tell writers that she likes to lie on floors. Now it seems there are few limits on her ceiling.

With Keys, there’s a jaw-dropping wow factor. Think: “The Next Great One”—well, maybe.

Tennis’ truly elite champions—the crème de la crème—are so gifted that their talent cuts through the fog early. It’s not easy to be a late bloomer in this game.

Like Venus Williams, Keys played her first pro match at 14, and she beat the formidable Russian Alla Kudryavtseva.

Three years ago, Chris Evert said she was the future of tennis.

Still, Madison’s ascent has not been a cakewalk. She’s spent time in the shadows, has confronted teenage doubts, uneasy and insecure. There were injuries and painful losses. She was inconsistent, reaching the third round of a Slam only once. Plus, Sloane Stephens surged, which in a way was good for Madison. She was out of the glare. But she was out of a lot of matches, too.

In this game (whoops, make that: in this life), if you’re not going forward, it seems you are going backward.

For a while, Keys appeared to be treading water. At Indian Wells last March, Lindsay Davenport told me, “We’ll see with Madison Keys. She’s 19, but I feel like she’s going to have to move up pretty soon. She seems like a good competitor. But her shot selection hasn’t been great. If you’re going to play that big a game, you’ve got to get to the ball. She has to start with movement, or she has to make shots when she’s not in position.”

Well, kazam! How things change.

After toughing out a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 win over Venus, the icon who inspired her to play tennis, Madison is suddenly in a position to become the first teen to win a Slam since Maria Sharapova in 2004. To achieve this, all she has to to do is add to her wins over Petra Kvitova and Venus and go on and beat Serena  and possibly Sharapova.

That’s a big ask. Between them, they have won 31 Slams.

But why not?

Thanks in large part to her new coaching tandem of Davenport (a pioneer of big babe tennis, who faced Venus 27 times) and Davenport’s husband Jon Leach,  Madison is much more fit—if not immune to injury—and moving better than ever. Where before she could seem adrift on court, with point construction a bit of a mystery, now she is poised and patient. Sure, pound-and-prevail is her ethos. Stats show that she has the fastest groundies in the game. But she’s learning she can wait, stay within herself, and figure out when to pounce.

Keys said that Lindsay told her that Venus would make some great serves and shots. “When she starts playing really well,” said Davenport, “you can’t panic … just do your best. Constantly try to keep some pressure on her.”

Yes, Madison is young, and there are many nuances she has yet to pick up. But deep into her dreamy coming out party here in Melbourne, it’s clear that she’s overcome one obstacle after another. She rebounded from one set down against Aussie Casey Dellacqua. She outhit a truly elite player, world No. 4 Kvitova, serving out the match with what she called a “weirdly calm” ease.

Staying focused after her heady win over Kvitova, Madison swept through a “trap” match against No. 64 Madison Brengle. Then today she proved she could overcome downturns, erratic play, injuries, and a player whose reputation is intimidating. She downed a streaking legend who hadn’t lost this year,Venus Williams, the icon who 15-years ago inspired a four-year old kid in the Illinois river town of Rock Island to take up this game.

Today, Madison took her time. When she felt a strain in her left thigh, some veteran game management played (dare we note) a key part in her victory. She took a medical time out. Saying “Hold on!” matters.

In the fifth game of the second set, Keys felt a tightness in her left abductor. She couldn’t push off. “It was definitely kind of a flashback to Wimbledon [in 2014],” she said afterward. “[I] have had some problems with that part of my leg. So it was kind of an overwhelming moment … kind of scary. But luckily [I] was able to catch it before I did any real damage … I ignored it at Wimbledon and tore it, which ultimately made me withdraw. At that moment [today], it was kind of a panic … [I thought] ‘I need to get some tape on this so I don’t do that again.’”

Keys had convincingly swept to a 6-3 first-set win, nabbing four games in a row up to 1-0 in the second. Then she came off the boil and began showing signs of pain—and youthful impatience. Down 1-4, she called for the time out. She got a shot for her thigh which quickly proved to be a shot in the arm.

Venus had been on a roll, stepping in and blasting shots and finally building a rhythm. But now Keys counterattacked. She knew she couldn’t run much, so she went for winners. Coming off the time out, she won six straight points, soon tying the set at 4-4.

Venus battled back to win the second set on an emphatic ace, as if to say, “Not so fast, kid. Don’t mess with me—I’m a legend.”

But the kid didn’t care. In a deciding set filled with grand winners, not-so-grand errors, a string of service breaks and many lost opportunities, Keys crushed cross-court forehands and down-the-line backhands. She simply outslugged her foe, who was 15 years older and looked it.

Today, tomorrow’s champion would not be denied by yesterday’s star. Keys’ 30 winners told a tale. Williams managed just ten.

Simply put, the girl from Rock Island managed to pull off a minor miracle.

At crunch time, she was rock solid. Amidst a world of frenzy, she was an island of calm.

But can she beat Serena in the first All-American Grand Slam semi since 2002?

It’s a big ask. Still, don’t bet against the modest maiden of Melbourne, whose toothy grin is just on the edge of glee. She’s on the edge of greatness.

Australian Open: The Berd is the Word

By Bill Simons

MELBOURNE, Australia—If you want a defiant tennis quote, where you gonna go?

To Vitas, of course. That would be the beloved old legend Vitas Gerulaitis, who after finally besting longtime nemesis Jimmy Connors in 1980, almost too-famously insisted, “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.”

But that was then. Now we say nobody—and we mean nobody—beats Tomas Berdych 18 times in a row.

