Serena Williams "super close" but not quite ready for full return

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Not there yet: Serena Williams

Defending champion Serena Williams pulled out of the Australian Open on Friday, saying she was “super close” but still not at the level she needs to be after giving birth to her first child.

The American 23-time Grand Slam winner made a tentative return at an Abu Dhabi exhibition late last month, losing to French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.

Prior to that her last competitive match was at the Australian Open final almost a year ago, which she won despite being two months pregnant, memorably beating sister Venus in the decider.

Since then, she has given birth to her first child and married Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian at a star-studded wedding, where guests included Beyonce and reality TV star Kim Kardashian.

“After competing in Abu Dhabi I realised that although I am super close, I’m not where I personally want to be,” the 36-year-old said in a statement.

“My coach and team always said ‘only go to tournaments when you are prepared to go all the way’.

“I can compete, but I don’t want to just compete, I want to do far better than that and to do so, I will need a little more time.

“With that being said, and even though I am disappointed about it, I’ve decided not to compete in the Australian Open this year,” she added.

Her withdrawal deprives the opening Grand Slam of the year of another major star, after former world number one Andy Murray and Japan’s Kei Nishikori both pulled out injured on Thursday.

In Abu Dhabi, Williams was clearly sluggish and had problems with her serve. She also stuck mostly to the baseline and only twice charged the net.

Despite this, she made it clear afterwards that she missed being on court and was desperate to play at Melbourne Park, where she has been crowned champion seven times.

– ‘True champion’ –

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley expressed his admiration for her efforts to return to the game she loves.

“The true champion Serena is has been demonstrated in the Herculean efforts she has made over the past few months in her desire to play the Australian Open,” he said.

“It was never going to be good enough for her to just compete, she wants to give herself the best chance to win.

“I’ve been in constant contact with Serena and her team and know this is why she has pushed it and pushed it until the eleventh hour to make her final decision.”

Few players have successfully bounced back after giving birth, and even fewer have managed to go on to win Grand Slam titles.

Williams can look to Margaret Court, Kim Clijsters, and Evonne Goolagong Cawley as those who achieved the feat as mothers.

A key motivation for her is to match Court, who boasts 24 major titles and is renowned as the most successful player in Grand Slam history, but this must now wait until the French Open at the earliest.

The Australian Open starts on January 15, with a host of top names either out or battling to be fit.

Murray has returned home after failing to recover from a hip injury sustained last year, while Nishikori has been on the sidelines since August due to a torn tendon in his right wrist.

World number one Rafael Nadal and six-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic also have injury issues, having yet to play a competitive match this year.

Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic, Johanna Konta, and Garbine Muguruza are among others either on the comeback trail or fighting to be ready.

The irrepressible Roger Federer appears to be one of the few top names to be fully fit, leading Switzerland into the Hopman Cup final with another masterclass against top-10 rival Jack Sock in Perth on Thursday.

Provided by AFP Sport

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Sharapova reaches Shenzhen semis, relishing possibility of facing Halep in final

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Marching on: Maria Sharapova.

Maria Sharapova admitted that she needed to play far better after the Russian eased into the semi-finals of the Shenzhen Open on Thursday with victory over Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan.

The former number one, who has worked her way up to 59 in the world rankings since her return from a doping ban last year, will face the Czech sixth seed and defending champion Katerina Siniakova in the last four in southern China.

The 30-year-old Sharapova, who is unseeded in the tournament that serves as a build-up to the Australian Open, is embarking on her first full season since returning from a 15-month drugs ban in April.

The five-time Grand Slam champion won the Tianjin Open in October for her first title since her suspension, but said after defeating Diyas 6-3, 6-3 in 89 minutes.

“I didn’t play my best tennis and there’s certainly a lot of things to improve on in the next (match),” said Sharapova who noted that she needs to get her unforced error count down.

“The great thing is that I’m through and have another chance to play tomorrow.”

Sharapova’s win took her back into the world’s top-50 but she assures that’s not her main focus right now.

“Those are not things I usually think about going into a match. So obviously statistically it’s nice to be back in that ranking but there’s a lot more things to work on,” said the Russian.

“Although it was a straight-sets victory I still believe that there’s a lot more I can improve on, looking forward and looking ahead as the challenges get tougher and as you get deeper in the field and also looking ahead towards the rest of the season.”

The other semi-final is between Irina-Camelia Begu and fellow Romanian Simona Halep, the reigning world number one.

