Serena Williams beats Venus at US Open to extend Slam bid

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NEW YORK (AP) If Serena Williams would feel sympathy for any opponent standing in the way of her pursuit of tennis’ first true Grand Slam in 27 years, it might very well be her sister Venus.

Still, no way was Serena going to let anyone, or anything, stop her on this night, even if she found herself in a mid-match lull while facing her older sibling in the U.S. Open quarterfinals.

Moving two matches from history, top-seeded Serena got all she could handle from 23rd-seeded Venus before moving into the semifinals at Flushing Meadows with a 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 victory Tuesday in the 27th installment of the unique Williams vs. Williams rivalry.

When it ended, they met at the net for a hug, with a smiling Venus wrapping both arms around Serena.

“She’s the toughest player I’ve ever played in my life and the best person I know,” Serena said in an on-court interview. “It’s going against your best friend and at the same time going against the greatest competitor, for me, in women’s tennis.”

Serena is 16-11 in their matches, including 9-5 in majors and 3-2 at the U.S. Open. Of greater significance, Serena can still become the first player since Steffi Graf in 1988 to collect all four Grand Slam titles in a calendar year.

And if she can win what would be her fourth U.S. Open in a row, and seventh overall, she would equal Graf with 22 major championships, the most in the professional era and second-most ever behind Margaret Court’s 24.

Well-known folks such as Donald Trump – who was booed when shown on video screens – Oprah Winfrey and Kim Kardashian dotted the teeming stands in Arthur Ashe Stadium, and the action under the lights often was of high quality.

The sisters combined for 57 winners (Serena had more, 35) and only 37 unforced errors (Venus had fewer, 15).

Both pounded serves fast, very fast, each topping 120 mph. Both returned well, oh so well, each managing to put into play at least one serve at more than 115 mph by the other.

Venus often attempted to end baseline exchanges quickly. Serena showed tremendous touch by using drop shots, one paired with a backhand passing winner, another with a perfectly curled lob.

Serena grabbed the last four games of the first set. But she showed some jitters early in the second, double-faulting to trail 3-1, part of a five-game run for Venus to even the match.

They had played 63 intense minutes, so aware of each other’s tactics and tendencies, and now it was going to all come down to one set.

At 35, the oldest woman to enter the tournament, Venus had her own reasons for wanting to win, of course. She hasn’t reached the semifinals at any Grand Slam tournament since the 2010 U.S. Open, and might have considered this her last, best chance to collect an eighth major singles championship of her own.

True to her word, their mother, Oracene Price, did not attend the match. And neither of her daughters betrayed much in the way of emotion.

When Serena, who is 15 months younger, earned a key break to lead 2-0 in the third thanks to a down-the-line backhand winner that landed in a corner, she gritted her teeth, held clenched fists near her head and leaned forward, holding the pose. She did not shake those fists or scream or jump, the way she usually does against other women.

And when she got to match point as a shot by Venus sailed long, Serena dropped to a knee behind the baseline, her back to her sister.

Serena then smacked a 107 mph ace, her 12th, to end it.

On Thursday, she will play unseeded Roberta Vinci of Italy, who moved into the first Grand Slam semifinal of her career at age 32 by outlasting Kristina Mladenovic of France 6-3, 5-7, 6-4.

The 43rd-ranked Vinci is playing in the 44th major tournament of her singles career, the second-most appearances by a woman before reaching her initial semifinal. She is better known for having won a career Grand Slam in doubles with former partner Sara Errani.

Vinci is 0-4 against Serena and joked about wearing a helmet for protection from some of the 33-year-old American’s booming shots.

“She’s the favorite. Maybe she’ll feel the pressure. Who knows? It all depends on her. If she serves well, it’s tough to return,” Vinci said. “But I have nothing to lose.”

The quarterfinals on the other half of the draw are Wednesday: No. 2 Simona Halep of Romania vs. No. 20 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, and No. 5 Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic vs. No. 26 Flavia Pennetta of Italy.

Get past Vinci, and Serena would go against one of those four women in the final. Her head-to-head record against each is lopsided: 6-1 against Halep, 17-3 against Azarenka, 5-1 against Kvitova, 7-0 against Pennetta. Worth noting, though: Kvitova is responsible for one of Serena’s only two losses in 55 matches this season, on red clay at Madrid in May.

Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

Rival players support seeding Serena Williams at French Open

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ROME – Several of Serena Williams’ biggest rivals believe that the 23-time Grand Slam champion deserves more than just a guaranteed spot in the French Open draw.

Williams, who is expected to play in her first major since returning from maternity leave, should also receive a top seed that befits the No. 1 ranking she held when she left the tour, the players say.

The WTA Tour said it is considering a rule change to add protected seeding for highly-ranked players returning from maternity leave but the earliest that could take effect is next year.

“I would like to see that change,” Maria Sharapova said. “It’s such an incredible effort for a woman to come back from physically, emotionally. … There’s just another whole dimension to the travel, to the experiences, to the emotions to the physicality of every single day.

“Tennis is such a selfish sport but I think when there’s a child in your life you lose a little bit of that, because there’s something that’s so much more important,” added Sharapova, who has lost three Grand Slam finals to Williams. “So yeah, I definitely think that would be a nice change.”

The French Open draw will be made Thursday, with the tournament starting on Sunday.

All Grand Slam events make their own decisions on seeding players, so it’s still possible that Roland Garros will make Williams one of the 32 seeded players even though her current ranking is down to near No. 500.

Otherwise, Williams could be forced to play top-ranked players in the early rounds.

The French tennis federation did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s normal to give birth to a kid. It’s normal to have protected ranking. … It’s more than tennis,” top-ranked Simona Halep said. “So the people will decide what seed she will get. But in my opinion it’s good to protect the ranking when someone is giving birth.”

Williams returned to the tour briefly this year, after a 14-month absence to give birth to her daughter. She was not seeded at tournaments in Indian Wells, California, and Miami, and compiled two wins and two losses.

Williams has recounted the difficulties she faced in childbirth and a pulmonary embolism that made it hard for her to breathe shortly after her daughter was born. But after a period of training, coach Patrick Mouratoglou last week told the WTA tour’s website “Serena will play the French Open to win it.”

Current rules covering maternity leave and injuries allow a protected or “special” ranking to be utilized for entry into tournaments but not for seeding purposes regardless of the reason for a player’s absence.

However, this past year the WTA adjusted the rule so that absences for maternity leave are treated the same as those for injury and illness by providing all players a two-year window to begin using a special ranking, plus an additional year from the date of return to utilize the special ranking.

“Historically, WTA players have not been supportive of the use of special rankings for seeding purposes,” the WTA said in a statement to The Associated Press. “The rule is currently under further review as part of our 2019 rules process. We remain committed to evolving with the needs of our players and are very supportive of those players returning from maternity leave to the tour.”

Fourth-ranked Elina Svitolina, who defended her Italian Open title on Sunday, was also supportive of seeding Williams.

“If you’re like finished or you stopped because you’re going to have a child and you will be in top eight, I think you should have this kind of thing, to have protected seeding,” Svitolina said. “She was No. 1 so she deserves seeding.”

William has won the French Open three times – more than any current player – and last year’s Roland Garros champion, Jelena Ostapenko, is looking forward to her return.

“She’s someone who the tour was missing – because she’s a great champion,” Ostapenko said. “She was my idol since I was growing up.”

AP Tennis Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington and AP Sports Writer Samuel Petrequin in Paris contributed.

More AP tennis coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Tennis

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf

Nadal beats Zverev for Italian Open title

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ROME — Rafael Nadal came out on top in a matchup of this year’s top two clay-court players, beating defending champion Alexander Zverev 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 Sunday to win a record-extending eighth Italian Open title.

Nadal recovered from an early break in the third set after a 50-minute rain delay.

The victory means Nadal will reclaim the No. 1 ranking from Roger Federer on Monday.

Federer is sitting out the clay season to prepare for Wimbledon.

Nadal and Zverev had each won two titles on clay this season entering the final, with Nadal lifting trophies in Monte Carlo and Barcelona and Zverev taking Munich and Madrid.

Nadal improved to 5-0 in his career against Zverev and gained an extra measure of confidence entering the French Open, which starts next Sunday.

Earlier, Elina Svitolina defended the women’s title, facing little resistance from top-ranked Simona Halep in a 6-0, 6-4 win.