Sisterhood Is Powerful – But Not Tonight

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

New York

RAFA BASHES HIMSELF IN THE NOSE: Deep into the fourth set of his match against Fabio Fognini, Rafa Nadal lurched while hitting a backhand. His racket then deflected off the court and hit him on the bridge of his nose. Bloodied and dazed he immediately dropped his racket, held his head and walked of the court and laid on the ground by the umpire’s chair. He took a medical time out and got patched up. Later he said he felt “out of this world.” He eventually returned on court and won in four sets. Nadal said he doesn’t think his nose is broken. The incident brought to mind a frightening moment in 2011 when Rafa feinted and collapsed in his chair during a post-match press conference. Nadal, whose wife is now in a Spanish hospital due to her problematic pregnancy, has lost the opening sets of both of his first two matches. He’s seeking his third Slam of the year.

WILLIAMS SISTERS FALL: We are family.  Yet every family is so different – with wide-ranging dramas that almost always unfold far from the public eye. Now here’s a newsflash – the Williams clan is different. They’ve been in the limelight for over 30 years. With all due apologies to the McEnroes, the Bryans, the Murrays, the Austins and Chrissie Evert’s clan, no other family has come close to having the impact on sports and life that the Williams family has.

Long ago Venus was blunt, saying, “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.” Mary Carillo suggested, “This woman and her sister dance on the edge of a volcano more than any other champs I’ve watched.” 

Unless you’re still a fan of the Kennedy clan or you can’t wait for the latest Kardashian twist, you might just now consider the Williamses to be America’s foremost royal family. 

The movie King Richard was a hit in more ways than one earlier this year. While 80-year-old Richard Williams is a patriarch like no other in sports history, his five-year-old granddaughter Olympia is the highest profile kid in the world. Still, who knew that among their gazillion records, Venus and Serena would be setting a new mark tonight when they were the first doubles team to ever be featured as the opening act for a prime time night session on Ashe Stadium? 

Family historians recalled how the Compton kids grew up in bunk beds in a small room alongside their three older stepsisters. Yes, tennis was front and center, but the Williamses had a rollicking, feel-good childhood, in which Venus stepped out, led the way and always looked out for her kid sister. 

If Serena needed lunch money, that was cool – Venus would settle for a lowly sandwich. When Venus beat Serena in a junior tournament, Serena was clearly upset, so Venus said, “I like silver better than gold – trade trophies with me.” 

All the while, sassy Serena knew how to work it, as she manipulated her compliant, eager-to-please older sisters and charmed her daddy. In her world she said there were five Ps: pampered, princess, pet, pest, and prima donna.

Every time harsh criticism or controversy visited their family – whether it was Venus’ bump incident with Romanian Irina Spirlea in 1997 or Serena’s tumultuous 2018 US Open final, the family would always have each other’s back. 

In 1999 Serena became the first Williams to win a Slam. Still, Venus prevailed early in their careers – until Serena began to surge and beat her older sister in four straight Slam finals, 2002-2003. Sure, their matches often had a bland, kiss-your-sister lack of intensity, but from early on, their roles and personalities were vastly different. 

Venus was Serena’s mentor, her rock. She was tall, elegant, regal, strong, indrawn and bemused by it all. Seemingly off in her own planetary orbit, few storms could unsettle her equanimity. We never saw a hint of envy or jealousy (although, after she lost the 2017 Aussie Open final when Serena was pregnant, she joked, “It wasn’t fair – it was two against one).”

Time and again, Venus would lose early in a tourney, but stick around to practice with Serena, cheer her on, and take pictures at trophy time. Tuesday she said it had been Serena’s idea to play doubles. “She’s the boss. So I do whatever she tells me to do.”

As amazing as Venus and Serena’s singles results have been (they’ve won 30 majors, which is far more than the total of all the active WTA players combined, at 23), their record as a doubles team astounds. They’ve won 22 titles, including 14 majors, where they’ve never lost in a Slam final, and they’ve collected three Olympic gold medals.   

When Serena and Venus step out together, the whole seems greater than the sum of its parts. Facing them or Rafa at Roland Garros may be the two most intimidating sights in tennis.

But Czechs Lucie Hradecka and Linda Noskova seemed to check their doubts before they came out on court. And at crunch time it was the rusty Venus, the oldest player on the court, who blinked. The icon, who is 25 years older than Noskova, double faulted and hit a return long to allow the Czechs to win the first set tiebreak 7-5. 

Buoyed with confidence, the Czechs broke Serena  and sprinted to a 3-0 second-set lead. Venus and Serena broke back to even matters but the Czechs held steady and eventually prevailed, 7-6(5), 6-4.

Yes, sisterhood is powerful, but not so much tonight, out on Ashe, when the Williamses left fans wondering whether their match could somehow diminish Serena’s chances in singles Friday night and whether we will ever see Lady Venus, whose ranking is now 1,504, ever again out on court at the Open.     

SEEDS TUMBLE: After four days of play, 14 of the 32 women’s seeds are out, including the defending champ, Emma Raducanu, 2021 finalist Leyla Fernandez, No. 2 seed Annet Kontaviet, reigning Wimbledon champ Elena Rybakina and two-time Slam winner Simona Halep. Venus Williams and Naomi Osaka, who together won four US Opens, are also out. 

On the men’s side, the biggest casualty was No. 4 seed Stefasnos Tsitsipas. No. 6 seed, Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, fell to Brit Jack Draper.

AMERICA WATCH: Sacramento’s Jensen Brooksby downed Cincinnati champion Borna Coric and next faces Carlos Alcaraz…Tommy Paul downed  Seb Korda in five sets and will next play Casper Ruud…John Isner pulled out with a left wrist fracture, which he suffered after his first-round win. 

Brandon Nakashima beat Grigor Dimitrov and next plays Jannik Sinner, and JJ Wolf will play Nick Kyrigos in the third round. Frances Tiafoe plays later today.

On the women’s side, Serena is still going strong. Madison Keys and Coco Gauff face each other next. Jessica Pegula plays China’s Yue Yan. San Jose finalist Shelby Rogers next plays Wimbledon finalist Ons Jabeur. Aussie Open finalist Danielle Collins, who downed Naomi Osaka, will face Spain’s Cristina Busca. 

Lauren Davis is into the third round after upsetting No. 28 Russian Ekaterina Alexandrova. She’ll next face Iga Swiatek. No. 29 Alison Riske-Amritraj meets China’s Wang Xiyu.

Past champs Sloane Stephens and Venus Williams both lost their opening matches.    

THE SERENA FACTOR: The lowest priced ticket for the Friday night session when Serena plays is a whooping $605, which is up 221%. The US Open has been setting record attendance numbers for night sessions featuring Serena. On Wednesday night, the Open recorded 29,959 attendees passing through the gates. 

FROSTY ENCOUNTER: Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk refused to shake hands with Belarusian Victoria Azarenka after their second-round encounter. “It just wasn’t the right thing to do in the circumstances.” At Wimbledon the 20-year-old confided, “My mental state… it’s a rollercoaster. There are huge holes in my parent’s house. There are no apartments anymore. They live like many other Ukrainians, on the bags. You never know what’s going to happen.”

Vika noted she had already faced a similar situation with another Ukrainian, Dayana Yastremska, in Washington. She said, “I can’t force anybody to shake my hand. It’s their decision.” The duo just tipped their rackets at the net. 

HOT COCO: Coco Gauff blasted the fastest serve of the women’s tournament at 128 mph.

Vinay Venkatesh and Steve Pratt also reporting

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