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Year after Slam bid at US Open, Williams eyes No. 23, No. 1

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Despite everything that Serena Williams has won and done, her sense of self can still fluctuate based on the outcome of a particular match.

Doesn’t always seem to matter that she owns a record-tying 22 major singles titles heading into the U.S. Open, which begins Monday with a retractable roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium for the first time.

Not necessarily a big deal to her that she’s spent the past 3+ years entrenched at No. 1 and is the oldest woman ever to top the WTA rankings.

And there are times when the 34-year-old American basically forgets that she transcends her sport and has become a cultural icon away from the tennis court.

Williams is devastated when she is dealt a setback, such as last year’s “Did that really happen?!” loss to Roberta Vinci in the U.S. Open semifinals, ending an attention-grabbing, pressure-piling bid for the first calendar-year Grand Slam by anyone in more than a quarter-century. Williams acknowledges she measures herself constantly.

“Unfortunately, I definitely do, which I don’t think is normal. I definitely feel like when I lose, I don’t feel as good about myself,” she said.

“But then I have to, like, remind myself that: `You are Serena Williams!’ You know? Like, `Are you kidding me?”‘ Williams continued, laughing and leaning forward. “And it’s those moments that I have to just, like, come off and be like, `Serena, do you know what you’ve done? Who you are? What you continue to do, not only in tennis, (but also) off the court? Like, you’re awesome.’ That really just shows the human side of me. I’m not a robot.”

She is at the stage of her career where history is in the offing nearly every time a racket is in her right hand. So while the stakes are different from what they were at Flushing Meadows in 2015, Williams does have something significant to play for yet again.

After equaling Steffi Graf for the most Grand Slam titles in the professional era (which dates to 1968) by winning Wimbledon last month, Williams now can break that tie by earning No. 23 in New York. Only Margaret Court owns more major singles trophies, with 24, but more than half of that total came against amateur competition.

Not that Williams was immediately ready to think about topping Graf after pulling even with her at the All England Club.

“One thing I learned about last year is to enjoy the moment,” Williams said. “I’m definitely going to enjoy this.”

Good thing, too, because not everything has gone smoothly since that most recent triumph. Slowed by a bothersome right shoulder, Williams lost in the third round of singles and first round of doubles at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics – she was a 2012 gold medalist in both events – and then pulled out of a hard-court tuneup event in Ohio.

Williams is assured of remaining at No. 1 until the end of the U.S. Open, which will bring her current streak to 186 weeks in a row, tying another mark held by Graf. Depending on what happens in the tournament, Williams could be overtaken in the rankings by No. 2 Angelique Kerber (who beat Williams in the Australian Open final in January), No. 3 Garbine Muguruza (who beat Williams in the French Open final in June) or No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska.

“It’s definitely intriguing,” Roger Federer said about tracking the women vying for No. 1. “It’s nice to see this race.”

Federer, who won five of his men’s record 17 Grand Slam titles in New York, will be sitting out the U.S. Open for the first time since 1999 as he takes the rest of the season off to let his left knee heal. A year ago, Federer lost in the final at Flushing Meadows to Novak Djokovic. In Federer’s mind, the top-ranked Djokovic is the favorite this time, even though No. 2 Andy Murray’s summer has been “phenomenal.”

One reason: Federer thinks the installation of the new $150 million roof at the main arena will limit the wind even when it’s open, which will help Djokovic.

Not too long ago, Djokovic appeared to be close to unbeatable no matter the surface or conditions, and a buzz was building about whether he could chase a true Grand Slam. But he exited Wimbledon in the third round, then the Olympics in the first round, while Murray won both of those titles.

“Novak, obviously, the last two years, really, has played amazing tennis. His consistency – what I’ve done for, like, the last four months, he’s been doing for, like, the whole year,” Murray said. “So I need to try and keep that going, and the U.S. Open is always the next big goal.”

 

Andy Murray, Angelique Kerber out in 4th round of Australian Open

2017 Australian Open - Day 7
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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) There was some symmetry about the fourth-round exits of top-ranked Andy Murray and Angelique Kerber at the Australian Open.

Both had the top seeding for the first time at a Grand Slam tournament. Both went out on the same court and, at least on paper, the same day.

