Serena-Venus XXXI: The Quality Is Still There

WASHINGTON, August 14, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

The rivalry between future Hall of Fame sisters Serena and Venus Williams is into its third decade. Younger sister, 38-year-old Serena, had won 18 of the first 30 meetings spanning the past 22 years. On Thursday at the Top Seed Tennis Club in Nicholasville, Ky., near Lexington, they met for the first time in nearly two years, in the second round of the WTA International Top Seed Open presented by Bluegrass Orthopaedics. It’s the first tournament back for both after a five-month hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down pro tennis around the world.

The last time they faced each other was the third round of the 2018 US Open, won by Serena, 6-1, 6-2. She came ranked 26th and it was the year of her comeback from maternity leave after giving birth to her daughter, Olympia. Then, a packed house of adoring fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center created an amazing atmosphere on that New York night. They’ve also filled Centre Court at Wimbledon to great fanfare.

This time, it part nostalgic, part surreal, part relaxing and played out on a tennis club setting. There was a quiet calm as Venus served the first ball of the match at 1:02 p.m. Two hours and 19 minutes later, after three sets of impeccably high-quality tennis delivered by both competitors, Serena prevailed. She came from down a set for the 100th time in her career to pull out a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over her older sister.

“I honestly didn’t come here to win. For the first time in my career, I came here to win some matches and see what happens,” Serena said during an on-court interview shortly after the match ended. “I haven’t had this much time off since the baby. So, now I’m just trying to get some rhythm and see what happens.”

Later, during her sit-down Zoom video conference with reporters, Serena admitted this about playing Venus: “It wasn’t easy; it’s never easy. She’s such a competitor.” 

Serena was a break down and trailed 2-4 in the last set before raising the level of her play. She won the last four games of the match, which garnered her a much-earned victory. Next, she will face wild card Shelby Rogers in Friday’s quarterfinal round.

“I feel like today I turned it up in the last few games,” said Serena. “I really needed to just play better. It was a high-quality match. Venus is playing really, really good. There were a lot of long points. We started serving well and returning well…

“Her serve is even better than before. It has a faster kick to it. It’s a lot harder.”

Serena fired 14 service aces and won 63 percent (36 of 57) of her first-serve points. She saved three of seven break points. Meanwhile, Venus delivered six aces but double-faulted 11 times. She faced 15 break points and saved 10 of them. Serena outpointed Venus 99-94. It was that close.

Looking back on Episode 31 of Serena-Venus, there were no splashy introductions for either player, no fans to cheer them on, no standing ovations, and no loud music to fill the changeovers. Instead, in the age of coronavirus, the new normal meant the sisters entered the Center Court grounds on a sticky, humid 88-degree afternoon wearing masks and remained socially distanced during the pre-match coin toss at the net.

More than just a practice match, they played in front of just a handful of spectators, including Serena’s husband and daughter, and her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. Serena and Venus, now 40, would be responsible for retrieving their towels on the court – just like their junior days in Compton, Calif., when their father, Richard Williams, coached both of them.

Indeed, there was a sense of nostalgia about it – a throwback to their junior days – and everyone was chill about it.

“I don’t think I’ve had a tougher draw in my life,” said Venus during her post-match Zoom chat with reporters, noting her matches against Victoria Azarenka (on Tuesday) and Serena. “Two number ones in a row. It was an unbelievable experience. I wanted to play better but overall, not a bad start…

“I played well, I handed it well. I know I can do better.”

The first tour-level match between the sisters came in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open. It was 16-year-old Serena’s Grand Slam debut, when she was ranked 53rd. Then 17, Venus was ranked 16th in the world and would be victorious against Serena, 7-6 (4), 6-1, in their second-round match en route to reaching the quarterfinals. More recently, Serena had won four of the five and nine of their last 11 meetings going back to 2009 in Miami.

Now, with Thursday’s result – the first time they’ve ever faced each other at the WTA International level and the earliest they’ve met in a draw since that first meeting in Melbourne 22 years ago – make it 10 of 12 for Serena.

Asked by Tennis TourTalk if she learned anything about herself from her comeback victory, Serena said: “I’m doing good when I’m not focusing on the score. I need to come back and win some of these tight matches. I’m here to play matches, to be honest. It’s weird, I’ve never felt like this. (But) I’m here to get match tough for New York.”

Around the Top Seed Tennis Club

• No. 63 Jil Teichmann of Switzerland advanced to her first WTA quarterfinal this season with a 6-2, 6-2 win over Russian-born No. 5 seed Yulia Putintseva, who plays for Kazakhstan, in one hour and 28 minutes. The left-handed Teichmann broke the 33rd-ranked Putintseva six times in 10 tries and outscored her 66-44 in their first head-to-head matchup.

Putintseva won just 19 percent of her second-serve points and became the highest-ranked player that Teichmann has beaten this year. Afterward, Teichmann called Putintseva a tough fighter and opponent and said she knew it was going to be a physical battle.

