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King proud Venus carries on fight for equal rights

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PHILADELPHIA — Venus Williams was just a kid at a World TeamTennis clinic the first time she tried to impress Billie Jean King. Years before she hit No. 1 in the world, Williams tried to show off in front of her tennis idol.

“When it was my turn to hit, I was just like confident and strong,” Williams said, laughing. “Bam! I was like, `Yeah, she saw that.”‘

King, a six-time Wimbledon champion, was instantly struck by Williams’ power and bravado.

“It was adorable,” she said.

Williams once just wanted to play tennis and win tournaments, and she became one of the greats along the way. She soon pined to follow King in more ways than the record book. The 39-year-old Williams was inspired by King’s legacy of championing equal rights and equal pay for women in the sport. A day before playing in the 2005 Wimbledon final, Williams addressed a meeting of the Grand Slam Board, urging Wimbledon and the French Open to offer equal pay to male and female players. All four majors have eliminated the pay gap.

“Sometimes you start somewhere and you end somewhere else you hadn’t planned on,” Williams said.

King and Williams sat on a panel of women in sports Friday night that included representatives from the Philadelphia Flyers and Sacramento Kings. Williams was in Philadelphia to play for WTT franchise the Washington Kastles and packed a crowd of about 2,000 fans into Saint Joseph’s Hagan Fieldhouse.

She had an easy time in the breezy world of team tennis, winning her singles match 5-2 against Taylor Townsend of the Philadelphia Freedoms . In her last match that counted, Williams was upset at Wimbledon by 15-year-old Coco Gauff . Williams declined through representatives to answer questions about the loss, wanting instead to keep the focus on team tennis.

Little sister Serena Williams reached the Wimbledon final and lost in straight sets to Simona Halep. King had said she would like to see what Williams could do on the court if she were to put “everything else aside” and “focus on what’s necessary” for her tennis. While some reports sensationalized a spat between them, King said all was cool with Williams and they had texted after Wimbledon.

“She said, `Billie, I know (a reporter) misinterpreted you. I love you. I appreciate you,”‘ King said. “She’s always been great. She brings up my name all the time.”

King’s connection to Philadelphia stretches to her teenage years when she won the 1960 Philadelphia and District Grass Court Championships, and her WTT career in Philadelphia inspired the title to Elton John’s hit “Philadelphia Freedom.” King said she was 13 when she knew “she wanted to change things” in the world and is proud to see a star player in Venus help get women equal prize money in the majors. King just isn’t the type to recruit the next generation of stars – like a Gauff – to join in the fight for causes close to her heart.

“I’m shy in some ways, I am,” King said. “I don’t want to go up to them that much. I don’t want to get in their space. I don’t know them.”

Perhaps, but it’s impossible to imagine a girl that picks up a racket who doesn’t know about King.

“I have a job because of this woman,” Williams said.

The 75-year-old King looks at the Williams sisters as among those who can carry on the work she started decades ago.

“You never know how you’re going to touch another person’s life or how they’re going to touch yours,” King said.

Djokovic loses in Cincinnati

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MASON, Ohio (AP) Ashleigh Barty’s chance to move back to No. 1 was only one victory away. At the end of an up-and-down week, she didn’t have another comeback left.

Neither did Novak Djokovic, who went away with yet another disappointment in Cincinnati.

Barty lost to Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-2, 6-4 in the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open on Saturday. Djokovic ended the day with another stunner, getting overwhelmed by Daniil Medvedev’s serve as the Russian pulled out a 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory.

It’s been that kind of week in Cincinnati, with top players in both brackets either struggling or hurt heading into the U.S. Open.

The women’s bracket has a lot questions with New York just around the corner. No. 1 isn’t one of them.

Barty’s seven-week run atop the field ended when Naomi Osaka edged ahead of her in the latest ranking. A victory Saturday would have moved Barty back ahead for the U.S. Open. Instead, she dropped the opening set for the third straight match and this time, there was no digging out.

“A week that we battled through,” Barty said. “I think at times I played some good stuff. At times, I played some pretty awful stuff.”

Which will it be for Barty at the Open? And will Osaka be in good enough shape to defend her title?

Osaka dropped out of her semifinal match Friday with discomfort in her left knee that caused her worry. She still plans to play in New York, but it’s unclear whether the knee will be a problem.

And then there’s Serena Williams, who retired in the finals at Toronto last Sunday because of back spasms. She also withdrew from Cincinnati before her first match, but stuck around to cheer sister Venus until her loss in the quarterfinals.

A resurgent Kuznetsova gave Barty no openings, knocking off a top-five player for the second time this week to reach her first final of the season. The 153rd-ranked player is recovering from seven-month layoff because of a knee injury.

In her ninth tournament of the season, she got her game together, winning her first Premier-level semifinal since 2017 at Madrid.

“Well, sometimes in life it’s like this,” Kuznetsova said. “It’s like really small things change everything. Definitely it’s different momentum I have now.”

She’ll face Madison Keys , who beat Sofia Kenin 7-5, 6-4 with the help of 14 aces. Keys ended her streak of failing to make it past the second round of her last three tournaments, playing through heat and humidity all week without problem.

“I feel really good” she said. “Every day I’m kind of waking up, hoping that everything still feels like it’s in one piece and it feels really good.”

In the men’s bracket, Djokovic overcame concerns about his right elbow but couldn’t prevail over Medvedev’s 14 aces. Djokovic got the muscles around his right elbow rubbed during his quarterfinal win on Friday night and showed no sign of a problem a day later.

Djokovic won the tournament for the first time last year, getting the only Masters 1000 title that had eluded him. This one slipped away in the second set.

Medvedev reached the final at Montreal last week and lost to Rafael Nadal. He’s back to a title match again after fighting off a break point midway through the second set and closing with a flurry, winning 12 of the last 14 points to even the match and take the momentum.

He’ll face David Goffin, who reached his first Masters 1000 final by beating Richard Gasquet 6-3, 6-4 . Goffin also is on an upswing after falling to No. 33 in the ATP rankings on June 10, his lowest since September 2014.

“Of course, it was a tough period there,” Goffin said. “I was coming back from injuries. I had some trouble with my confidence. I couldn’t find my rhythm, my game. So it’s great now. I’m feeling great. I’m back at my best tennis.”

The men’s bracket also took several notable hits throughout the week.

Originally billed as a reunion of the Big Four – Djokovic, Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray together for the first time since January – it quickly lost its luster. Nadal dropped out after winning the Rogers Cup, citing fatigue. Murray played singles for the first time since hip surgery in January and lost his opening match.

And Federer, the seven-time champion, failed to reach the weekend, losing in the quarterfinals.

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Barty upset in Cincy semifinals, misses top spot for U.S. Open

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MASON, Ohio — Ashleigh Barty was upset by Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-2, 6-4 in the Western & Southern Open semifinals, missing her chance to return to the No. 1 ranking ahead of the U.S. Open.

Barty dropped an opening set Saturday for the third straight match, but couldn’t overcome the slow start this time. A resurgent Kuznetsova earned her third win over a Top 10 player this week and reached the final for the first time this season.

Barty had slipped behind Naomi Osaka in the latest rankings. She would have jumped back ahead by winning Saturday. Osaka, the defending U.S. Open champion, withdrew in the quarterfinals with a sore knee.

Serena Williams dropped out during her first match of the tournament because of back spasms.