Sure, some wondered: Now that Tomas has gotten engaged, will “The Berd” be caged?

He wasn’t today.

Swinging big, blasting free, Berdych made a diminished Rafa Nadal look like a guy who has played just a handful of matches since June.

But then again, too often the Spaniard is down and out Down Under. He stumbles terribly at the Aussie Open almost as much as he alights at the French Open, where he’s lifted the trophy nine times. Yes, here in Melbourne he prevailed in back-to-back classics against Fernando Verdasco and Roger Federer to take the title in 2009. But that was the exception.

After losing to Novak Djokovic in a marathon 2012 final, Nadal could hardly stand. He’s missed the tourney due to injury (2006) and illness (2013),  and has suffered hefty losses to an inspired Fernando Gonzalez in 2007 and Jo-Willy Tsonga in 2008. He retired against Andy Murray in 2010, and had a quad hassle in 2011 against David Ferrer. Last year he struggled with hand and back injuries when he was upset in the final by Stan Wawrinka.

For the snake-bitten Spaniard, the usually benign Rod Laver Arena is a snake pit.

Still, few suspected the Czech veteran Berdych would check in with his A-plus game to upset a foe who has won 14 more Slams, not to mention their last 17 encounters. After all, Berdych has had some hassles in his career. The last time he beat Nadal, in Madrid in 2006, he stirred up a snake pit of his own when he mockingly waved a finger to tell the Spanish throng to shush.

Last fall, Berdych wanted to hire Andy Murray’s recent wonder coach, Ivan Lendl. Ah, it would have been such a perfect marriage. Matchmakers swooned. But the Czech legend got cold feet and essentially told the current Czech star, “No thanks—been there done that. I’m staying at home.” Berdych was left to go down Murray’s food chain, so to speak, hired the Brit’s former traveling coach and hitting partner Danny Vallverdu.

And then there was the one time Berdych reached a Slam final: Wimbledon in 2010. There, he appeared stiff and out of his league as he was clawed by a wild beast named Nadal, suffering a quick straight-set loss.

Today, however, too many of Nadal’s patented forehands were wild. They didn’t punish. His movement—usually such a weapon—was modest, not mercurial. He couldn’t plant his feet—too often he was pushed around by Berdych’s big forehand and no-nonsense, often brave serve. Plus, Rafa was rusty.

Afterward, when reporter Nick McCarvel told Rafa he’s played “a so-so match,” Nadal not-that-rudely interrupted: “No, not so-so, very bad. You can say [it], no problem.”

Yes Nadal had pulled out a Houdini-like comeback win in the second round over Tim Smyczek, Wisconsin’s modest sporting wonder with a triple-digit ranking.

But there’s a reason Berdych is No. 7 in the world.

Time and again, the newly-engaged veteran engaged his game plan. The theory: punish Rafa on the forehand side, take him wide when you have a chance, but also look to wrong-foot him. Vary the placement on your serve. And stay calm, because even on one leg—Rafa was grabbing his thigh—he is a threat. Remember, you are playing Nadal. He does things others only imagine.

But who imagined that Berdych—the king of the quarterfinals, who regularly wilts before the Big Four and is probably the best active player to never win a Slam—would soar and become a Berd of prey?

Berdych’s prayers were answered. He won the first set 6-2 and then (“Is that scoreboard lying ?”) actually bageled Rafa in the second set, handing him his first 6-0 loss in nine years.

Around the globe, Rafaholics wept. Surely now the Spanish bull would charge. When he finally won a game and snarled, the crowd roared. Berdych could have folded. He didn’t.

Instead, he stepped up and played serious power ball—in-rhythm, contained, and explosive. Czech-mate, Berdych.

His fist pump may be modest, but Berdych—who hasn’t lost a set all tournament—blasted savvy aces when he needed bail-out points. He repeatedly tripped up his foe.

Rafa doesn’t like awkward.

Plus, deep into the third set, the Berd was the word when it came to saving break points. He circled his considerable wagons when Nadal counterattacked, and didn’t panic when he blew sitter volleys, or when he couldn’t close fast and convert three match points.

Like a good corporate VP (or a circuit-wise 29-year old vet) the tall man stuck with the plan and won handily: 6-2, 6-0, 7-6 (5).

Of course, when he won, he didn’t exactly roll around in ecstasy.

No way, this is one placid middle-European with a neo-Lendl game face. Stone solid.

“If people want to see more emotion,” he told ESPN, “They’ll have to watch some other match.”

But nah, forget it.

This guy might not have that much sizzle, but he’s got plenty of steak. Just ask your local Rafaholic. And, of course, don’t you dare forget today’s mantra: “Nobody beats Tomas Berdych 18 times in a row.”

Australian Open: Top 10 Stories—Farewell Federer, Hello Madison

1. ROGER STRIKES OUT: Picasso once kicked over a can of paint. Federer lost a tennis match and, for the first time in 12 years, will not reach an Aussie Open semi. It’s been 14 Slams since Roger has won.

2. MADISON KEYS—FUTURE GIRL: It wasn’t just that Madison Keys knocked out two-time Wimbledon champ and No. 4 Petra Kvitova. It was the way the 19 year old did it. Hitting huge, moving well, returning serve with confidence, and feeling “weirdly calm” when she had to close out the match, Keys played like a champion. Then again, three years ago Chris Evert said the raw kid from Illinois was the future of tennis. Now fans are wondering, “Is the future now?”

