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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.”

 

Petra Kvitova to play at French Open

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PARIS —¬†Only two months after picking up her racket for the first time following a knife attack at her home, Petra Kvitova will be playing at the French Open.

The two-time Wimbledon champion said Friday she will make her comeback at Roland Garros, although she still lacks power and strength.

“I knew this day would come,” said Kvitova, who was attacked by an intruder last year. “I’m really happy that really here, the dream comes true.”

Kvitova has missed all season while recovering from surgery on her racket-holding left hand. She sustained damage to the tendons in her left hand, along with injuries to all five fingers and two nerves, during the attack.

Doctors initially thought she would need more time before returning to tennis. But Kvitova’s recovery was faster than expected and she said last month that she was signing up for the French Open, which begins Sunday, in hopes of being able to compete.

“It wasn’t easy, but I’m happy that I work through this and I can play tennis and I can be in the draw,” she said.

Kvitova, who won the Wimbledon title in 2011 and 2014 and climbed as high as No. 2 in the WTA rankings, was not allowed to speak about the attack itself because a police investigation is still ongoing. However, she spoke about the anxiety associated with her dreadful experience.

“I didn’t sleep well the days after, but I wasn’t really staying alone,” she said. “From the beginning I was really feeling really weird when I went in the city or somewhere. I was always staring to the guys and looking if there are no strangers there. But with the time, it’s better.”

Kvitova also provided details on the intense rehabilitation process that preceded her “last-minute” decision to try her luck in Paris.

“I worked very hard behind the scenes,” she said. “From the beginning I had this hand in a splint for two months, and even then I was practicing every day, always putting the splint away and trying to make this scar softer. So from the second day after surgery I started to work with that, which was kind of easy, just passive work with the fingers. I couldn’t move them.”

Kvitova got rid of the splint after two weeks and started to move her fingers slightly. She said she can’t still move them completely.

Kvitova also consulted with a hand specialist in the French city of Grenoble every month and she started practicing with a racket at the end of March.

“I hit a few forehands with soft balls from the net, and it felt very, very weird,” she said. “I didn’t really have touch in the hand for holding the racket. I’m happy that I didn’t have to change any techniques or something. Everything seems OK. Of course the hand doesn’t have that power and the strength yet, but I’m working on it. Hopefully one day will be everything perfect.”

Kvitova will open her campaign on the red clay against 86th-ranked Julia Boserup. She is making her ninth appearance at Roland Garros, where she reached the semifinals in 2012.

“Not many people believe that I can play tennis again. So I’m happy that I can play,” Kvitova said. “I actually already won my biggest fight. I stayed in life and I have all my fingers.”

Nishikori saves three match points in Geneva Open QF win

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GENEVA — Kei Nishikori saved three straight match points in the deciding set before outlasting Kevin Anderson 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (6) in the Geneva Open quarterfinals on Thursday.

The second-seeded Nishikori was serving at 4-5, 0-40 before rallying to beat the 62nd-ranked South African, who fired 14 aces without allowing any by his opponent.

Nishikori also trailed in the tiebreaker before creating a second match-point chance with a forehand crosscourt service return for a winner. He clinched with a forehand winner off a looping net-cord ball.

The No. 9-ranked Japanese player will face 33rd-ranked Mischa Zverev of Germany in the semifinals on Friday.

The Russian-born Zverev, who came through qualifying, beat fifth-seeded Steve Johnson of the United States 6-4, 7-5.