Episode 127 - Pride is Political: A Partial History of LGBTQ People in Tennis
We are proud to bring you our Pride Special, a partial and selective history of the LGBTQ people across tennis history who changed our sport forever. Some of the stories you'll know, others were news to us, but all of them challenged our view of history and opened our eyes to so many forms of resistance. Listen for stories about Baron Gottfried von Cramm, Helen Jacobs, Billie and Martina, Renee Richards, and many more. Happy Pride!
03:45 The early modern era: Big Bill Tilden
8:00 Helen Jacobs, shorts pioneer and one-half of a fascinating gay relationship in the 1930s
14:20 When queer love is criminal: Baron Gottfried von Cramm
22:00 Ted Tinling, the designer of women's tennis
27:00 Renee Richards changes everything
40:00 The summer of 1981: Billie Jean King & Martina's outings pose an existential threat to women's tennis
45:55 "In Defense of Billie Jean," by ally Chrissie Evert Lloyd
51:00 Martina: a perfect storm of Cold War hysteria, citizenship fears, and the "butch" female body
54:55 Amelie Mauresmo, who was never "in"
1:03:45 Gender trouble: the confounding clash of sex, sexuality, gender, and gender expression
1:11:30 Things we learned and closing thoughts
Big Bill Tilden - Frank Deford
Second Serve - Renee Richards
The Rivals - Johnette Howard
"Amelie Mauresmo's Muscles: The Lesbian Heroic in Women's Professional Tennis" - Pamela J. Forman and Darcy C. Plymire
"Renee Richards Wants to be Left Alone," Michael Weinreb (Grantland)
"Renee Richards' 'Second Serve' is a Book About Two Remarkable People," Jeremiah Tax (Sports Illustrated)
"Life, Death, Tennis and the Nazis: Gottfried von Cramm, The Man That Wimbledon Forgot," Will Mage (Vice Sports UK)
Subscribe and review The Body Serve on iTunes, and follow James and Jonathan on Twitter.
Episodes 124, 125, and 126 of The Body Serve Tennis Podcast
Subscribe and review The Body Serve on iTunes, and follow James and Jonathan on Twitter.
PART ONE: Songs in Clay Major: Roland Garros Preview
The denouement of the clay season is upon us with the dawning of the French Open. We're back to preview the year's second major with the help of some of our listeners. We solicited questions specific to Roland Garros, and you all came through big time; we structure our draw analysis through your thoughtful offerings. After parsing through the draws, we finish with a few thoughts on the protected seeding drama that erupted again this week.
02:26 Women's draw dark horses
09:34 Muguruza or Ostapenko: who will fare better?
13:57 Players who'll benefit/suffer most from lack of on-court coaching
16:40 Is this the beginning of the end for Aga?
20:00 Other women's draw observations
30:18 Men's dark horses
34:45 Who will be Nadal's fiercest competition?
37:10 The Big 4 as super coaches
42:18 FMK Frenchies edition: Pouille, Chardy, and PHH
44:26 Other men's draw observations
52:06 Wading into the protected seeding WTA issue again
PART TWO: Much Ado About Mother: The Catsuit's Out of the Bag
The quarterfinals of the 2018 French Open are set, and we are back with episode 125 to recap how we got here. Serena Williams dominated week one discussion with her catsuit, and her play, before having to withdraw ahead of a fourth round meeting with Maria Sharapova. Some folks had stuff to say about her attire, and we've got something to say about that. We cover the usual mid-slam topics: upsets, genuine surprises, feel-good stories, amusements, and various atrocities.
02:02 Mother is back, causing ALL the conversation
05:30 The catsuit's out of the bag
15:34 Serena has to withdraw ahead of the Sharapova match
21:15 Girl, BYE: Bill Simons and Karolina Pliskova edition
29:08 WTA upsets, surprises, and upcoming quarterfinals
39:56 So, let's talk about Sloane
46:55 Marco Trungelliti's road race with destiny
48:12 Cecchinato's surprise and Jack Sock's abominable display
51:08 ATP upsets, disappointments, and other etceteras
53:54 The folly of John Isner
55:34 Grigor and Goffin disappoint, Nole holds court, and QF previews
64:55 Serena's moment of levity/immense pettiness
PART THREE: La Primera y La Undecima: 1s Across the Board at French Open
Simona Halep and Rafael Nadal are your French Open champions. For Simona, it was her first time as last woman standing at a Slam, while Nadal hoisted the Coupe des Mousquetaires for an 11th time. After recapping both finals and notable matches since the quarterfinals, we tackle some of the outside-the-lines etceteras that popped up since our last episode. On tap: Nadal's alleged equal pay remarks, the ubiquity of flossing, the laughable punishment meted out in the James Blake case, and using Margaret Court to raise the stakes for our current greats.