3. PURR VENUS PURR: First Venus Williams tells us that she is as “old as the dinosaurs,” but confides, “This old cat has a few tricks left in the bag.” Well, purr Venus purr. The second-best player in the Williams family beat Caroline Wozniacki to win in Brisbane and is undefeated this year. Her first three-set match win at a Slam in years brought her to the second week of a Slam for the first time since 2011, warming countless hearts.

4. AMERICAN SURGE: US tennis fans have “slump fatigue.” We’re tired of talking about America’s prolonged slump. Aside from Serena, we haven’t had a Slam winner since Andy Roddick. We have no truly elite stars, no Slam wins since ‘03 and no Sampras, Agassi, McEnroe or Connors to fire us up. But finally a cadre of Yankees stepped up. Nine players—including the Williams sisters—reached the third round, and the Madisons (Madison Keys and cancer survivor Madison Brengle) faced off in the fourth round. Now Keys, Venus, and Serena have made it to the quarters. This best-in-years surge prompted Keys to say, “Lots of fun. Go USA!”

5. NADAL’S NIGHTMARE: Rafa Nadal’s second-round match against Tim Smyczek had everything: a Goliath of the game who had won 14 Slams; a diminutive David-like battler with liquid speed and slingshot groundies; a bad fan who called out at crunch time, and a good player whose sportsmanship will always be remembered.  Never mind that one player was No. 3 in the world and one was No. 112—there wasn’t much of a gap between one of the greatest players in history and the ATP’s most avid Green Bay Packer fan. Rafa was dizzy and dazed, but ultimately the mighty Spanish warrior dug deep and found just enough to down the little-known Badger basher from Wisconsin. Nadal’s performance wasn’t an exquisite triumph for the record books, but it will be etched in our memory of brave battles.

6. UPSETTING DEVELOPMENTS: On the women’s side, eleven seeds lost in the first round, tying an upsetting record that had been in the books since 2001. The loss of No. 5 seed Ana Ivanovic to No. 142 Lucie Hradecka was the earliest by a top five seed since 2003. Then a fellow named Federer fell, as did the Bryan brothers.

7. AUSSIE AUSSIE AUSSIE, OI OI OI: Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis, 18, won the most dramatic men’s first-round match, dispatching No. 11 Ernests Gulbis. But the victory celebration was just one of many by record Aussie crowds, who cheered as legend Lleyton Hewitt won a match and Bernie Tomic played well. Most of all, charismatic Nick Kyrgios beat Andreas Seppi to set up a spicy Commonwealth battle with Brit Andy Murray in the quarterfinals. Kyrgios is not at all like your grandfather’s Aussie champ, classy in white gear and by the book like Ken Rosewall. He’s his own man—new, modern, and confidently irreverent. He cares (and wants to win) but doesn’t care (what others think). He is interesting and drips charisma. He’s doing it his way. Few others have a better roar. He’s young, lanky, emotional. His haircut is cool, emotions hot. He dresses in bold splashes of neon. His shoes are beyond bright. So is his future. For Nick, it’s grunt and blast: blur serve, howitzer forehand. Whatever consistency is, it’s not Nick Kyrgios. Brilliance and blunders mix with a maddening frequency in his game, but then again, Einstein couldn’t tie his shoes. Kyrgios explodes with potential. We ask, “Is he our game’s next It Guy?”

8. WHIRLY BURLY TWIRLY: Was the dust-up about young Genie Bouchard being asked to twirl after winning the silliest sports controversy ever, or a subtle, but revealing commentary on sexism? Serena said Roger and Rafa wouldn’t be asked to twirl. Genie said it was no bother for her to twirl, as long as the guys were asked to flex their muscles. We’ll have an update at six—or maybe not.

9. A SPORTING GESTURE: We talk of superbrats and vain, preening superstars who are brands unto themselves. In the you vs. me Darwinian world of pro tennis, often the message is “Just win, baby.” But Tim Smyczek proved civility and sportsmanship are far from dead. Deep into the fifth set of a second-round match, when the upset-minded Smyzcek was down 6-5 to Rafa Nadal, a thoughtless fan yelled out as Nadal served. Rafa’s serve was errant, but Tim was right on when he told the Spaniard to serve again. Smyczek lost the match but won a legion of fans.

10. MARIA SQUEAKER: Last year in the third round, Li Na was within an inch of being eliminated by Lucie Safarova, but survived and came back to capture the title. Now we wonder, will Maria Sharapova do the same? After all, she’s proven time and again that the greatest of champions somehow find a way to win, even when they are stinking up the gym. Maria probably shouldn’t have had trouble with No. 152 Alexandra Panova. The Putin pal rarely loses to fellow Russians, or falls early in Slams, and hasn’t been defeated by a player outside the top 150 in over four years. Maria won the first set in 26 minutes—this was stealing Sugarpova from a baby. But then her level dipped and Panova stepped up, winning the second set and going up 4-1 in the decider. That’s when the greatest fighter in women’s tennis not named Serena willed her way back to a stunning 6-1, 4-6, 7-5 win. So what else is new? Maria is Siberia-tough. But is she tough enough to beat young Genie Bouchard and go on to claim her sixth Slam?

Australian Open: ‘I Know That Nick Kyrgios Can Win’


By Bill Simons

MELBOURNE, Australia—Too often tennis burdens us with desperately routine matches.

But then it explodes with pure unfiltered emotion, high drama and a sporting ferocity that shakes bones—such glee, and a sense of wonder. What else matches it?

It’s Saturday night and life is summer-good Down Under. Fish are jumping.

So welcome to the Australian Open’s third show court — the oddly named Hisense Arena.

