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Serena Williams Turns Back Time at Australian Open


MELBOURNE, Australia — Serena Williams became a time traveler on Sunday, pulled back to the past to essentially face down her much younger self.Across the net from her in the fourth round of the Australian Open stood the 22-year-old Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, who turned pro at 14, like Williams, and whose strategy called to mind Williams’s game plan at the same age: If at first you don’t succeed, hit harder.Williams, 39, stared down Sabalenka, and after two gripping hours, Sabalenka blinked. In the 10th game of the deciding set, Sabalenka mustered one point on her serve as Williams, a seven-time champion, seized the break and a 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 victory to set up a quarterfinal meeting with Simona Halep, who dispatched the 19-year-old Iga Swiatek in three sets.Williams’s longevity makes it easy to forget that before she was the game’s grande dame, she was its whiz kid, collecting nine WTA singles titles, including one Grand Slam, before she was out of her teens.Sabalenka, a nine-time winner on the WTA Tour, and Swiatek, the reigning French Open champion, are the latest in a long string of polished phenoms threaded through Williams’s career. One of the biggest stars to emerge, Naomi Osaka, saved two match points to beat Garbiñe Muguruza on Sunday. Still, from Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles to Maria Sharapova and Sloane Stephens, Williams has watched many young talents come and go and, on occasion, stray far from tennis.A sport with a history of suffocating its young has not stifled Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam champion in singles whose love for the game seems to have deepened over time. Against Sabalenka, she studied a page of written notes during changeovers like she was back in high school. She fiddled with her “Queen” necklace. She dug balls out of the corners and ran from side to side like she was on the school blacktop at recess.Darren Cahill, one of Halep’s coaches, described Williams’s movement as the best he has seen from her “in a long, long time” and said, “If you can stay in more points and get more balls back, stay alive, then she’s got the power to turn those points around.”What Williams is doing is also inconceivable to the younger Americans, three of whom followed her into the second week. Marveled one of the three, the 28-year-old Shelby Rogers: “What she’s been able to accomplish is absolutely incredible because some days I wake up now and I’m like, ‘OK I’m not 21 anymore.’”Williams’s serve usually allows her to win her share of easy points. But against Sabalenka, her main weapon continually misfired. Williams put 52 percent of her first serves in play and recorded eight double faults, including one in the fifth game of the third set, which gave Sabalenka two break points.With the state of Victoria in Day 2 of a hard lockdown, no fans were in the stands, but the restrictions placed on the local populace did not extend to Williams’s inner circle, which includes her husband, coach, agent, hitting partner and older sister Venus, 40, who lost in the second round.Williams didn’t need to be told by the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, that her entourage qualified as “essential workers,” a classification that made it possible for them to attend the match. Her team is elemental to her success, and she looked over often to where everyone was seated. When she was down 15-40 in that fifth game, Venus raised both hands as if signaling a touchdown and they locked eyes.Williams’s most recent Grand Slam championship came at Venus’s expense at Melbourne Park in 2017, when she was two months pregnant with her firstborn daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian. Since becoming a parent, Williams has found her voice as an advocate for working mothers everywhere, speaking openly of the hardships, both physical and emotional, that she and others on the WTA Tour — and in the wider world — confront daily while balancing their jobs and child-rearing.But in that telepathic moment between the sisters, Serena was not tennis’s earth mother. She was transported back in time to her early years as a pro when she looked to Venus for direction.“When I hear her voice, it just makes me calm and confident,” Williams said. “Yeah, I think there’s something about it that just makes me feel really good.”She got her first serve in on the next three points and won them all, earning an advantage with a 126 mile-an-hour ace. Williams closed out the game on a frazzled Sabalenka’s forced error.Sabalenka fought back, winning the next three games to draw even at 4-4. At that point, she said “I felt like I should win it. I felt like I was fighting really well.”But so was Williams. She held, and with Sabalenka serving to stay in the match, Williams got enough balls back to fluster her younger opponent, whose service game ended with a double fault and two forehand unforced errors.“I just needed to play better on the big points,” Williams said. “I knew that I could. I still hadn’t reached my peak. I was like, ‘OK, Serena, you got this. Just keep going.’”After 23 major singles titles and hundreds of millions of dollars in prize money and endorsements and motherhood, how does Williams find the motivation to keep chasing a tennis ball?The answer could be found in how Williams spent her off day. After her Saturday practice, she put her daughter down for a nap and then made work calls to the United States, finalizing orders and obsessing about fabrics for her S by Serena fashion line, which she described as her “second career.”There’s a method to Williams’s multitasking. She has been doing it her whole life, she said. She never played a full tennis schedule as a junior and has never played a full schedule as a pro.“I still went to college, I still did a lot of other things,” Williams said. “I had other careers. It was impossible to burn out.”Convention holds that Williams continues to play because she has Margaret Court’s career record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles in her sights. But the truth might be simpler.“I like my job,” she said. “I like what I do. It’s pretty special I get to come out and still get to do it.”

