Under A Palm Desert Moon, The Williams Sisters Gave The Tennis World A Night To Remember

WASHINGTON, March 14, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

When the Williams sisters arrived to wild applause for their third-round match at the BNP Paribas Open on Monday evening, in the scenic California palm desert setting of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, Venus was bidding for her first win over her younger sister, Serena, since 2014, and her first straight set win since 2008. She achieved both by winning the 29th renewal of the Battle of the Williams Sisters.

The Aunt beat the Mother, 6-3, 6-4, to put an end to Serena’s comeback tournament following her maternity leave, and it snapped Venus’s three-match losing streak against her sibling rival. Serena still owns a 17-12 edge in their career head-to-head matches and has won eight of their last 10 matches.

It’s easy to suspect that watching No. 8 Venus and former No. 1 Serena, who is currently unranked, play was a lot of fun for everyone except the two reluctant participants. However, women’s tennis is in a good place thanks to both Venus and Serena. The takeaway shared by many who watched this clash of tennis titans was this: great level of tennis from Venus and great fightback from Serena.

It was nothing short of spectacular that Serena, in her first competitive tournament in more than a year, beat the Nos. 53 (Zarina Diyas) and 29 (Kiki Bertens) players in the world. And, Venus showed great fight by holding off Serena’s late comeback.

Before the match, Tennis Channel analyst and Hall of Famer Lindsay Davenport, who played against the sisters a combined 41 times, spoke about the sibling rivalry between the 37-year-old Venus and 36-year-old Serena. “The bond they share and everything they’ve been together for on and off the court is truly remarkable,” she said. “They do such a great job of trying to put that aside and focus on the ball, focus on winning the match when they are on the court.”

Davenport continued: “Imagine Venus getting through to the semifinals and trying to win the U.S. Open while her sister is giving birth and having major complications. They’ve gone through a lot, but they always manage to compete at a very high level.”

There was a festive atmosphere across the Indian Wells Tennis Garden grounds and inside Stadium 1, and the chair umpire made it informal, too, by referring to the sisters simply as Venus and Serena, when calling out the game and set scores. Among the sellout crowd of 16,000 was World No. 1 and top seed Simona Halep, along with her coach, Darren Cahill. She told the WTA Insider that it was her idea to come. “Tonight, I’m just a fan of the game and the Williams sisters,” said Halep, who posted a selfie on her Instagram account during the match.

“I’m No. 1 but I just watched the best player in the world. I can learn everything from them.” (Halep will remain ranked No. 1 after this week following Tuesday’s round of 16 loss by World No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki.)

Following her victory, Venus spoke to the crowd about Serena: “I think it was such as treat for everyone to see this match so early in her comeback. I always know it’s never over until it’s over. She just came roaring back. I’m just lucky I’ve played more matches than she has.”

Venus had a parting thought for everyone: “Regardless of where you come from, if you put in the work and believe in yourself you can do anything.” Although she was talking about herself, she just as easily might have been talking about Serena, too.

Later on, during her post-match press conference, Serena reflected on her sister’s victory: “I think this is the best she’s played in a while. She didn’t make a lot of errors. She served very consistently. You know, she just did everything great. For her, I think it was a really good match.”

Then, Serena, who owns 23 career Grand Slam titles, shared a self-assessment of her comeback week: “I haven’t played in over a year. It’s definitely not less disappointing. I wish it were, but it’s not. But then again, I wish it wasn’t. Then I wouldn’t be who I am.”

Venus Williams returned to Stadium One less than 24 hours later on Tuesday afternoon to play her round of 16 match against No. 21 seed Anastasija Sevastova. Despite being down a break in the first set and a point from a double break – and being down 3-0 in the second set – Williams patiently battled back from adversity. She won 7-6 (6), 6-4 to advance to Thursday’s quarterfinal round against No. 27 seed Carla Suárez Navarro.

A few minutes with Roger Federer

It’s always a treat when Roger Federer does media because his warmth and personality really comes out. Following his third-round win over No. 25 seed Filip Krajinovic on Monday afternoon, which improved his win-loss record to 65-7 with three Grand Slam titles to his credit since the start of the 2017 season, the World No. 1 visited Tennis Channel’s studio on the Indian Wells Tennis Garden grounds. Appearing relaxed and refreshed, Federer covered a variety of conversation topics with Tennis Channel’s Justin Gimelstob and Jim Courier during a 12-minute interview, including: his decision to play Rotterdam instead of Dubai and to chase after the World No. 1 ranking; his upcoming trip to the African continent on behalf of his Roger Federer Foundation; whether he will he play any European clay tournaments; what life on tour with his family is like; and, finally, his thoughts on Venus and Serena Williams.