The place has a white techno roof like Wimbledon’s Centre Court. It only has 10,000 seats in a contained square that rumbles loud. Decibels approach Ashe Stadium’s New York roar, and when emotions soar, steel beams relent and offer a wobbly shake. Here you can reach out and hug the action. Intimacy is good.

So is the strapping young lad before us. Volatile and alive, wild Aussie boy Nick Kyrgios teases us with abundant talent. “I could be the next great one, ” the kid appears to promise.

But he is not at all like your grandfather’s Aussie champ, classy in white gear and by the book — “Well done, lad.” Unlike the great Aussie Pat Rafter, he is not a stylish net charger with a ponytail. Nor is he “Rusty. ” That would be Lleyton Hewitt—feisty, fierce and kind of mean—yelling “C’mon!” as his foe double faults, then grabbing victory by the throat.

For Kyrgios is his own man, new, modern, confidently irreverent—not Ken Rosewall. He cares (and wants to win) but doesn’t care (what others think). He is interesting and drips charisma. He’s doing it his way. Few others have a better roar.

He’s young, lanky, emotional. His haircut is cool, emotions hot. He dresses in bold splashes of neon. His shoes are beyond bright. So is his future.

Some celebrate Federerian grace. For Nick, it’s grunt and blast: blur serve, howitzer forehand, hit and miss. Whatever consistency is, it’s not Nick Kyrgios. Brilliance and blunders mix with a maddening frequency. Einstein couldn’t tie his shoes.

Still, the teen wonder excites. He’s raw and explodes with potential. We ask, “Is he our game’s next ‘It Guy’?”

“He might appear cocky,” says his mom Norlaila, “but it’s mostly a front. He has got to shield his inner self because it is very pressured out there. Most of the time he is just trying to be cheeky or funny, and sometimes it can be misinterpreted … He can growl like a lion, he can pump up the crowd, or talk to himself—he could even break a racket … I just ask him not to do it on purpose.’’

What Kyrgios did on purpose was shock Rafa Nadal at Wimbledon last year, becoming the lowest-ranked player to defeat a world No. 1 at a Slam since 1992. And now, going into his fourth-round match against Federer conqueror Andreas Seppi, he had another purpose. He hoped to become the youngest male teen to reach multiple Grand Slam quarterfinals (Wimbledon and the Aussie Open) since some guy named Federer.

Kyrgios is only No. 53 in the world. He lost his first match at the Sydney warm-up tourney. His back is a question. His concentration is a bigger one. But few doubted his belief. He just tweeted, “I don’t fear anyone.”

So in Hisense Arena, frenzied Aussies brushed aside the inconvenient reality that, like Federer, Kyrgios dropped the first two sets to Seppi. Instead, prompted by the Aussie Fanatics—the best tennis cheerleaders anywhere—the throng offered a staccato chant with an almost religious fervor. “I believe that Nick will win, I believe that Nick will win,” they sang again and again, a mass mantra in a sporting temple.

But wait, Hisense is not really a holy tennis site. It’s not pure, sacred and embraced by ivy like Wimbledon. The chants at Hisense don’t resonate with the know-it-all sophistication you hear at the French Open and the yuppies here are not nearly as hip or rich as at Ashe Stadium, a sizzling venue where the Diamond Vision is a compelling entertainment unto itself.

Here, in a stadium named for a Korean electronics manufacturer, the scoreboard shows a too-happy Aussie family delighting in their Korean car in suburbia. All the while Kyrgios, an Aussie of Greek and Malaysian heritage, manages to break serve early in the third set to start a slow ascent.

Some celebrate Hisense as a people’s court: a grounds pass gets you in. But when a fan calls out rudely, a critic quips, “That’s what you get in this place—the drunks.”

You could say that 10,000 fans were drunk with intent. The throng pleaded with Kyrgios, willing him to stage a comeback.

And he did, winning the third and fourth sets, then going up 4-2 in the fifth.

“This is the best moment in Australia in six years,” said the excited Melbourne writer next to me.

But then the inconsistent warrior faltered. while Seppi—a 6’3” Mediterranean Viking—counterattacked and sprinted to the lead and a match point. “There’s a reason this guy beat Fed,” mumbled one nervous fan.

Brave Kyrgios, who lost in five sets here last year, simply told himself, “I just have to hit one big serve to get back into it.” Kyrgios knows big serves, and he pounds his forehand with belief. As he surged back, yellow-clad fans flooded the aisles. All of Australia cared, or so it seemed. Cameramen sprinted and squinted, eager to get their money shots. Rallies lengthened, cat-clever. Silence descended. Only indifferent flocks of swooping seagulls insisted there was more to life than a tennis contest.

On this night, and in this place, there wasn’t.

For Nick Kyrgios, the man of the future, and his nation, an oddly anti-climactic Hawk-Eye call sealed a 5-7, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6, 8-6 victory to remember.

Kyrgios became the youngest Aussie man to reach the quarterfinals here in 25 years. All of which left those Aussie fanatics in a frenzy. While earlier they had been chanting their mantra (“I believe that Nick will win, I believe that Nick will win”), now they were rolling around in a joyous human heap on the carpeted corridor outside the arena. Sure, their man would next have to play Andy Murray. But for the moment, they ecstatically chanted, “I know that Nick has won, I know that Nick has won.”

And so did all of the Australian nation—well, except for the seagulls.

Australian Open: Madison Keys—Future Girl

By Bill Simons

MELBOURNE, Australia—Somber Saturday, that’s what they called it.