01:41 Simona turns the Titanic back around
11:05 Putting the many facets of Simona into context
15:55 Muguruza defollicles Maria & Madison has no answers for Sloane
20:02 Complicating Sloane's relationship with the media
24:46 Sloane gives a pitch perfect performance as runner-up
27:00 Nadal's third "La Undécima" & the anxiety of greatness
34:54 How did Dominic acquit himself in his first Slam final?
39:48 The massive elephant in the room: Nadal & equal pay in tennis
53:28 Assessing Novak's performance and loss to Cecchinato
58:11 Speaking of Cecchinato...thinking out loud about sports reporting
63:50 Doubles, juniors & flossing?!?! How do the kids all know how to do it?
70:53 ENOUGH of using Margaret Court to move the goalpost
Jonathan Newman and James Rogers are the hosts of The Body Serve Tennis Podcast. In the The Body Serve Diary, Jonathan and James write conversationally about the various happenings in the wild world of tennis. In this Diary entry, the boys are joined by former guest of the show and Twitter pal from Australia, Frith (@PluckyLoser), to discuss the myriad issues surrounding one of the hottest topics in the early going of the 2018 Australian Open.
Jon: Renaming Margaret Court Arena has been a hot topic in tennis over much of the past year, owing in large part to Court’s bigoted views of queer people and her active role in disseminating those views to influence the “no vote” against marriage equality in Australia. And so, since marriage equality is now the law of the land in Australia, and Court’s name still adorns that show court at Melbourne Park, it comes as no surprise that players are being made to grapple with this at this year’s tournament. Still, the issue has been framed in a myopic way, and we’re hoping to make the discourse a bit more elastic.
James: I’m glad you noted that the reason Court has upset people is not simply because she holds beliefs that many find repugnant. It’s her behavior: her direct attacks on fellow Aussie Casey Dellacqua and other LGBTQ tennis players, her political action, her church’s stance on ex-gay conversion therapy, and her repeated attempts to degrade queer people and their families in the public sphere. Of course she “has a right to an opinion,” as do all of us in free-ish societies. So let’s just get that out of the way. But I believe that speech has real consequences.
Billie Jean King released a statement last week asking that Margaret Court’s name be removed from the arena due to Court’s outspoken attitudes toward lgbtq people. Obviously, this is a hot topic amongst journalists ahead of this year’s Australian Open.
While I think it’s important not to avoid the topic altogether, I have a problem with how it’s being framed on social media and in the press. Players are being asked “would you play on Margaret Court Arena?” This assumes that: a) they have a choice; b) they understand the context of the question; and c) that this will elicit any worthwhile or thoughtful answers. I’m skeptical about all three.
Frith: I might be starting this on a somewhat radical note, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that Australia does not have a Bill of Rights that guarantees a right to free speech, though the high courts have found that freedom of expression is implied. So legally it’s a different kind of issue here, to what people might be used to in other places.
In terms of Billie Jean’s statement, while it definitely was the right thing for her to do, it won’t necessarily have much of a proactive impact on the naming. Aussies are awfully recalcitrant and don’t really take well to being told what to do in our own country, especially by an American. I’m sorry, but it’s true!
I agree with you that putting the onus on the players seems like an unworkable approach. I mean, let’s say they want to boycott Margaret Court Arena - how exactly does that even play out? On a purely practical level, if I am 18-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov and I don’t want to play my match on Margaret Court Arena, what happens?
Jon: I don't know. I'm not even sure the players know how that scenario would play out, or if it's something they had even considered. It also seems like some of the top players asked about this in their pre-tournament press availabilities were caught a bit off guard by the question. But now that it's out there, we know you've done some digging to get to the bottom of what the actual process is for changing the name of the court.
Frith: I’m sorry if this is incredibly dry, but I’d like to go into a little bit about how the naming rights to Margaret Court Arena work, because I have been obsessing over this lately and I think it’s fascinating, or at least important.
Melbourne Park, the larger facility in which Margaret Court Arena (MCA) is homed -- which includes Rod Laver and all the rest of the courts -- is owned and operated by the Melbourne and Olympic Parks Trust (MOPT). This is a statutory authority run by a Board of Trustees who report to the State Minister for Events, Tourism and Sport. It’s covered by an act of Parliament (Melbourne and Olympic Parks Act 1985) which combined the Olympic Park with the National Tennis Centre. I spent a couple of days reading the act, vision statements, and a bunch of reports so you don’t have to.
The Australian Open is unquestionably the largest event that takes place at Melbourne Park, but it’s not the only one. Netball and basketball teams all call Melbourne Park and, more specifically, Margaret Court Arena, home. It’s also used as a venue for bands and entertainment throughout the year - there was even an ice-hockey game there once. Tennis Australia are a co-tenant. They’re definitely in the penthouse, but they don’t own the building.
