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Serena to face Osaka in first round of Miami Open

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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — It has never happened before: an opening-round match pitting a player who just won her first tennis title against a 23-time Grand Slam champion.

Naomi Osaka, a rising star who won Indian Wells on Sunday, will face Serena Williams in the first round of the Miami Open on Wednesday. It’s a freakishly difficult way for both players to start a tournament.

“The luck of the draw,” tournament director James Blake said Monday. “It’s great in one sense – we have an unbelievable blockbuster match for Wednesday. But one of them is going to be gone unfortunately by Thursday.”

The marquee matchup at the outset of the two-week tournament came about because neither player is seeded. Osaka is ranked a career-best No. 22, while Williams is ranked No. 491 after becoming a mother and returning to the tour at Indian Wells following a layoff of more than a year.

Osaka, a 20-year-old slugger from Japan, earned the biggest victory her career when she beat Daria Kasatkina 6-3, 6-2 in the Indian Wells final. Along with the title she won $1.3 million, nearly doubling her career earnings.

Serena lost in the third round at Indian Wells to her sister Venus. An eight-time Key Biscayne champion, Serena enters the tournament as a wild card and has never faced Osaka.

“We’ll see a lot of heavy hitting,” Blake said. “Both of them hit the ball so big. There are a lot of story lines. How is Naomi going to react to winning her first big title? There’s the cross-country flight. Is she going to be nervous playing Serena now that expectations are higher?”

Osaka lost just one set at Indian Wells and beat Maria Sharapova and top-ranked Simona Halep en route to the title.

“But anyone who is counting Serena out,” Blake said, “is doing so at their peril.”

 

Chris Evert: Serena will soon pass Margaret Court’s record

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NEW YORK — Chris Evert expects new mom Serena Williams will eclipse the Grand Slam record of 24 singles titles, maybe even this season.

The former No. 1 tennis player also says the name of current record-holder Margaret Court should remain on the arena at the Australian Open despite her controversial views on LGBT rights.

“I don’t agree with Margaret and her thinking,” said the ESPN analyst and 18-time Grand Slam singles champion. “I think it honors her tennis career.”

Williams restarts her tennis career on the WTA tour next week with 23 major titles. She’ll play an exhibition match Monday night at Madison Square Garden in New York, then compete at Indian Wells, California, in her first tour event in more than a year.

Williams dealt with serious health issues after the birth of her first child in September and missed the first major in January.

But the 36-year-old Williams has been winning majors at a swift clip. Williams passed Evert and Martina Navratilova’s 18 at the 2015 Australian Open, and won four more majors in the next three years.

Evert thinks Williams will win at least one Grand Slam title this season.

“I just cannot bet against her,” she said in a recent phone interview with The Associated Press. “I’d be surprised if she won two; I would bet on her to win one.”

Evert knows a bit about records. Raised in a tennis family and taught by her father Jimmy in Florida, she turned pro at 17 in 1972 and promptly earned the No. 1 ranking two years later after winning the French Open and Wimbledon.

She won a record seven French Opens and reached the semifinals or better in 52 of 56 majors. The tennis Hall of Famer won 157 singles and 32 doubles titles in an 18-year career, which spanned the eras of Billie Jean King, Navratilova and Steffi Graf.

Her career winning percentage (90 percent) is better than top-ranked Roger Federer (82 percent). It remains the highest for men or women since the Open era of professional tennis began in 1968.

Here are a few more thoughts from the 63-year-old Evert, the publisher of Tennis magazine and mother of three adult sons.

ON SERENA

Evert says Serena’s best chance of winning more majors rests on the grass of Wimbledon.

“Who knows how she’ll come out of the starting gate,” she said. “Wimbledon, that would be her best shot because that favors power, rewards power and the rallies aren’t long. She’s got the big serve. The U.S. Open is going to be tough because it’s on a hard court, it’s hot. She’ll have to be moving well and be very, very fit.”

Incorporating tennis and family becomes the new challenge after marrying Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and giving birth to baby Olympia. He recently bought four billboards along the highway to Indian Wells that say “Greatest Momma Of All Time.”

“When you have a child, that’s an emotional component that you’ve never experienced before,” Evert said. “I keep saying this – whenever anybody doubts Serena, she thrives. That gives her more motivation, more incentive and she always comes out the winner.”

ON COURT

Court won 24 major singles titles from 1960-77, including 11 at the Australian Open when most players didn’t venture Down Under. She won a combined record of 64 Grand Slam singles and doubles titles.

Court became an ordained Pentecostal minister in 1991 and has been a constant critic of LGBT rights and same-sex marriage in Australia. After a national referendum, the Australian Parliament voted overwhelmingly to legalize gay marriage in December.

Over the years, Court has singled out gay Australian players and Navratilova, a rival and friend of Evert. Court’s remarks last year about transgender youth upset King, who said at the recent Australian Open that Court’s name should be removed from the arena . Navratilova wrote an open letter suggesting it be renamed for Australian tennis great Evonne Goolagong.

Evert says she disagrees with Court’s opinions and believes in freedom of speech. “She goes by the bible and she’s just very rigid in that.”

ON ACADEMY

Evert still hits the courts almost daily at her tennis academy in Boca Raton, Florida. Madison Keys, who reached the U.S. Open final last year, and Lauren Davis, who had triple-match point on top-ranked Simona Halep at the Australian Open, came through her academy.

Evert’s proud “100 percent of the kids” who don’t turn pro earn a college tennis scholarship.

“That’s like winning Wimbledon for these kids,” she said. “That’s a wonderful goal. It’s really just fun to mentor these kids and try to help them reach their goals and their dreams.”

Known for her two-handed backhand and returning nearly every ball, Evert recently partnered with Osteo Bi-Flex to help keep up with the 14-year-olds on her practice courts.

ON ROGER/VENUS

At 36, Federer recently won the Australian Open and regained the No. 1 ranking . Evert marvels at his “frame of mind” and relatively injury-free career.

“He’s not a grinder like (Rafa) Nadal. Roger wins a lot of free points off his serve, he has shorter rallies, he glides to the ball, he doesn’t muscle anything. It’s all about timing and finesse with him.

“He’s so endearing. When he cried (after the win), I think the whole world cried along with him. He shows his emotion … that’s why people love him so much.”

Evert isn’t concerned 37-year-old Venus Williams joined several American women making early exits at the Australian Open.

“She had a big year last year – got to the finals of two majors, got to the WTA Finals. You can understand why maybe her body didn’t recover as quickly. She can still have a great year.”

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.”