After all, for far too many years, by the time most Grand Slams got near the end of their first week, a vast swath of the US contingent had been swept aside.

Americans were left with a vacant feeling. “Oh dear,” we muttered.

Somebody called this “the American century,” but unless you’re a Serena Williams fanatic, it sure hasn’t felt that way lately on the world’s tennis courts.

The unhappy stats sting. (For instance, in 1980 we had 118 men and women in the top 100. Now we have just 18. Or there’s that standard lament that an American man hasn’t won a Slam in almost 12 years. Ouch!)

American tennis fans suffered from a common malady: slump fatigue. All the hand-wringing got old. When asked about the state of American tennis the other day, John Isner said, “You guys know the drill.”

At times it seemed all you could do was find refuge in that old Sam Cooke adage, “A change is gonna come.”

Still, our slump has been hard to take. After all, we’re Americans — Yankee proud, our expectations are stratospheric.

Now, at long last, there is plenty to be proud of. Madison Keys was thrilled that for two straight press conferences usually gloomy reporters were actually upbeat about American tennis. “Lots of fun,” said Madison. “Go USA.”

Nine Americans made it into the third round.

Sure, both big John Isner and the rising Steve Johnson fell today (to Gilles Muller and Kei Nishikori). For the eighth time in the last nine Slams, no American guy reached the fourth round.

But things were much brighter on the women’s side. True, for a while it appeared Camila Giorgi would join Andreas Seppi as another little-known, blue-eyed, blond Italian with a two-handed backhand taking down a legend. Against Venus Williams, the hard-hitting Giorgi won the first set, and was up 4-2 and 0-40 on Venus’ serve. Then Venus rallied, even overcoming the loss of an eleven-deuce game early in the third set. Never mind that Venus had lost five straight three-set matches in Slams and hadn’t reached the second week of a Slam since 2011. She played vintage Venus tennis, reeling off 11 of the last 14 games to win her eighth straight match this year. For the first time since 2010, she was into the Aussie Open fourth round.

Billie Jean King tweeted, “I am inspired by Venus Williams. Every time she takes the court. Great to see her healthy, competing and loving what she does.”

Venus was more succinct. She told the crowd, “Well, this old cat has a few tricks left in the bag.”

But for much of the first set of her match, it seemed as if Serena left her game in her racket bag. “Oh my,” said her fans, as she lost the opener to the prospect from Odessa, Elina Svitolina. Williams seemed indifferent and passive, and she served slowly. Then she did some timely scoreboard watching. She saw her sister was kicking butt—up 4-1 in the third set. So she kicked things into gear, like only she can, and swept to a 4-6, 6-2, 6-0 win over the No. 26-ranked twenty year old from the Ukraine.

In other American results, the “girl from Allentown” (Pennsylvania), Varvara Lepchenko, was sliced and diced by Aga Radwanska. Then the little-known but oh-so-appealing late-bloomer Madison Brengle delivered a performance much better than her No. 64 ranking. The fast-rising 24-year old from Delaware was ranked 145 last year when she was faced with skin cancer. Today, she dismantled fellow American Coco Vandeweghe to help set up a showdown with another Madison: the 19-year old power maiden Madison Keys, who scored the win of her life, a powerful late-night 6-4, 7-5 dismantling of two-time Wimbledon champ, world No. 4 Petra Kvitova.

Serving big, crushing her forehand, disciplined, returning with confidence, unafraid of her foe or the big stage, Keys crafted points beautifully, broke often and showed improved movement. Then, when it came time to close the match, she felt “weirdly calm” as she unleashed a breathtaking display of big babe tennis. Earlier in the tournament, Casey Dellacqua said Madison hit so hard she knocked the racket out of her hand. And last year at the French Open, the average speed of Keys’ relentless groundies was said to be faster than any woman or man.

Three years ago, Chris Evert said that the raw kid from Illinois was the future of tennis. Tonight, the future was now. The sometimes awkward girl, who seemed so lost and tactically clueless on a hot outer court here last year, now was cool: a wondrous woman to contend with. Afterward, Kvitova said, “She can be one of the top ones for sure,” and Pam Shriver insisted she could win this year’s Australian Open.

No wonder the tiny contingent of Americans here left Rod Laver Arena smiling. After all, forget Somber Saturday. Forget the the still not spectacular results in American men’s tennis. Forget our long dreary slump.

Now we know, “a change is gonna come.” It’s a new day. As Keys told us, “Lots of fun. Go USA!”


PURE ELATION: Madison Keys, after she beat Petra Kvitova.

THAT’S FOR SURE: A MadisonKeys or Brengle – will reach the Aussie Open quarterfinals. Keys said, “Obviously we are representing our name pretty well” … After losing to Madison Keys, Petra Kvitova said “I’m not the first to lose here and I won’t be the last.”

THE MOST IMPORTANT DRESS IN TENNIS HISTORY? A four-year old Madison Keys told her Dad that she really liked the dress Venus Williams was wearing at Wimbledon and she wanted one. Her Dad said sure, but only if she played tennis.

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

LIFE IS GOOD: Rafa is back in the ATP mix.

SUPERMAN: Rafa said he doesn’t like to sleep because he considers it a waste of time.

SAY IT ISN’T SO: Lindsay Davenport got pooped on by a bird … Both Madison Keys and Madison Brengle do not know who World Series star Madison Bumgarner is … Brengle’s nervous father went to sleep rather than watch her third-round match.

