<
>

A win by Venus with an assist to Richard Williams

MIAMI -- Richard Williams was perched courtside, in the a box ordinarily reserved for photographers during his daughter Venus' Miami Open quarterfinals match against world No. 1 Angelique Kerber on Wednesday evening.

Richard was so near that Venus could feel the tension that held him in its grip and hear him muttering encouragements. It was the first match of hers that Richard has attended in almost a year, and the presence of the most famous tennis dad in history proved inspirational.

Williams punched through Kerber's vaunted defense time and time again, and ultimately became the oldest player to beat a No. 1, prevailing 7-5, 6-3 in an hour and 39 minutes of often riveting tennis.

"[My dad] really wanted it for me," Venus said afterward, a broad smile lighting her face. "I could hear him on the sidelines. It's always a happy moment, when I come off the court. Even if I lose, he's still very happy. But to see the joy and the pride and the excitement -- I could win the match just for that."

Combine the inspiration with Venus' preparation and the end result was a fetching but explosive display of tennis worthy of a 22-year-old. That it was the product of a woman who is a multiple former champion here is no great surprise, at least not until you factor in that she last won this event 16 years ago.

Somehow, "elder statesman" doesn't have the right ring. "Role model" and "flag-bearer" might strike a more appropriate note. Fifteen women from the U.S. settled into the starting blocks at this tournament, but by the quarterfinal stage only one remained. Her name was Williams, not Serena.

Venus' little sister, the all-time Open era Grand Slam champion, takes up most of the real estate dedicated to the Williamses in the public imagination. As a result, Venus has spent most of the past decade flying comfortably, if not anonymously, on the radar. She has fought gamely and successfully against a potentially debilitating condition called Sjogren's Syndrome, and that effort has sometimes gotten even more attention than her periodic bursts of brilliance.

She might not be the most successful player in her own family home, but she's a former No. 1 and seven-time Grand Slam singles champion and has played extremely consistent tennis since October 2015. Her ranking has hovered around the top 15 and up as high as No. 6 throughout. She's a Wimbledon icon, having won five titles there. Kerber prevented her from meeting Serena in another final just last July. Don't think Venus has forgotten it either.

Kerber is a terrific counter-puncher, but the energy, power and mobility that animated Williams was simply irresistible.

"That's how I'm supposed to play, totally," Williams said after the match, referring to how well she controlled the points and dominated the tempo. But she was disappointed in the number of unforced errors she made -- 33 compared with Kerber's 27 -- as well as her low first-serve conversion rate (45 percent).

Pick, pick. She justified her self-criticism: "I like looking at it from that standpoint of how I can get better. I had to play better, because she's No. 1 in the world."

This win was built upon a second serve rivaled only by Serena's. Venus hit just two aces, the same number as Kerber, and otherwise struggled to get her first delivery into play. Yet she won an outstanding 59 percent of her second-serve points. Time and again, she followed those probing serves with approach shots that put Kerber under heavy pressure. Returning, Venus belted her way to 13 break points, winning five.

The performance is almost sure to land Williams in the top 10. The clay segment coming up could be difficult for her, but Venus seems poised to be one of the top three or four contenders on grass.

Serena, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal all have spent words downplaying the importance of the No. 1 ranking. They've repeatedly said they're playing to win major tournaments, remain healthy and avoid undue stress in this late stage of their careers.

Venus, who will be 37 before Wimbledon begins, is older than all of them. But she isn't singing the same tune. Returning to No. 1 after an absence of about 15 years isn't tops on her agenda, but she isn't pretending to be above all that striving stuff either.

"I would like to be No. 1," she said the other day. "Nobody is out there saying, 'Cool, [I'm] No. 11. Actually, 11 is better than 1.' Nobody is saying, 'Cool, No. 2 or No. 19.' Everybody is thinking, 'Well, 1 is a little better.' So, yes, I would like to do that again.'

Stick around, Richard.