TENNIS

For Serena Williams, another warm-up before the grand finale

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MASON, Ohio — Serena Williams’ farewell tour is set to continue Tuesday at the Western & Southern Open.

But for how long ?

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The match – Williams against Great Britain’s Emma Raducanu in the first round – seems particularly well suited to the big occasion that is Williams’ extended farewell from professional tennis.

With 23 Grand Slam singles titles, she is unquestionably the greatest female tennis player of this era and one of the greatest athletes of all eras. Raducanu, a 19-year-old cosmopolitan, shocked the world (and herself) by winning the US Open last year as a qualifier, and has the smarts and the punches to be one of the leaders in the game if she can adjust to her new status. and get back to hitting forehand winners and winning group matches.

The two champions at opposite ends of their careers have never faced each other, and Raducanu is one of many young stars on the WTA Tour who hoped for a chance to take on Williams before stepping away from the sport she has long dominated. . She wrote in Vogue, published last week, that the US Open, which begins August 29 in New York, would be her last.

But the question is whether the body of Williams (she will turn 41 on September 26) will be able to reach the finish line she has imposed on herself. His match with Raducanu was originally scheduled, to much fanfare, for Monday night, with the tournament releasing a statement and notifying fans onsite for the qualifying rounds that Williams would play on that opening night away from Cincinnati.

But after tickets, presumably a number of them, were purchased with Williams in mind, the match was canceled from Monday to Tuesday with a vague explanation of the tournament. “Due to a number of scheduling factors, the Serena Williams-Emma Raducanu match will now take place on Tuesday,” the tournament said in Monday’s schedule announcement.

People who had been briefed on the situation but declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak on the matter said the postponement was due to physical issues with Williams, who has had chronic tendonitis in his knee during his career and missed a year of competition after tearing his right hamstring at Wimbledon in 2021.

There have been no confirmations of injury concerns from Williams or tournament officials. Williams practiced Sunday and Monday, and the game remains on Tuesday night’s schedule. But Williams, if she wins, will have to play consecutive days as long as she remains in the tournament. With the US Open in sight, she clearly won’t want to take any undue risks that could jeopardize her moment in Queens.

The US Open is his main target as Eric Hechtman, his new coach, made clear in an interview last week in Toronto, where Williams lost in the second round of the National Bank Open in straight sets to Belinda Bencic. , from Switzerland.

It was the third singles match in Williams’ last and surely final comeback, following a first-round loss to unseeded Frenchwoman Harmony Tan at Wimbledon in June and a first-round victory in Toronto against Nuria Parrizas-Diaz of ‘Spain.

“We had Wimbledon, and now we have Toronto and Cincinnati to build for New York,” Hechtman said after the loss to Bencic. “I would say Serena has played better every game, and obviously there are things she could do better, but I think her opponent played very well tonight. What we’re going to do is take the positives and improve tomorrow. She’s a champion, and we’re going to continue to improve every day, not just every game, but every day and hopefully we can make improvements in Cincinnati.

Hechtman, a 38-year-old club professional who played at the University of Miami, has been coaching Venus Williams, Serena’s older sister, since 2019 and began coaching Serena Williams earlier this year following her split from her long-time coach. date, Patrick Mouratoglou.

For years, Venus and Serena shared the same trainers, father Richard and mother Oracene Price, and during the sisters’ developmental years, Florida-based trainer Rick Macci.

Working with Hechtman allows them, in a sense, to come full circle even though he usually trains with them separately to give them one-on-one instruction.

“I feel blessed and grateful to be in this situation,” he said. “It just fell into place, and I just hope I do them justice and help them as much as possible moving forward.”

Venus Williams, 42, who has yet to announce a timetable for her own retirement, has received a wild card for the Western and Southern Open and has an intimidating first-round match on the stadium’s main court against Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, a former world No. 1, on Tuesday.

“Venus will do it how she wants when she wants to,” Hechtman said of leaving the game. “She could play for another five years. Who knows?”

But her younger sister made her intentions much clearer.

“Emotions are running high,” Hechtman said. “Every athlete faces this moment at some point, and I think it’s good that Serena did it the way she did. I thought her first-person tryout was amazing, and that says a lot about who she is, but also about her intelligence. We have a few tournaments left and hopefully we can use that as one of her main weapons: not just her tennis, but her brains and how she uses it on the court.

The power gap that long separated Serena Williams from the chasing pack has been closed. His touring successors are thriving at a breakneck pace, from this year’s Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina to rising Americans Coco Gauff and Amanda Anisimova. It’s harder to overwhelm this generation, in part because Williams has set a new standard.

But Williams still has aura, especially with those who grew up watching her from afar.

“When I look at her, I suddenly forget that I’m here as world No. 1,” said Iga Swiatek, the 21-year-old Pole who wasn’t even born when Williams won her first major title at the 1999 US. Open. “I see Serena and it’s, ‘Wow, Serena!’ You know? And I feel like a kindergartener just looking at her. So it’s hard. I haven’t talked to her, but I’m just trying to say hello.

And although Williams isn’t as mobile at 40, she can earn points in a variety of ways, successfully deploying drop shots in Toronto and using her ever-impressive first serve to get quick points or set up winners on the next shot. .

“I think she serves well,” Hechtman said. “The rhythm is there on serve, as it has always been throughout his career. She has improved since Wimbledon, and I think she definitely hits the ball cleaner, and I would say the movement has improved. So on all those fronts, it’s good.

The intention is to have a better and more complete preparation in New York than she did at Wimbledon, where she only played two doubles matches at a tournament in Eastbourne, England, with Ons Jabeur before facing Tan.

“We’re playing more events coming up,” Hechtman said. “So I think it’s useful and what we need to do. It’s like warming up before a game, right? You don’t just start the game cold. You have to have the rhythm, and she gets her rhythm as the games she plays.

Body willing, she will play at least one in Mason, Ohio.

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