Wil­liams sis­ters meet for 31st time as Ser­ena pre­pares for US Open

Book­ies’ favourite tar­gets 24th slam at Flush­ing Mead­ows Si­b­lings clash in Ken­tucky tonight at Top Seed Open

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - By Si­mon Briggs TEN­NIS COR­RE­SPON­DENT

There is some­thing hyp­notic about this week’s ten­nis cov­er­age from Lex­ing­ton, Ken­tucky. Even as the world’s lead­ing women bat­tle for points and prize money, a stream of ve­hi­cles flashes past in the back­ground, bound for the as­sorted pet stores, banks and bak­eries of mid­dle Amer­ica.

This jux­ta­po­si­tion of mil­lion­aire ath­letes with the hum­blest of set­tings will be espe­cially pi­quant tonight. Lex­ing­ton’s so-called “Cen­tre Court” may be in­dis­tin­guish­able from its closely packed neigh­bours, but it is about to host two of the great mod­ern cham­pi­ons: Ser­ena Wil­liams on one side of the net, and sis­ter Venus on the other.

De­spite the fan-free en­vi­ron­ment – which might seem peace­ful but for the con­stant hum of traf­fic – this is an im­por­tant week for all the play­ers, given their col­lec­tive lack of match fit­ness and the im­mi­nence of 2020’s sec­ond slam: the US Open. The rule ap­plies to no one more than Ser­ena Wil­liams, who is the book­ies’ favourite to lift her lat­est ma­jor ti­tle in ex­actly a month’s time.

Ad­mit­tedly, Ser­ena Wil­liams has been the book­ies’ favourite to lift every US Open ti­tle for the past decade or more, de­spite a bar­ren run in New York that stretches back to 2014. But this year – it al­most goes without say­ing – is dif­fer­ent. The stars are align­ing for what could be an evening to re­mem­ber on Sept 12: a 24th slam, to fi­nally carry her level with Mar­garet Court’s long-stand­ing record.

There are nu­mer­ous rea­sons to pre­dict an­other sem­i­nal Ser­ena mo­ment. For one thing, the US Open field has al­ready been weak­ened by the with­drawal of three of the world’s top seven play­ers, in­clud­ing No 1 Ash­leigh Barty, on safety grounds.

For an­other, she has been prac­tis­ing on a freshly built court at her home in Palm Beach, Florida. The pris­tine Laykold sur­face is iden­ti­cal to the one that will be used at Flush­ing Mead­ows.

“The ten­nis court is so fun,” said Wil­liams at the week­end. “I go there and it’s my own sanc­tu­ary. I’m like, ‘Why didn’t I do this 20 years ago?’”

Ad­mit­tedly, Ser­ena’s back­yard prac­tice ses­sions could not pre­vent a slow start to Lex­ing­ton’s Top Seed Open, where she lost the first set to world No 60 Bernarda Pera on Tues­day night. But she had a de­cent ex­cuse. She had not played com­pet­i­tive ten­nis for six months. By the end, she was still dom­i­nant enough to reel off the last nine points, fin­ish­ing the match with a con­temp­tu­ous fore­hand win­ner.

Wor­ry­ingly for her ri­vals, Ser­ena looked phe­nom­e­nally fit, with sharply de­fined bi­ceps that could have be­longed to a boxer or javelin thrower. But her re­peated post­match in­sis­tence that “I am play­ing un­be­liev­able in prac­tice” was a re­minder that she needs matches.

With only two warm-up events to work with, she can ill af­ford any up­sets be­fore the US Open be­gins on Aug 30. After Ser­ena had bat­tled to her 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 vic­tory on Tues­day, Venus was con­trast­ingly ruth­less in a 6-3, 6-2 thrash­ing of for­mer world No 1 Vic­to­ria Azarenka. The main talk­ing point here was a new ser­vice ac­tion, rad­i­cally rein­vented from the top­pling-tower mo­tion that had brought Venus 49 ca­reer ti­tles. Such a late-ca­reer rein­ven­tion might seem risky – fool­hardy even. But the new ver­sion proved bru­tally ef­fec­tive, reg­u­larly clock­ing more than 110mph and al­low­ing Azarenka just a sin­gle break point in the match.

And so, at 38 and 40 years old re­spec­tively, Ser­ena and Venus are about to meet for the 31st time on tour – as well as the first with no fans in at­ten­dance. Ser­ena prob­a­bly needs the win more, given her fo­cus on US Open glory. But it is easy to over­look the real story here: the re­mark­able fact that these two are still com­pet­ing with such fe­roc­ity, 26 years after Venus’s tour de­but.

It sounds like a movie script. And in­deed, only last week, a Hol­ly­wood stu­dio moved closer to bring­ing the early years of the Wil­liams story to the big screen.

Ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments from a Los An­ge­les court, Will Smith’s pro­duc­tion com­pany set­tled out of court with TW3 – a smaller stu­dio which claimed to hold the rights to Richard Wil­liams’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. In the­ory, this clears the way for the re­lease of King Richard – star­ring Smith him­self in the ti­tle role of Venus and Ser­ena’s fa­ther – in a lit­tle over a year’s time.

The movie has al­ready be­gun shoot­ing, with Saniyya Sid­ney and Demi Sin­gle­ton play­ing the re­spec­tive parts of Venus and Ser­ena. One sus­pects that Lex­ing­ton, Ken­tucky, is un­likely to make the fi­nal cut.

Fam­ily ri­vals: Ser­ena (be­low and far right) and Venus

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