Serena Williams is barely two matches into her comeback from maternity leave but she already has to face her sister Venus in the Indian Wells third round on Monday.
The 23-time Grand Slam champion posted a second victory in as many matches in her first tournament since the 2017 Australian Open, overcoming a stern challenge from Dutch No. 29 seed Kiki Bertens 7-6 (5), 7-5 in the second round on Saturday.
A champion at Indian Wells in 1999 and 2000, Serena is bidding to become the first woman to win the trophy here three times but the 36-year-old’s thoughts are far from that at the moment as she attempts to build back her stamina and form following a 13-month absence.
“I have a long way to go. I have such a long way to go,” Serena said after her one-hour 52-minute win over Bertens.
“It definitely felt better than the first round, but, I mean, I’m still a little rusty. I’m still making errors that I don’t normally make. But I call this a trial run. Even with the baby, like, a trial run of traveling with the baby and all of this is just so new to me. Yeah, I’m getting there.”
The Williams sisters will face off for a 29th time on tour and for the first time at Indian Wells. The meeting comes 17 years after they were supposed to clash in the semi-finals of the 2001 edition but Venus withdrew with tendinitis, giving Serena a walkover into the final.
The aftermath of that day has been recounted countless times, and the Williams sisters, who suffered abuse from the crowd due to Venus’ withdrawal and received accusations that their father fixed their matches, boycotted Indian Wells from 2002 until they returned to the event in 2015.
It is close to two decades later and the Williamses will finally square off at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
“I honestly never thought about it,” said Serena about the fact the match against Venus never happened until now.
“I would prefer to play someone else, anybody else, literally anybody else, but it has to happen now. So it is what it is…
“I really abhor every time we play, but I do enjoy the battle when I’m out there. It’s just afterwards I don’t like it as much.”
Venus booked her place in the third round with a 6-3, 6-4 success over Romanian Sorana Cirstea.
The older Williams sister, seeded N0. 8 this week, was in the stands for Serena’s opening round win over Zarina Diyas on Thursday and was impressed by what she saw.
“She looked like she never lost a step, really, and was controlling the match. Her opponent played really, really, really well, to be honest. Probably produced maybe the best tennis of her career. For Serena to win against someone that inspired and free is a great, great way to come back,” said the 37-year-old Venus.
Serena admits it feels like it’s too soon to play someone of Venus’ calibre in just her third match back but the ex-world No. 1 is hoping she’ll be ready for it. Serena is playing under a protected ranking of 22 and is unseeded in a tournament for the first time since Cincinnati in 2011.
“I have to play a seed regardless, sooner than later most times for the next couple of tournaments. So I have to be ready, you know. Whether it’s Venus or anyone else, it’s going to be someone,” said Serena.
“Obviously I wish it was anybody else in the draw, literally anybody, but that’s okay. Just have to go out there and see how I am and do my best.”
Serena, who delivered her first child, Olympia, last September, said she “almost cried” before her first round last Thursday because she was missing her daughter. She handled that better in her second match on Saturday.
“I’m doing much better today. I left pretty early, left like around 11:00. It’s 6:00, and I haven’t come close to tears today, so that’s good,” said Serena. “I definitely miss her. I might start coming to press on time now, because all I can think about is wanting to get back as fast as I can.”
US Open runner-up and No. 15 seed Madison Keys crashed out of Indian Wells in her opening match, falling to world No. 117 Danielle Collins in straight sets on Saturday.
Keys, who was playing for the first time since her first round loss in Doha, where she was struggling with the flu that forced her to withdraw from the Dubai tournament, fell 6-3, 7-6 (1) to Collins in the second round.
The 24-year-old Collins, a two-time NCAA champion, was facing a top-20 player for just the second time in her career and passed the test with flying careers to set up a third round with 18-year-old Russian Sofya Zhuk.
“I think the biggest thing is I don’t think I managed my nerves very well. Coming into this tournament I always feel like I’m a little bit nervous. I think I put a lot of expectations on myself this time around. I think the biggest thing was feeling nervous, not moving very well and it just showed itself in big moments,” said Keys after her defeat.
Indian Wells has never been a place that brought the best out of Keys. The farthest she has gone in the California desert was reaching the last-16 here in 2017.
“I think I always want to do well and I’ve never really done great here so I think it’s always just trying to be better and have that good Indian Wells tournament and I think sometimes I put too much pressure on myself playing here,” explained Keys, who received a coaching violation during the match with Collins.
“I definitely think these slow, high-bouncing, gritty courts don’t completely play to my favour, and especially days like this where it’s heavier and kind of rainy. It’s not perfect and I think it’s just one of those things where I have to be so good mentally about staying in points and building points and not going for things too soon and on a day like today where I’m nervous and not handling things perfectly, it’s just kind of a bad combination.”
Collins, who excelled on the college tennis circuit playing for University of Virginia, earned a wildcard into the main draw as the best performing player at the Oracle Challenger Series of WTA 125k events, having won Newport Beach in January and reaching the quarter-finals at Indian Wells last week.
“I think she’s very crafty, she gets a ton of balls back, she was serving pretty well. More than anything she’s just really good at resetting the point over and over again,” Keys said of her fellow American.
Indian Wells has witnessed multiple surprises so far this week, with a host of teenagers enjoying breakthroughs on both the women’s and men’s sides.
Keys, now 23 years old, was one of those rising teens not too long ago herself.
“I do laugh a lot of the times because they’re always talking about the teenagers on tour and I’m just like ‘that was me once’. But it’s great and I think women’s tennis you see it so often, I think we’re seeing a little bit more on the men’s side, but women’s tennis there’s always this great group of teenage girls who are figuring it out and having some big wins and I think a lot of them are going to be around to stay,” she said.