LESS IS MORE: Sometimes losing can benefit your career. After Andy Roddick dramatically lost to Federer in a Wimbledon final his popularity soared. Andy Murray dropped the 2012 Wimbledon final, but it somehow gave him confidence. Here in Melbourne, the classy Tim Smyczek, who fell to Nadal, won a lot of new fans.

MR. WOBBLYBOOTS: Darren Cahill’s nickname for Frenchman Gilles Simon, whose cramping legs almost gave out on him during a semi-marathon match against David Ferrer.

PARTY GIRL: Serena said, “These days if I get beyond the fourth round it’s like party time.”

THE GOODBYE GUY: German Benjamin Becker famously beat Andre Agassi on Ashe Stadium at the US Open in the last match the American ever played. The other night Becker came back from two sets down to beat Aussie legend Lleyton Hewitt on Rod Laver Arena in what might be Hewitt’s last match on his home center court. Now to get a career Grand Slam in such farewell matches, all Becker has to do is beat Jo-Willy Tsonga, Richard Gasquet or some other French star in their last match on Court Centrale, or Andy Murray on Centre Court when he’s about to hang ‘em up.

VICTORIA’S X-RATED SECRET: When asked about a key error in her third-round match, Victoria Azarenka told the Margaret Court Arena crowd, “When I missed the overhead, I said, ‘Oh s—.’ Sorry, you can blip it out.”

JUST GLOWING: Victoria Azarenka, who beat Barbora Zahlavova Strycova today, is relishing her resurgence after enduring what she felt was a lost year in 2014.

OVA THE TOP: Barbora Zahlavova Strycova has two “ovas” in her name.

ONE BUSY MULTITASKING MAMA: Madison Keys said her new coach Lindsay Davenport was wearing four hats: mom, coach, TV commentator and a competitor in the legends draw. BTW: Mary Joe Fernandez said Davenport was “so invested in Madison. It’s like she’s taken her on as another child.” And that is some kid, wouldn’t you say.

Australian Open: The Day Roger Federer Struck Out

MELBOURNE, Australia—The man rocks the first weeks of Slams.

For 13 straight years, Roger Federer has reached the fourth round of the Australian Open. For 11 straight years, he has reached the Aussie Open semis. His best records reveal an astounding Lou Gehrig-like consistency. He reached 23 Grand Slam semis and 36 Grand Slam quarterfinals in a row. The Swiss man is like clockwork.

Certainly, today there would be precious little new or unexpected from the man with a (relatively) new racket, a new coach, and—so to speak—a new back.

But wait, didn’t Picasso once kick over a can of paint?

Didn’t Mozart’s canon in B-flat fall flat?

Didn’t Fred Astaire once stumble?

Plus, anything is possible, especially at this year’s Aussie Open, where a controversy on twirling is swirling. Americans have been winning big. Young Aussies are rising. Old Aussie faves have fallen, and two of the greatest competitors to ever step on court—Ms. Maria and Señor Nadal—narrowly escaped elimination.

Still, we could barely believe our eyes today. The smartest man in tennis suffered a dumb blunder. The most dominant player we know was hardly imposing.

The Mighty Fed was not mighty. Roger Federer struck out.

Stunned Aussie fans wondered, “How did it happen?” After all, for the second straight round, Roger was simply going up against a Italian journeyman. Federer’s matchup should have posed few problems. In his 11 years on the circuit, his foe, Andreas Seppi, hadn’t done much to “Seppi-rate” himself from the pack. Thirty years old and ranked No. 46, he was the epitome of a lean, athletic journeyman with a nice little beard and a fine backhand.

That usually doesn’t cut it against Fed.

Seppi hadn’t prevailed in any of his ten matches against the master, and he’d only managed to win one set.

But Seppi—who looks like a Mediterranean Viking, if there is such a thing—moved well, crafted points beautifully and fought hard to take the first set. Oh well, Roger had lost the first set the other day against Simone Bolelli, so no problemo.

Yet inexplicably, the usually flawless Federer made a bonehead move at 4-4 in the second set, when he froze and backed off a modest floater from Seppi that he could have bashed any which way. There are no double bogeys in tennis. It just seemed that Federer suffered one.

Then came the moment of the match.

Roger went up 4-1 in the second-set tiebreak. The man with a clutch 369-199 record in breakers was on the brink of gaining control. But Federer’s groundies were distinctly non-Federerian. His movement wasn’t explosive. His backhands found the alleys. He yelled out in frustration and stared at the sky. He clunked a forehand into the net—one of 55 unforced errors that eventually led to his demise.

Losing six of seven points, Federer dropped the tiebreak, 7-5. Ouch!

“I guess I won the wrong points out there today,” Roger—who actually won one more point than Seppi in the match—said afterward. “I knew how important that second-set tiebreaker was … it just broke me to lose that second set. It was a brutal couple of sets to lose.”

No kidding.

Still, the Aussie throng urged on the beloved champion. Statisticians noted Federer had come back to win from two sets down nine times. Broadcaster Richard Evans asked, “Coming from different sides of the Alps, which one of these two will first reach the peak?”

Federer briefly rallied to collect the third set, and soldiered on to force a tense, dramatic fourth-set tiebreak. But this was not the sublime imposing Roger we know so well. This was not the bright star that clinched the Davis Cup title this winter or impressed at the warm-up tourney in Brisbane.

Instead, Roger appeared slow; his footwork was suspect. He played cautiously and rarely went for the lines. Amidst Melbourne gusts, his shots sailed. His serve was unhappy.  (We wondered: Was his back hurting?) And he undertook too many futile net charges that lacked conviction. He suffered nine double faults and faltered when he had break points in hand.

