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Serena opens up about engagement after reaching quarterfinals

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MELBOURNE, Australia — For three rounds and more than a week, Serena Williams wanted to keep all the focus on her primary objective in Australia.

She hasn’t worn an engagement ring at the Australian Open, and hasn’t really wanted to elaborate much on the marriage proposal from Alexis Ohanian – which she made public late last month by posting a poem on news website Reddit.

The six-time Australian Open champion is in Melbourne aiming for an Open-era record 23rd Grand Slam title. Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, has been at her matches.

After her toughest match at the tournament this year, a 7-5, 6-4 win over No. 16-seeded Barbora Strycova on Monday, she was relaxed enough to reflect on her engagement. She’d just reached the Australian Open quarterfinals for the 11th time, and said she had nothing to lose after struggling with her misfiring serve – she was broken four times, including her first two service games – and making 46 unforced errors.

The 35-year-old Williams was asked, again, about her engagement in a post-match news conference – this time by an Italian journalist who wanted to clarify the reference to Rome in her poem.

“What did I say? I said I was whisked away to Rome?” she said, explaining how Ohanian took her back to where they first met to propose.

Were they introduced, or was it happenstance?

“Literally by chance. It was just — I was sitting down, and he sat next to me,” Williams said. “Yeah, that doesn’t happen anymore, right?

“I live in a movie and in a fairytale in my mind, so I guess eventually it was bound to happen.”

Still, she’s not planning the wedding just yet. As she said to all previous questions about the engagement, she’s here to win another title. With top-seeded Angelique Kerber already out, she also has the chance to regain the No. 1 ranking.

Next up, she’ll face 2016 semifinalist Johanna Konta, who beat Ekaterina Makarova 6-1, 6-4 to make it fourth-round victories over the Russian in back-to-back years.

Mirjana Lucic-Baroni was an emerging talent when Serena and Venus Williams were first making an impact, reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1999 when she was 17. After a long, difficult time off the tour, she has returned to the quarterfinals of a major for the first time since.

Lucic-Baroni beat American qualifier Jennifer Brady 6-4, 6-2 and will next play U.S. Open finalist Karolina Pliskova, who had a 6-3, 6-3 win over Daria Gavrilova.

Whatever comes of it, the 34-year-old Lucic-Baroni said she’d make the most of the moment.

“I felt kind of a little bit of unfinished business,” she said. “I still wanted to play on a stage like this … Come out, play, have these wins, be in a quarterfinal of a Slam.”

Rafael Nadal is coming back from two months off to rest his injured left wrist, and was delighted to reach the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the 30th time with his 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 win over Gael Monfils. It was Nadal’s first win over a top-10 player at a Grand Slam since his French Open victory in 2014 – the last of his 14 major titles.

“Being in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam after couple of years not being there is very special for me,” said Nadal, who last progressed this far at the 2015 French Open.

Nadal went up a break early in the first two sets, had his chances in the third before Monfils rallied, and then traded breaks in the fourth before breaking the acrobatic Frenchman in the last game to win. Overall, he converted six of 17 break-point chances.

He next plays third-ranked Milos Raonic, the Wimbledon finalist and highest-ranked man still in the tournament after upset losses for top-ranked Andy Murray and defending champion Novak Djokovic.

No. 15 Grigor Dimitrov closed with an ace to hold off wild-card entry Denis Istomin, who upset Djokovic in the third round, 2-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2, 6-1. The Bulgarian will next play No. 11 David Goffin.

Raonic had a 7-6 (6), 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 win over No. 13 Roberto Bautista Agut, hitting 33 aces and 75 winners. But he also had nine double-faults and 55 unforced errors, and didn’t really get on a roll until after spiking his racket into the court in frustration in the third set.

The Canadian is conscious he is the highest-ranked player still in the draw, but also of what lies ahead.

“It sort of crosses your mind,” Raonic said. “But it’s very insignificant because there’s a lot for me to even get past that point where it would have been to play potentially against those guys. I’m pretty intent on staying in that moment.”

That’s something Williams is counting on, too.

“I feel like it was really good for me to win on probably not my best day,” Williams said of her wayward serve. “Sometimes you rely on one shot and if it goes off, and then, like, what happens now?

“It was really good for me to almost lose that so I know my other game is going pretty good, too.”

Serena Williams champions issues on, off court

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Moments after Serena Williams won her seventh Wimbledon title, she proudly raised her fist in a black power salute.