It was tough at the top on Sunday: Five-time finalist Murray lost 7-5, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4 to No. 50-ranked Mischa Zverev in the afternoon match on Rod Laver Arena, and defending women’s champion Kerber lost 6-3, 6-2 to CoCo Vandeweghe in an upset that finished at six minutes past midnight.

It was the first time since the French Open in 2010 that both top-seeded players went out in the same round. In the quarterfinals at Roland Garros that year, Roger Federer lost to Robin Soderling and Serena Williams lost to Sam Stosur.

Murray and Kerber didn’t make it to the second week.

Vandeweghe had never been past the third round at the season-opening Grand Slam, and lost in the first round here last year. But she pounded Kerber with a powerful forehand, clubbing 13 of her 30 winners from that wing.

Kerber saved a match point in the first round last year before winning her first major title, beating Serena Williams in the final. She replaced Williams atop the rankings after winning the U.S. Open.

Murray lost the final here to six-time champion Novak Djokovic last year, but finished 2016 at No. 1 after a strong finish to the season that included titles at Wimbledon, the Olympics and the ATP Finals.

He was undone by some old-school serve and volley from Zverev, who played the match of his life. He’ll now meet 17-time major winner Federer in the quarterfinals.

In between the upsets was pretty rocky, too. Federer was down 5-1 in the first set against Kei Nishikori but found a way to fend off the 2014 U.S. Open finalist, who was cramping and needed late treatment on his back, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3.

It was his 200th career win over a top 10 player.

Federer was ecstatic. “It was about staying with him. … almost going down 6-0, I thought `It’s not going to get any worse from there,'” said Federer, on the comeback from six months on the sidelines to repair his injured left knee. “Huge win for me in my career.”

Murray was stunned.

“Right now I’m obviously very down because I wanted to go further in this event,” Murray said. “I’ve had tough losses in my career in the past. I’ve come back from them. This is a tough one.”

Murray’s exit follows the second-round departure of Djokovic, beaten in the second round by No. 117-ranked wild-card entry Denis Istomin.

It’s the first time since 2002 that the top two seeds in the men’s draw haven’t reached the Australian Open quarterfinals, and the first time at a Grand Slam since the French Open in 2004.

The absence of Djokovic and Murray certainly opens up it up for others.

U.S. Open champion Stan Wawrinka, who had his major breakthrough here in 2014, is a growing contender after beating Andreas Seppi 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4). He’ll play a quarterfinal against 2008 Australian Open finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who beat Dan Evans 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-4, 6-4.

In the bottom half of the draw, 14-time major winner Rafael Nadal is the only man still in contention who has won a Grand Slam title.

The top half of the women’s draw is open, too. Venus Williams returned to the quarterfinals for the ninth time with a 6-3, 7-5 win over No. 181-ranked Mona Barthel.

The seven-time major winner next plays No. 24-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who beat No. 8 Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3, 6-3.

French Open champion Garbine Muguruza beat Sorana Cirstea 6-2, 6-3 and will next play Vandeweghe – they’re both in the quarterfinals at Melbourne Park for the first time.

Kerber’s loss contined a poor run since she won the U.S. Open last September. She’s played seven tournaments without winning a title, only reached one final, and was 5-7 against top 50 players.

The bigger upset of the day, then, was produced by Zverev, the older and apparently lesser-talented brother of Alexander who had never gone past the third round of a major and was appearing at only his third Grand Slam in six years.

Zverev attacked Murray, unsettling his natural baseline game, and won 65 of 118 points at the net.

He made some stunning, lunging volleys on clutch points, but for him it was all a blur.

“It was like I was in a little coma, I just served and volleyed my way through,” Zverev said. “Honestly there were a few points where I don’t know how I pulled it off.”

Murray couldn’t do a lot to counter it.

“It’s the shots he was coming up with when he did come forward.” Murray said. “He came up with some great pickups, you know, reflex volleys especially at the end when it was tight.”

Murray had reached the quarterfinals or better on his previous seven trips to Australia but never won the title – losing finals in 2010 to Federer and in `11, `13, `15 and `16 to Djokovic.