Among the interview highlights:

On choosing to play Rotterdam over Dubai: “So what happened is usually I’ve played Dubai for about the last 10 years or so and as I also have an apartment, it’s always been logical for me to be there in February as well for training. However, ever since we built a house back in Switzerland, in the mountains, we like to spend more time after Australia in the snow. I’m happy to keep my options open. After Australia (this year), I had a chance to play Rotterdam. When I realized I was so close to No. 1, I thought it was a pity if I didn’t go to Rotterdam. So, I did and I won.”

On traveling to Zambia in April for his foundation: “Just being in the field is most exciting. I like talking about it; I like playing in the Matches for Africa. I like doing board meetings as the president of the foundation, but being in the field is what it’s all about. Seeing the impact it all has on education is gratifying, and seeing that the money gets to the right places. For me, that’s what it is and it shines the light on the problems. It shows the people who believe in my foundation that I care. I love it.”

On the upcoming European clay season: “I’ll miss Monte-Carlo because of resting after Miami, going into training, and traveling to Africa. Then, the question becomes whether I play Rome, Madrid and the French Open. I think I’ll have a good idea after Miami.”

Does Nadal playing clay or not playing clay have a factor in your decision? “No, not at all. It’s totally based on what I am in the mood for. Do I want to change surfaces? I’ll decide after Miami.”

On family life on the ATP Tour: “We’ve rented a house here (Indian Wells) for many years. We like it this way here. You get used to certain routines, and with the kids, you like to know where their bedrooms are. The kids like to jump in the pool, they like to sell lemonade in the street. They made $70 yesterday! They had a great time and the neighbors are very generous to the kiddies.”

On the Williams sisters: “Regardless of the outcome, it’s great to see Serena back and Venus still playing. I’m a big fan. Here they are, Venus is older than me and Serena being my age (36) and now she’s a mom. I can related a little bit towards her. I hope she can play as long as she wants and be as successful as she wants. And Venus, I hope she stays around and makes it to another Grand Slam final and hopefully wins one more. That would be wonderful.”

Federer will retain his World No. 1 ranking provided he reaches at least the semifinal round. He faces unseeded Jeremy Chardy, ranked 100th, in a round of 16 match today. If Federer wins, he would face either No. 23 seed Hyeon Chung or No. 30 seed Pablo Cuevas in the quarterfinals. The only top 10 seeds remaining in the men’s draw besides Federer are No. 6 Juan Martin del Potro and No. 7 Kevin Anderson.

Keeping an eye on Naomi Osaka

No. 44 Naomi Osaka is a breath of fresh air, both on and off the court. Just 20-years-old, she was born in Japan but now lives and trains in Boca Raton, Florida. On Tuesday, Osaka scored her 50th career match win by besting No. 58 Maria Sakkari, 6-1, 5-7, 6-1, to reach her first Indian Wells quarterfinal. As one of only two unseeded players remaining in the women’s singles draw, she will face No. 5 seed Karolina Pliskova in a featured match on Stadium 1 court Wednesday night.

Everybody, it seems, loves Osaka because she doesn’t always take herself too seriously. After stringing together impressive wins over unseeded Maria Sharapova and No. 31 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, both in straight sets, one wonders how fare she can go this week.

Osaka was asked after beating Sakkari if she thought having to play some of her best tennis in the first round, against Sharapova, helped focus her for the rest of the tournament. She said, “I get what you are saying. Like, a tiny bit, and also not really. Because for me, I find it easier to play against the bigger players just because you know you have to constantly keep up the concentration and you can’t really afford to lose points.

“So, I mean, I’m glad I was able to play them, and I’m glad I was able to play two night matches on center. So, I feel like it did jump-start me quite fast. But also, I see no bad points about playing, like, a lower-ranked person, too, instead of playing Sharapova in the first round.”

During her post-match press conference following her victory over Sharapova, Osaka was quite philosophical in answering questions from the media. She said, “I felt like I tried a lot to change the way I think. I think before maybe if she came back from that I feel like I would have gotten really upset. I’m really happy I was able to win and change the way my mentality works. 

“I was just thinking that I would be really disrespectful to start getting angry. I’m playing against Sharapova. Who do I think I am to start getting angry playing against her? Everyone knows that she fights for every point, so I was just trying to tell myself that if I fight for every point, too, then it would be an equal match, and then it would sort of depend on physical ability.”

More from Osaka on her ability to stay calm and keep things inward under pressure: “A part of that is having respect for the person and also respect for the game.”