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.”


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’

HIGH DRAMA ON HISENSE

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.


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