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2021 Australian Open: What to Watch on Thursday Night


How to watch: 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Eastern on the Tennis Channel and 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. on ESPN2 in the United States; streaming on the ESPN+ and ESPN3 apps.As each singles draw dwindled to 32 players, some former major champions lost their hopes of snagging one more Grand Slam title. The 17th-seeded Stan Wawrinka lost his second-round match to Marton Fucsovics, and the eighth-seeded Bianca Andreescu fell to Hsieh Su-Wei.Although the field has shrunk, plenty of promising youngsters and past major champions remain.Here are some matches to keep an eye on.Because of the number of matches cycling through courts, the times for individual matchups are best estimates and certain to fluctuate based on when earlier play is completed. All times are Eastern.Rod Laver Arena | 7 p.m. ThursdayAryna Sabalenka vs. Ann LiAryna Sabalenka, the seventh seed, has equaled her best result at the Australian Open by reaching the third round. She has yet to make it to a Grand Slam quarterfinal, despite how consistently well she plays on tour. Sabalenka won three hardcourt singles titles in 2020, and started 2021 by winning the Abu Dhabi Open. Her aggressive style can help her on faster-paced courts, although on her poorer days it can create plenty of unforced errors.Ann Li, the world No. 69, has had a fantastic run of results in the past few weeks. Last week, she won the Grampians Trophy in Melbourne with a walkover in the final. Then, in the first round of the Australian Open, she upset the 31st seed, Zhang Shuai, while dropping only two games. Although her second-round match against Alizé Cornet required a bit more from her, Li played well, pushing through a tough second set tiebreaker in which she faced two set points. One more upset would put her in her first round of 16 at a Grand Slam event.John Cain Arena | 10 p.m. ThursdayNaomi Osaka vs. Ons JabeurNaomi Osaka, the third seed, has won a Grand Slam event in each of the past three years, all on hardcourts. The fast pace of play suits her, as she pins opponents into the back corners of the court with her flat shots. Osaka did not play in the French Open in October, citing concerns related to the pandemic. She is back into a groove at the Australian Open, dropping just eight games across her first two matches.Ons Jabeur, the 27th seed, became the first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal at last year’s Australian Open, losing to the eventual champion, Sofia Kenin. Jabeur’s adaptability can be very difficult for opponents to handle; she can unravel an array of opponents’ weaknesses. To beat Osaka, Jabeur will need to have a strong start and not allow her opponent to get into a rhythm.John Cain Arena | 3 a.m. FridayDominic Thiem vs. Nick KyrgiosDominic Thiem, the third seed, won the United States Open in September, supplanting Marin Cilic (2014) as the most recent first-time male Grand Slam champion.A four-time Grand Slam finalist, Thiem has slowly been chipping away at the hegemony of the so-called Big Three of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Though Thiem’s U.S. Open victory came on a hard court, that is not considered his best surface. And with the unusually quick conditions in Australia, he may struggle to return to the final, where he lost to Djokovic last year.Nick Kyrgios, an Australian ranked 47th in the world, was often stereotyped as an uncouth punk for his perceived lack of interest in the sport of tennis. As the coronavirus pandemic shut down the ATP Tour, Kyrgios became a loud advocate for health and safety precautions, openly criticizing both his peers and legends like Boris Becker for choosing to socialize or complaining about safety measures. Now Kyrgios is playing in front of home crowds, and the fast-paced courts in Melbourne will aid his aggressive baseline style. However, after barely squeezing past the 29th seed, Ugo Humbert, in five sets, Kyrgios will be challenged to break down Thiem’s exceptional defensive play.Margaret Court Arena | 3 a.m. FridayDenis Shapovalov vs. Felix Auger-AliassimeDenis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime, the two youngest members of the Canadian delegation at the Australian Open, are both aggressive, full-court players who rely on their athleticism to get through tough matches.Shapovalov, the 11th seed, reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the U.S. Open before losing in five sets to Pablo Carreño Busta. Although Shapovalov, 21, lost both of his ATP Cup matches — a singles match against the seventh-ranked Alexander Zverev and a doubles match — they were tightly contested. After an impressive five-set win over the fellow up-and-comer Jannik Sinner, Shapovalov looks prepared to reach the second week of play.Auger-Aliassime, 20, has skated through his first two rounds, convincingly dismantling his opponents without dropping a set. The last time he faced Shapovalov on tour, he lost in straight sets in the first round of the 2019 U.S. Open. A year and a half later, this match will be a good test of whether he can usurp his close friend as the top Canadian men’s player.Here are a few more matches to keep an eye on:Serena Williams vs. Anastasia Potapova — 9 p.m.Milos Raonic vs. Marton Fucsovics — 1 a.m.Simona Halep vs. Veronika Kudermetova — 3 a.m.Novak Djokovic vs. Taylor Fritz — 5 a.m.

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