“I didn’t put any expectations for myself, I’m just really happy to be back and get a chance to play,” Teichmann said during a Zoom video conference after her win. “I’m just taking it match by match, and I’m looking to keep getting better day by day. And it’s working out so I’m really happy.”

Asked by Tennis TourTalk why she chose playing in Lexington over Palermo and Prague, both on European red clay, Teichmann said:  “I won both Palermo and Prague last year, and with this ranking system I couldn’t earn any more points there. It would be more like a prize money tournament for me. So, I’m very lucky that this new tournament in Lexington came up and now I have the chance to earn both prize money as well to earn points for my ranking.”

Later, Teichmann returned to play a quarterfinal-round doubles match, teamed with Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic. Team Teichmann-Bouzkova defeated Kaitlyn Christian of the U.S. and Giuliana Olmos of Mexico, 6-4, 7-5, to reach the semifinals round.

• Perhaps, lost in the hoopla of the Williams sisters and Coco Gauff competing this week at the Top Seed Open, there are other Americans in the field who remain in draw, such as unseeded Catherine “CiCi” Bellis, who beat fellow countrywoman and 2019 Citi Open champion Jessica Pegula, 6-3, 6-2, in a tidy 85 minutes to advance against Teichmann. Pegula had won their only previous match earlier this year in Auckland, but this time it was all Bellis.

“I feel really good; I played real well in tight points and in pressure situations,” said Bellis via Zoom with reporters. “Overall, it was a good day.”

Bellis is a former World No.1 junior player who turned pro in 2016. She reached the Top 50 as an 18-year-old three years ago but was sidelined by injuries between March 2018 and November 2019 during which she underwent four wrist and arm surgeries. Now healthy, the 302nd-ranked Bellis used a special ranking to enter the field this week – and she’s making the most of her opportunity so far as she’s reached her first WTA quarterfinal since Doha in 2018. On Tuesday, she needed just 61 minutes to win her first-round match over fellow American Francesca Di Lorenzo, dropping just three games. With her victories, Bellis’ live ranking has jumped 133 spots to No. 169.

Asked by Tennis TourTalk if she thinks her game is headed in the right direction, Bellis said: “Yes, I do. For sure. Since I’ve come back, the thing I’ve needed the most is matches and tournaments – I’ve played a million practice matches – and I’m not near what nerves are in a regular match. Each match I’m definitely getting better. Today was a step in the right direction.”

• Poised and professional – and, oh, just 17 years-old – Canadian qualifier Leylah Fernandez had her eye on her third WTA quarterfinal of the season and of her career when she faced American wild card Shelby Rogers, ranked 116th, for the first time in the final Center Court match Thursday. The No. 120 Fernandez, already playing in her fourth match this week in Lexington, advanced with her second win of the year against Sloane Stephens. Earlier this year, she reached her first tour-level final in Acapulco. So, things have been looking up for Fernandez.

Admittedly, Fernandez didn’t play her best Thursday and her inexperience – she’s 10 years younger than Rogers – caught up to her. Rogers won 6-2, 7-5 in one hour and 39 minutes to earn a quarterfinal berth against Serena Williams.

“Honestly, today was not my day; I didn’t play well,” said Fernandez, speaking to reporters via Zoom. “I made way too many mistakes and I think I gave (Shelby) some confidence moving forward. She played a great game. I didn’t do enough.”

Asked by Tennis TourTalk if there were some positives to take away from her week in Lexington, in which she advanced to the main draw through qualifying and beat Stephens, Fernandez said: “Yes, of course, there’s always positives. I was able to play matches and see where my level is at, what I need to improve for the next two tournaments. 

“Since the beginning of the year, I’ve set a goal to be in the Top 100 of the WTA by the end of the year – and I’m still looking for it. Hopefully, maybe the Top 60 if I’m able to play enough tournaments.”

Passing shots

• There’s a stat for everything it seems, and thanks to the WTA staff, they’ve come up with this excellent one: The combined age of the Williams sisters (79 years and 19 days) is the third-highest combined age competing at a Tour-level match, following 46-year-old Renée Richards’ 6-2, 6-2 defeat of 34-year-old Marie Pinterova in the first round at Indianapolis in 1981 (combined age 81 years and 348 days), and 31-year-old Amy Frazier’s 6-4, 6-4 win over 47-year-old Martina Navratilova in the first round at Charleston in 2004 (combined age 79 years and 28 days).

• More stats …

• Friday’s order of play is dominated by the singles quarterfinals on Center Court, beginning at 11 a.m. Eastern Time (5 p.m. CEST). First up is Catherine “CiCi” Bellis versus Jil Teichmann, followed not before 12:30 p.m. Eastern (6:30 p.m. CEST) by No. 1 seed Serena Williams against Shelby Rogers. Then, not before 2 p.m. is Jennifer Brady versus Marie Bouzkova followed by No. 8 seed Ons Jabeur against Coco Gauff. The first doubles semifinal will pit No. 4 seeds Hayley Carter of the U.S. and Luisa Stefani of Brazil against Russians Anna Blinkova and Vera Zvonareva.