One of the few teenagers enjoying breakthroughs at Indian Wells this week, 18-year-old world No. 136 Sofya Zhuk needed 12 match points before securing an upset over No. 18 seed Magdalena Rybarikova 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 in the second round on Saturday.
The Florida-resident notched the biggest win of her professional career and next takes on two-time NCAA champion Danielle Collins in the third round.
“I thought it was 14, was it?” Zhuk says when asked about all those nerve-wracking match points. “I thought it was like a lot of them. I was kind of nervous on those match points.
“I tanked probably 10 of them. I was like ‘I can’t believe I actually have a match point’ so that’s why mostly the reason I was so nervous. I came out thinking she’s 17 in the world, I was just watching her playing semi-finals at Wimbledon on the TV and I was like there’s no way I can actually play against her now but then I have match points and I realise ‘I can actually win this’, so then I got tight.”
Zhuk says her success so far this week has not sunk in yet but her journey at Indian Wells isn’t over.
Sport360 sat down with Zhuk after her first round win over Alize Cornet on Thursday. Here’s what she had to say…
— WTA (@WTA) March 8, 2018
You got your first tour-level main draw match win, does it have a special feeling?
Yes because I received a wildcard and I wanted to thank Tommy (Haas, tournament director) so much for this wildcard and for giving me this chance. This win feels so special for me because I love this place, I love this tournament. The crowd was supporting me, it’s unbelievable. I’m so excited.
Walk me through your emotions heading into your first match with Alize Cornet…
Honestly I wasn’t nervous at all because I’m playing on a big court, I love playing on a big court, and I just was thinking, ‘I’m just going to enjoy this moment of being here, I earned to be here and I’m just going to do what I can and see what happens’. As games were going I was like ‘I’m pretty tight in the scores, so I can actually do it, it’s not that scary’, because I know she plays unbelievable. I practiced with her last year in the fall, and it was so tough for me to handle her balls. So I was like ‘I’m just going to enjoy the moment’. And as soon as the match was going on, I was like ‘I have a chance to beat here, because I feel my game and my strokes are there’.
How comfortable are you being in this kind of setting?
I’m very comfortable. It’s a lot different from juniors because the organisation of WTA tournaments, everything is so set, you have a car, you have your hotel, the practice court booking, it’s so easy, you don’t have to worry about anything. My coach does everything for me, so I’m not even doing anything, I’m just going practice, match, practice, match, go back to the hotel. And in juniors it’s more complicated because you have to do it on your own. You have to make sure to book the court, and here it’s so peaceful.
Did things change for you mentally transitioning from juniors to the pro circuit that you’re actually playing for money now?
No because honestly I never play for money. I’m just enjoying the game. I never look at prize money. I love the game.
Tell me a bit about your background, I know you moved from Russia to the US when you were young…
I grew up in Russia and the first time I came to California, my godmother lives here, and I came to California when I was eight. I started learning English here, that’s why I kind of have an American accent. I kept coming here for a bit of time, because I liked the weather, my brother was also practicing a little bit here, in Placerville, which is two hours away from San Francisco. I love San Francisco, it’s so nice. From 12 to 14 I was practicing in Belgium, so I wasn’t in the States and right after Wimbledon (won Wimbledon juniors in 2015), I moved to the States completely, so I’m living in Florida full-time.
What’s it like living in the United States?
I really love the culture in the States, I feel so comfortable here. Because people they don’t care that I’m actually Russian, I’m living here and they take me as their person. Whenever I’m living in Florida, it’s always summer. I cannot live without sun. The beach is five minutes away from where I live, everything is so close, no traffic. I live 15 minutes away from Sarasota, and it’s like vacation and boat town, I just go straight to the jet skis, I go straight to the water. It’s so nice living there. Honestly after living in Florida I don’t think I’ll be able to live anywhere else.
Do you get to visit Russia often?
Only whenever I have to do something for the visa. I’m on a working visa, I stay as long as I want, but if I have to do something with the passport, yes I go there.
Are your parents still in Russia?
My mum is living always with me, my dad still works in Russia, but he comes to visit us, not too often, because he has work. But I think this year I just want him to retire from the job and just come live with us.
How do you feel about the pace at which you’re progressing, is it as expected, or slower, or faster?
I just take it with the flow. I just let it happen, whatever happens, happens.
Do you know the other young girls coming up through the ranks at the moment well?
Me and CiCi Bellis were playing juniors at the same time, and Amanda Anisimova, we know each other well.
What do you make of CiCi’s rise?
She’s an amazing athlete, I really love what she’s doing on court. I respect her, she’s an unbelievable player. I’m really happy for what she’s doing now. It motivates me. Sometimes people don’t know how to be happy for someone but I’m always happy to see her doing good. We were together in IMG Academy for some time, we grew up together, so I’m happy to see her doing well.
Who did you watch the most growing up, did you have any idols?
I always watched Caroline Wozniacki, she was like the best for me. I was always trying to copy her outfits, I would buy her Stella McCartney dresses and they were so big but I would say ‘I’m going to make it work, I’m going to grow into it’. She’s always so nice to people, always talkative and I love the way she plays, she fights for every ball. Just the style of her game, the way she is on court, the way she is with people. You can look up to what she’s doing, she works so much.
You must have been thrilled when she won the Australian Open…
I was so happy, I was like ‘come one Caroline, you’ve got to win this Slam, you can do it’.
What kind of goals do you have?
My goal is to win a Grand Slam, that’s it. And for now I just enjoy playing every single match, I just take it day by day.
What do you like to do when you’re not playing tennis?
Jet skis, I like going to the beach, hanging out with my friends, I like to play mini golf and I’m going to start learning to play actual golf.
Who are your three favourite non-tennis athletes?
Usain Bolt, Darya Klishina and Michael Jordan.
I like the Chainsmokers.