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.

Linette keeps getting better; into Australian Open semis

Mike Frey-USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Two days after advancing to her first Grand Slam tournament quarterfinal, unseeded Magda Linette went one better and is into the Australian Open semifinals.

The 30-year-old Linette beat Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 7-5, adding the former No. 1 to the list of top players she has beaten at Melbourne Park during this tournament.

Linette, who had lost seven of nine previous matches against Pliskova, had defeated Anett Kontaveit, Ekaterina Alexandrova and WTA Finals champion Caroline Garcia in successive rounds.

A player from Poland was favored to reach the latter stages of the tournament, but it was top-seeded Iga Swiatek that everyone would have expected – and not Linette.

“It’s so emotional I can’t really believe it,” Linette said. “I tried to stay composed and took my chances when I could.”

Linette will play No. 5 Aryna Sabalenka, who beat unseeded Donna Vekic 6-3, 6-2 in a later quarterfinal. The women’s semifinals are scheduled for Thursday night.

Vekic, who had 13 double faults against Sabalenka, had a succinct appraisal of her serve: “I mean, it was all over the place. But I think mostly in the net.”

The other women’s semifinalists were determined on Tuesday. Two-time former Australian champion Victoria Azarenka will play Wimbledon titleholder Elena Rybakina for a chance to play in Saturday night’s final. Rybakina beat Swiatek in the fourth round.

Later Wednesday, the remaining men’s semifinalists will be determined. Unseeded Americans Ben Shelton and Tommy Paul play before nine-time champion Novak Djokovic takes on Andrey Rublev.

Djokovic will be looking to qualify for his 44th Grand Slam semifinal and a win in that match on Friday would advance him on Sunday night to his 33rd major singles final.

The other men’s semifinal on Friday will see third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas play Karen Khachanov.

Rybakina rules in Australian Open quarterfinal vs. Ostapenko

Mike Frey-USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia – Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina advanced to the Australian Open semifinals with a 6-2, 6-4 win over former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.

The match on Rod Laver Arena featured a rare rain delay of about 20 minutes while the roof was closed. Rybakina led 3-1 and was holding a break point before the delay. On return, Ostapenko saved the first break point, but Rybakina broke on her next opportunity to go up 4-1 and won the first set 6-2.

In the second set, Ostapenko was up a break but Rybakina leveled with a break of her own. It came on her first break point when Ostapenko had been unable to convert four in the previous game.

Rybakina, who beat top-seeded Iga Swiatek in the fourth round, set up match points with aces, both of which were saved by Ostapenko. But she clinched the match with another ace, her 11th of the match and a tournament-leading 35 overall.

“I was nervous in the last game, but I managed my emotions and played very well.” Rybakina said. “The conditions were different after the roof was closed. But it can happen here, you never know, on the morning one weather and later it changes.”

Rybakina will play the winner of the night quarterfinal between American Jessica Pegula, at No. 3 the highest women’s seed remaining, and two-time champion Victoria Azarenka.

In men’s quarterfinals, 22-year-old American Sebastian Korda played the next match at Rod Laver Arena against No. 18-seeded Karen Khachanov. In a night quarterfinal, third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas plays Jiri Lehecka. The winners of those matches will play each other in the semifinals on Friday.