He had not lost to a player ranked as lowly as Zverev at a major since his loss to No. 51 Juan Ignacio Chela here in 2006. It was also the earliest exit by a top-seeded player at the Australian Open since Lleyton Hewitt in 2003.

Murray out in 4th-round upset, Federer advances in Australia

2017 Australian Open - Day 7
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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Andy Murray had already been upset by Mischa Zverev, undone by some old-school serve and volley, and Roger Federer was down 5-1 in the first set against Kei Nishikori.

As Sunday stretched from afternoon to evening, the second week of the Australian Open appeared set to take on a drastically different complexion than any in a decade.

Unlike newly-installed No. 1 Murray, though, the long-time top-ranked Federer found a way to fend off his fourth-round rival.

The sum result of back-to-back long matches on Rod Laver Arena was a quarterfinal pairing of 17th-seeded Federer against No. 50-ranked Zverev.

Five-time finalist Murray lost in a 7-5, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4 to Zverev, the older and apparently lesser-talented brother of Alexander who had never gone past the third round of a major and was appearing at only his third Grand Slam in six years.

Federer held off 2014 U.S. Open finalist Nishikori, who was cramping and needed late treatment on his back, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3.

Murray’s exit follows the second-round departure of six-time defending champion Novak Djokovic, beaten in the second round by No. 117-ranked wild-card entry Denis Istomin.

It’s the first time since 2002 that the top two seeds haven’t reached the Australian Open quarterfinals, and the first time at a Grand Slam since the French Open in 2004.

“Right now I’m obviously very down because I wanted to go further in this event, and it wasn’t to be,” Murray said. “I’ve had tough losses in my career in the past. I’ve come back from them. This is a tough one. I’m sure I’ll come back OK.”

The absence of Djokovic and Murray from the quarterfinals – the first time since 2007 that at least one of them hasn’t reached the last eight at a major – opens up opportunities.

U.S. Open champion Stan Wawrinka, who had his major breakthrough here in 2014, is a growing contender after beating Andreas Seppi 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4). He’ll play a quarterfinal against 2008 Australian Open finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who beat Dan Evans 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-4, 6-4.

On the other half of the draw, 14-time major winner Rafael Nadal is the only man still in contention who has won a Grand Slam title.

Zverev attacked Murray, unsettling his natural baseline game, and won 65 of 118 points at the net.

He made some stunning, lunging volleys on clutch points, but for him it was all a blur.

“Honestly, I don’t know, it was like I was in a little coma, I just served and volleyed my way through,” Zverev said. “Honestly there were a few points where I don’t know how I pulled it off.”

Murray couldn’t do a lot to counter it.

“It’s the shots he was coming up with when he did come forward.” Murray said. “I mean, he came up with some great pickups, you know, reflex volleys especially at the end when it was tight.

“He served very well when he needed to … he deserved to win because he played great when he was down, and also in the important moments.”

Seven-time major winner Venus Williams returned to the quarterfinals for the ninth time with a 6-3, 7-5 win over No. 181-ranked Mona Barthel.

She will next play No. 24-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who beat No. 8 Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3, 6-3.

French Open champion Garbine Muguruza reached the quarterfinals in Australia for the first time, beating Sorana Cirstea 6-2, 6-3.

Murray had reached the quarterfinals or better on his previous seven trips to Melbourne Park – losing the finals in 2010 to Federer and in ’11, ’13, ’15 and ’16 to Djokovic.

He had not lost to a player ranked as lowly as Zverev at a major since his loss to No. 51 Juan Ignacio Chela here in 2006. It was also the earliest exit by a top-seeded player at the Australian Open since Lleyton Hewitt’s fourth-round departure in 2003.

The younger Zverev brother was in the crowd at Rod Laver, where the bulk of fans were pulling heavily for Murray as the fourth set began, shouting “Come on Andy!” after nearly every point.

Murray was agitated right from the start, hitting into the net early on and screaming loudly as glanced at his players’ box.

Serving at 4-3, Zverev hit two easy shots into the net, including a routine-looking overhead from Murray’s defensive lob, drawing gasps from the crowd.

But as he held on for what turned out to be the biggest win of the year, he gained support with daring play and frequent trips to the net.

After closing it out on his first match point, he walked calmly to the net and clasped his hands together in front of his chest, almost in relief.