NEWSFLASH! Russian Caught Meddling in American Tennis

Photo by Brent Bishop

The great lady with the great backhand and the great sister was making a great run.

She’d beaten a Serbian who’d been No. 1 – Jelena Jankovic; a Czech who was a Grand Slam Champion – Lucie Safarova; and a dangerous Chinese qualifier – Shuai Peng. And she sprinkled her run to the quarterfinals with gutsy comebacks. Then again, Venus Williams knows a thing or two about comebacks.

The seven-time Slam champ has come back from Sjögren’s Syndrome, and after a 15-year absence she came back to Indian Wells last year, but lost in the first round.

Yet this year she was brimming with confidence. And why not? She made a stunning run to the Aussie Open final. In her press conferences there were hints of glee – she confided she was playing with freedom.

But today, Elena Vesnina, the elegant 30-year-old and Wimbledon semifinalist (who is not an “ova,” and, in the absence of Maria Sharapova has Russia’s best grunt – “HIGH-YA!”) had the lean Venus leaning and lurching. Venus was baffled. She was battling injuries she wouldn’t reveal, despite the best efforts of the press corps. She couldn’t attack. Her service was modest – 66 mph. Her game was lethargic – get that gal a Starbucks.

Hitting groundies with power and placement, Vesnina sprinted to a 6-2 first set win.

But then Venus relaxed. Her game clicked into gear. On an amazing side-to-side scramble point, the 36-year-old (who one fan recently said “should be home knitting”) broke Vesnina’s serve to go up 3-2, and eventually collected the second set, 6-4.

Williams now was poised to score yet another desert comeback. She said winning here was, “really, really, really important.” What a feel-good result it would be if the American reached the semis, a result that would equal the best run in her 20-year Indian Wells history.

Even Russian Vesnina gushed over Venus. She told IT, “She’s a great example of how you can love tennis for so many years. She brings so much passion and love…She’s giving everything, always fighting, enjoying, smiling. She’s like a little girl. She’s enjoying [tennis] more than half of the WTA [players]. We have to learn from her.”

But in the third set, Venus suddenly stalled. Brilliant one moment, wretched the next, her vaunted backhand flew long. Her forehand was rudderless.

In the sixth game, Vesnina wasn’t sure what was going on, or how to attack. Eventually she stroked a beautiful cross-court backhand to break, and go up 4-2.

Soon Venus was down match point. But just as in her opening round battle against Jankovic, she bravely saved three match points – such guts. Vesnina feared she’d be a victim of yet another Williams comeback.

Venus had six break points in an epic marathon game, but she couldn’t score a much-needed breakthrough. Then Vesnina stroked an easy forehand winner off a lazy let chord. She lifted her hands in joy – the victory was hers, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3. The great lady fell.

There would be no superstar and no American in the semis. But the charming Vesnina didn’t care, declaring, “I’m on fire, and so is Kristina [Mladenovic]” – the Frenchwoman she will face next.

The final four will be an all-European affair with two Russians (Vesnina and the still-great-after-all-these-years Sveta Kuznetseva), as well as Mladenovic and the Czech US Open finalist, Karolina Pliskova.

With this in mind, Inside Tennis dared to ask the Russian Vesnina if she’d consider defecting to the US. She laughed – but then launched into one of her charm offensives, speaking of her love of America’s fascination with sports. “I love California,” she said. “There’s so much sun, after coming from Moscow…[and] you guys love sport. You have so many sports channels. In Russia, we have one sports channel, showing only football. No tennis at all…You really appreciate sports, and what the athlete is doing. Cheering for your athlete, welcoming everybody.”

That’s great, Elena. But, there’s just one wrinkle. At a time when we don’t know if Russia meddled in our election, we know one thing for sure. Now that all of our 19 American women have been sent packing, Vesnina and Kuznetseva are into the semis. So we don’t need any investigation. It’s clear: Russia has been caught meddling in our tennis.

Photo by Brent Bishop
Photo by Brent Bishop