Whew! But having said all that, he had his chances, scoring three mini-breaks in the tiebreak.

But each time Seppi confidently broke back. and then he hit a shot for the ages—a stroke suggestive of the forehand down-the-line winner by Vasek Pospisil that gave him and Jack Sock last year’s Wimbledon doubles title over the Bryan brothers; or Novak Djokovic’s whoosh crosscourt return of serve when he was down match point against Federer at the 2011 US Open.

Tall and lanky, Seppi ran into the dark shadows of Rod Laver Arena to unleash a forehand blast that zipped by Federer, caught the sideline and, in a stunning flash, gave him a memorable 6-4, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (5) upset; his first-ever victory over a top ten player in a Slam; a triumph that propelled him into the fourth round of a major for only the third time in his career.

Later, Seppi—who had to overcome 15,000 rabid Fed fans— said he tried to remain calm throughout the match and avoid dwelling on his miserable record against Roger.

In contrast, the Swiss—who had not lost in the Aussie Open third round since 2001—was left to report the obvious: “I’m on the plane and he’s not … I struggled today and he took advantage … margins are small, these things happen.”

So what went wrong? “I guess,” Roger recalled, “it was just an overall feeling I had today out on the court that I couldn’t really get the whole game flowing. You know, was it backhand? Was it forehand? Was it serve? It was a bit of everything.” Roger also revealed he had an uneasy feeling in his morning practice.

Similarly, tennis had an uneasy feeling about him.

Questions emerged.

Did his Davis Cup campaign take too much out of him? Has he lost his trademark explosiveness? And then there were those two old standbys: Will he ever win another Slam? Will the 33-year old ever quit this game?

We hope that day will never come. After all, when Picasso kicked over that can of paint, he just cleaned up and stroked another masterpiece. For every clunker Mozart composed, he gave us hundreds of wonders. Astaire’s long-ago foot fault was cut out of the film and tossed away.

Yes, our Roger had a wretched day at the office. But certainly, he will be back. After all, the man still loves this game—and this game still loves the man.

Australian Open: Venus Williams—Serene at the Edge of a Volcano

By Bill Simons

MELBOURNE, Australia—She was thin, wide-eyed, a tad scared, and not so sure what she was getting into. That was Venus Williams when I saw her play her first pro match at the Oakland Coliseum in 1997. Just 16, she was a waif taking on the world. The New York Times and CNN were court-side, and all of tennis was curious.

So what about this little kid from the ‘hood?

The hype machine revved up and amplified the astounding claim of her boisterous pop, who insisted, “Venus [is] pretty much ready to revolutionize tennis. These pro girls will have a major-league problem dealing with her.”

“Really?” wondered the skeptics.

“If everybody believed everything they read about her,” said Martina Navratilova, “We might as well all go home, because Venus Williams is going to beat everybody.”

“Yeah,” said Chris Evert, “She’s the greatest that ever lived.”

So there kid-Venus was: a little girl, storming the formidable bastions of a very foreign, very white universe, and a world of lofty expectations.

In this context, could she be anything but intense? This was not the cerebral, deferential, user-friendly Arthur Ashe. Venus was steel.

Early at one Miami championship, she predicted that when she became No. 1, her sister Serena would be her chief competition. The bold but right-on claim prompted Martina Hingis to quip, “Oh, that’s nice … I didn’t have that much self-confidence after winning one match.”

Soon there were feuds with fellow players about just who kicked whose tennis bag. Fans gasped as they witnessed “the bump,” Romanian Irina Spirlea’s collision with Venus during a US Open changeover. There were ongoing claims that papa Richard Williams was fixing matches when his daughters played, and then there was all that troubling hooting and hollering at Indian Wells after Venus suddenly withdrew from her semifinal match against Serena. Life was not pretty. Venus’ rise to the top was far from easy.

No wonder Venus and Serena were inseparable. “You and I, baby, against the world!” they appeared to shout. And they took up plenty of oxygen. They were the talk of tennis.

“It’s like all of my press conferences … are about Venus and Serena,” complained Kim Clijsters. “I would really appreciate it if they were about my tennis or something.”

From the outset, dissing the Williams clan was a kind of ‘go-to’ reflex. For starters, they were criticized for shunning junior tennis. They were said to stick too tightly together. Fort Williams had few cracks, few were let in.

Never mind celebrating their father’s inexplicable genius. Rather, he was routinely dismissed as a hater, a self-centered, controlling buffoon.

Then it was said they didn’t focus enough on tennis, and naturally they drew heat for not playing Indian Wells, the prime tourney in their native California.

Then again, sometimes the Williams criticisms were a tad too blunt and envious. “She thinks she’s the f—ing Venus Williams,” said Venus’s livid foe Irina Spirlea. And sometimes the putdowns were just delightfully nonsensical. After losing the 1998 Lipton final, Anna Kournikova claimed, “Venus didn’t beat me. I lost. That means I’m a little better than her.” Got it.

Sadly, there were times the commentaries had racial undertones. Venus and Serena were pegged as just ‘athletes’ and bashers who were explosive and could run. But they weren’t craftswomen, or thinkers. and they desperately needed professional coaching.

Their mother Oracene countered this, saying her daughters didn’t get the credit they deserved: “No way. Because black people are always [viewed as] just athletes. They’re strong and tough and they can’t think. They’re not intelligent.”

Of course, the Williams’ tall, broad and powerful bodies drew attention and ramped up the game. But not everyone was pleased.