Halep, guaranteed top seeding for this month’s Australian Open, blew away Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus 6-2, 6-2.

“I think I played really well today,” said Halep. “I played exactly what I needed to play against this girl, who is very powerful, she is hitting very strong.

“So I had to be strong on my legs and just hit the ball, open the court as much as I can and just block some balls, which I did. Also I returned very well, I served very well, I think everything went very well for me today. I I felt that I played great tennis, the best match so far this year.”

Sharapova and Halep are each one win away from setting up a mouth-watering final in Shenzhen. The pair share a long history that includes a French Open final back in 2014, and have faced off twice already since Sharapova returned from her doping ban.

On a potential final against Halep, Sharapova said: “I think both of us still have a match ahead of us in order to get there but those are definitely the matches that not only the players look forward to but I think the tournament and the crowd. I want to be playing against the number one player in the world, if that means it’s in the final, there’s still time for that.”

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Konta retires injured, Svitolina and Sasnovich reach Brisbane semis

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British number one Johanna Konta became the latest casualty ahead of the Australian Open when she retired during her Brisbane International quarter-final against Elina Svitolina on Thursday.

Konta called for treatment to her right hip at the beginning of the third set but decided she could not continue and handed Svitolina the match 1-6, 7-6 (6), 3-2.

The retirement disappointed the crowd at Pat Rafter Arena, who had witnessed a fascinating match where Konta stormed through the first set before Svitolina regrouped and edged a high-quality second in a tiebreaker.

Konta joins top seed Garbine Muguruza (cramping) and fourth-ranked Caroline Garcia (lower back) as high-profile casualties at the season-opening tournament.
She is due to defend her Sydney International title next week ahead of the Australian Open but said she was unsure whether or not she would risk further damage before the year's first Grand Slam.








"I need to wait until tomorrow morning (before deciding)," she said. "I don't feel comfortable going on gut feeling, especially to do with stuff like this.

"The most important thing is to listen to my body, listen to how I'm feeling in the morning, and really taking it kind of step by step."

Konta said she felt something give in her first service game of the third set.

"I'm not too sure actually what happened. I have never had issues kind of in this area," she said. "More on the left side and not for a few years. And it was different."

Konta's withdrawal follows that of fellow Briton Andy Murray, who pulled out of the men's draw before his opening match, also with a hip injury, and who confirmed Thursday that he would not be fit to play at the Australian Open.

World number one Rafael Nadal withdrew from Brisbane with knee problems at the weekend and is a doubt for Melbourne.

"Hips take a massive beating. Obviously, our game is becoming more and more physical and the demands of the tour as well, week in and week out, is becoming more demanding just because of the level of play match in and match out," Konta said.

"So I think hips definitely take a beating, but so do knees, so do shoulders, so do ankles, wrists. Take your pick. Back, lower back. And everything in between."

On her part, the third-seeded Svitolina was pleased with how she fought back in the second set and wished her opponent a speedy recovery.

"First set she was playing very good. You know, there's not so many things that I could really change," said Svitolina, who next faces either defending champion Karolina Pliskova or 2012 champion Kaia Kanepi.

"And I was expecting this because I know that, you know, she can play a really high level. You need to really be focused on every point and wait for your chances, you know, how I did in the second set. I was just trying to be rock solid and wait for the small chances that she can give you.

"And, yeah, in the second set I was just trying to serve well and be ready for this kind of moments. And I think, yeah, I did well in the tie-break. I was there 100 per cent. And, yeah, just was very happy. But, yeah, you know, it's always tough to see when your opponent is injured. And, yeah, hopefully she can recover well and be ready to play 100 per cent for Australian Open."



Earlier in the day, Belarusian qualifier Aliaksandra Sasnovich came back to defeat Frenchwoman Alize Cornet 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 and reach the semi-finals. The world No. 88 almost retired from her previous match with a leg injury but powered through to keep up her brilliant run this week. She plays Latvia's Anastasija Sevastova for a place in the final.

"In the beginning, I couldn't even imagine that I pass the qualie and be in semis. So it's incredible week for me. But I'm looking forward for tomorrow match, because the tournament is not finished for me," said the 23-year-old.

"Physically I'm not in the best shape, in the best condition, but mentally I'm ready to play and I really want to win.

"I think everyone can beat everyone. It's tennis. You know, the ball is round. And all day, it's a new day. Like, each day is a new day and anything can happen."


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