It caused a bit of frenzy at the All-England Club in 2016, but Williams’ action shouldn’t have surprised anyone: She’d already been one of the most vocal supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. She was one of the first major athletes to decry the failure to indict a white officer in the death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri – while also condemning violence against police.

“What caused me to speak out? Just life,” Williams said. “That’s just who I am. I always believe in the greater good and doing what’s right.”

Williams isn’t alone in her activism. Female athletes – especially black women – have long been out there pushing for social change. Wilma Rudolph’s victory parade celebrating her three gold medals from the 1960 Olympics in Rome was the first integrated event in Clarksville, Tennessee.

But despite their efforts on the field and off, women athletes have to struggle to get the same attention as men despite having as much to say, said Harry Edwards, a scholar of race and sports who has worked as a consultant for several U.S. pro teams.

“We have this twisted, almost-demented obsession with women’s second-class status with their physical inferiority,” he said. “It prevents us from appreciating the great athletes that they are … but it also means that it shuts down a potential forum that these great athletes would have where they’re valued for their athletic prowess in the same way that Muhammad Ali was, that Bill Russell was, that Tommy Smith and John Carlos were, that Arthur Ashe was, that Curt Flood was, so that when they speak, people listen.”

While Williams has long been an advocate of Black Lives Matter, it was only after former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the 2016 season that the country really began to pay attention to black athlete activism. Kaepernick added his voice to a growing national movement, enveloping the entire league and starting an ongoing conversation that ventured outside football arenas.

Similarly, few people acknowledge that after the 2016 deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and the killing of Dallas police officers, dozens of WNBA players wore shirts with the men’s names and kneeled for the national anthem.

It was a black woman, Knox College basketball player Ariyana Smith, who started the wave of athletic protest about the deaths of black men at the hands of police.

On Nov. 29, 2014, Smith made the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture during the national anthem before a game at Fontbonne University in Clayton, Missouri, before walking toward the American flag and laying prone on the floor for 4 1/2 minutes to symbolize the 4 + hours Brown lay in the streets of nearby Ferguson.

“We as black women are often invisible, so we don’t get that credit,” said Akilah Francique, a former athlete who cofounded the Sista to Sista program to foster a sense of connectedness among black female collegiate athletes.

Williams has been a presence on and off the tennis court, not shying away from opponents en route to winning 23 Grand Slam titles or social and political issues.

She spoke up in 2015, encouraging Black Lives Matter activists not to get discouraged: “To those of you involved in equality movements like Black Lives Matter, I say this: Keep it up. Don’t let those trolls stop you. We’ve been through so much for so many centuries, and we shall overcome this too,” she wrote in Wired magazine.

Since then, Williams has become the symbol for other causes affecting people of color, including medical issues. In February, she told Vogue that she dealt with a medical scare after the birth of her daughter. She had to insist on getting extra medical tests, overruling her nurse, before her doctors discovered several small blood clots in her lungs.

Women around the country related to her story, talking about similar difficulties in getting proper medical attention.

Female-led activism can also look different than men’s, Francique said, because of the unique positions and pressures women face in sports and in life. She pointed to the criticism black women athletes have to overcome about their body shapes, training regimens, skin color, clothing and even hair when they compete in sports – criticism that Williams has endured.

“For many of them just by merely being there and having a presence is activism,” Francique said.

Williams’ older sister, Venus, who has advocated for equal pay for professional tennis while winning seven Grand Slam titles, believes it is important to have a voice on these issues.

“I think more than anything, we see ourselves as Americans, and that’s what we want to be able to see ourselves as, regardless of color,” said Venus Williams. “I think that’s what everyone is fighting for, that one day we don’t have to see that anymore.”

 

 

Isner wins rematch against Albot at Delray Beach Open

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DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — Sixth-seeded John Isner overcame a slow start Tuesday to win his rematch against Radu Albot in the first round of the Delray Beach Open, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4.

Isner lost to Albot last week in the first round of the New York Open, and had been beaten in the opening match of his three previous tournaments this year.

No. 9 Milos Raonic, last year’s runner-up to champion Jack Sock, swept the final five games and beat Taro Daniel 6-1, 7-5.

Ivo Karlovic, the 2015 champion, converted only one of 12 break-point chances and lost to Denis Shapovalov 7-5, 7-6 (4).