“I’m not Venus Williams. I’m not Serena Williams,” said Kournikova, “I’m feminine. I don’t want to look like they do. I’m not masculine like they are.” And just last fall, Shamil Tarpsichev, the head of the Russian Tennis Federation, referred to Venus and Serena as “the Williams brothers” and said, “It is scary when you really look at them.”

But, when you really look at Venus and Serena, you can’t avoid a simple reality. They transformed tennis.

Venus told Elle magazine, “Serena and I are exactly the opposite of anything that ever happened before in the game. The old tennis world was pretty reserved, but Serena and I are bold. We stand out. We have color. We’re strong. We’re pretty. We have personality. We think things out. We’re smart.”

Sure, the critics howled that the blunt, less-than-sweet Williamses were arrogance incarnate. Hardly a wallflower, Venus didn’t hesitate to show up at press conferences with in-your-face T-shirts like the one that read, “Strong, smart, confident, equal.” Often they would tweak the media. When asked if she wanted to win an Academy Award, Venus joked, “You can’t really beat winning [an Oscar], but you can always win Wimbledon.”

Well, she’s won five times at the All-England Club. But not everyone got the joke. Jon Wertheim contended, “The Williams sisters wield authority like no other players. Were they male, we would applaud their ‘intensity,’ their ‘competitive streak,’ their ‘ferocity.’ Because they are women—black women, no less—they are ‘catty,’ and they are ‘trash talkers.’ To quote John McEnroe, ‘They lack humility. ’”

Some spoke of the Williams’ “willed obliviousness” to others. Fair enough. Venus was always unapologetic and rarely hesitated to pour fuel on the fire. She claimed, “People criticize me for being arrogant [but maybe it’s] because I’m a little smarter than the others.”

No wonder Mary Carillo noted, “This woman and her sister dance on the edge of a volcano more than any other champs I’ve watched.”

More than that, Venus has ‘summited’ many a tennis mountain. The Jehovah’s Witness —who’s been partial to karaoke, Asian antiques and Harry Potter—has won 46 singles tournaments, including seven Grand Slam singles and 13 Grand Slam doubles titles. She’s been ranked No. 1, has won Olympic gold in both singles and doubles, pocketed about $64 million and been in the top ten for 13 of her incredible 17 years. When Venus was rising, Navratilova confided, “I’m glad I never had to play her. She’s just too long, too fast. She’s so imposing, you feel like you’ve got no place to go. She makes you feel you need to hit a better shot than you’re really capable of.”

Bottom line: it’s hard to question Venus when she says, “If I had listened to everyone else, then I would never have made it out of Compton. I’m living in Palm Beach Gardens now. It’s pretty nice.”

What’s also nice is that we relish our Venus memories: the lean, ecstatic champion leaping with joy after beating Lindsay Davenport in a classic Wimbledon final. We recall the best older sis in sports, hugging Serena after they won Olympic gold, and we remember a reflective champion poignantly explaining how she was confronting Sjogren’s syndrome, an energy-sapping malady no one should have to battle.

More than anything, we delighted in witnessing the raw, wide-eyed girl morph into an appealing woman of substance—confident and brimming with joy and an easy gravitas. Once a bit of a flamethrower, she stepped up in the best tradition of Billie Jean King to lead the fight for equal pay. When the Israeli Shahar Peer was banned by a Middle Eastern tourney, she insisted ‘no way,’ and stepped up to right a rather wretched wrong. Now she’s blossomed into a multitasking talent who, despite her complaints about Accounting 101, is working on an online degree in business from Indiana University. She’s an entrepreneur with her own interior design company, and a clothing business, EleVen. All the while she’s also a bit of a goofy, self-deprecating comic who refers to herself as a big kid and still loves to giggle. The woman who 11 years ago told us that she “was older than I used to be,” today informed us that she has “been around since the dinosaurs.”

Mellow and empathetic, when told that Li Na was pregnant, she beamed and said, “How sweet.” When speaking of her interior designs, she sounded Zen-like, explaining, “The principle of the design … [is] harmony, rhythm and balance, [which] are all the same with interior and fashion design.”

You’ve come a long way baby. Venus Ebony Starr Williams now inspires.

It’s no surprise that many of America’s top young prospects, such as Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and Taylor Townsend, are women of color who feel empowered to follow in her footsteps. And now the 34-year-old is having a sweet, somewhat improbable on-court resurgence. She won the Aussie Open warm-up tourney in Auckland, is ranked No. 18, and is through to the third round in Melbourne, thank you very much.

Serene, minimalist and comfortable in her own skin, Venus tells us that she has “a good life, a good family, and a good little dog. I couldn’t ask for more … My whole view is that I’m really blessed to be here. I’m living the dream.”

And for 17 years, tennis has been captivated by her transformative dream. Sure the sisters used to attract doubters. Now they attract accolades.

Tennis showman Arlen Kantarian said, “Venus and Serena are to tennis what the Yankees are to baseball; what the Lakers are to basketball; what Tiger Woods is to golf. Only in our sport it comes in a pair.”

Billie Jean King claimed, “They provide more drama, more bang for the buck, than anyone else in the sport. Their drive to come back, their will to win, is unequaled.”

John McEnroe went further, saying that Venus and Serena are “the greatest story in sports history”

Then, of course, there was the greatest of all Williams compliments, when journalist Gianni Clerici told us, “What tennis needs is a third sister.”

But let’s not be greedy.

After all, singular Venus and that little sister of hers have lit up our tennis lives like no other duo. And that’s more than enough.

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