This is all super important to recognise, in my opinion, because if we just keep asking Craig Tiley to change it he can honestly keep playing the same straight bat he’s been playing this whole time: saying that there’s more to it than Tennis Australia, that it’s complex and multi-layered. I do think that he could do and say more, that if Tennis Australia brought their influence to bear it would make a huge difference. But when he says it’s out of his hands, he’s right.
I’ve written to the State Premier, Daniel Andrews, asking for his help because he’s been a long time outspoken ally to the LGBTQIA community. It’s not remotely in his purview, but I figured it couldn’t hurt going to the big fella. I’ve also written to the State Minister for Sport, John Eren MP, whose bio states that he is “passionate about sport and recreation and giving all Victorians equal opportunity to get involved, stay active and play the sport they love.” (I told you, I’ve read a lot of vision statements.) I’m fully expecting them to get back to me saying that it’s the decision of the board of trustees, and they respect the independence of the MOPT. Especially because it’s an election year in Victoria and I don’t think they’ll be keen on creating an issue that might distract from whatever their primary campaign messages are. Colour me cynical, but it’s the way it is.
So, the real target for any meaningful campaign will be the board themselves. I’m contacting the Director of Arenas, Steve Harper CFE, requesting information on the nature of the agreement to rename Show Court 1, Margaret Court Arena. If it’s an honorary arrangement, that’s definitely in our favour, but if there’s a bequest tied to naming rights in perpetuity, hoo boy we are in trouble! Everything gets more complicated when there’s money on the table. Is there a get outta jail free card, if the name negatively affects the commercial value of the building? There’s a lot that’s yet to become clear and I remain optimistic.
Basically, my point is that nothing is going to change this Australian Open. I don’t even think it’ll change this year. My aim would be AO20, though obviously AO19 would be amazing. It’s going to take a lot of convincing arguments, probably a tonne of meetings and a million emails. It’s boring, practical, grassroots activism that will get this over the line. A bunch of concerned letter writers asking the right people the right questions.
So while it’s good to know where players stand on LGBTQIA rights and messages of support are so important - read the tweet from my friend Mitch about Laura Robson if you need to understand why - Margaret Court Arena will be Margaret Court Arena for a while yet, whether or not Denis Shapovalov wants to play there or not. So stop yelling at the players please.
(Sorry Denis for picking your name out of the blue! Must’ve been a tough loss today and now some random Australian talking about trustees won’t keep your name out of her mouth. I’m happy for you though James.)
James: Wow, thanks Frith for bringing some much-needed context to this discussion.
I’m glad you mentioned the tweets from your friend Mitch (@mitchgrow). His experience, and Laura Robson’s demonstration in 2012, remind me that this is the type of action that can make change: small, organic, and personal. I’d add to that list Casey Dellacqua’s personal essay in response to Court’s public attack, along with loving and public support from Ash Barty and Rennae Stubbs. I think these have more potential to be powerful than player press conferences. They remind us that this isn’t just a politically correct campaign led by angry “liberals.” We are real people whose lives are made more difficult and indeed more dangerous by people who seek to dehumanize us.
That’s not to say that players can’t totally change the game, so to speak. If Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, for example, made an affirming statement to their legion of LGBTQ fans, that would be damn near earth-shattering in the world of tennis. But, if we expect to hear from them, we will definitely be disappointed. That said, it would be nice to see a single gesture toward acceptance from an ATP player not named Andy Murray or Roberto Bautista Agut. I’m just afraid that the context is totally lost on a lot of these players. The cultural gulf might be too much, they might feel they stand to risk too much by speaking out, or they simply don’t care (or the very real possibility that many actually agree with Court).
Jon: We heap all the expectation to effect change onto the players. They will have to deal with the negative headlines, while the people who have the actual clout to influence the name change -- as Frith researched and pointed out -- stay quiet or drag their feet. This is not to say we shouldn’t expect tennis players to be allies in one way or another, but to judge them based on whether they would “boycott Margaret Court Arena” is, frankly, a bit absurd. If a player chooses to do so, more power to him or her, but hopefully we can put the onus on the bureaucrats and the politicians instead. As Frith says, “stop yelling at the players, please!” As for the question being posed to players about boycotting MCA, perhaps it’s part of larger reporting, and I hope that whatever comes of this includes more context than what’s been leveled at the players so far.
Many thanks to Frith for joining us for this Diary entry. Your research and willingness to share it with us is very much appreciated.
Jonathan Newman and James Rogers are the hosts of The Body Serve Tennis Podcast. In the The Body Serve Diary, Jonathan and James write conversationally about the various happenings in the wild world of tennis.
Jon: Holy cow, what an opening day of the Australian Open! Only ONE of the 10 ‘merican women (Nicole Gibbs) who played in Melbourne yesterday survived the carnage. Among the defeated: Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens, CoCo Vandeweghe, CiCi Bellis, Taylor Townsend, and Alison Riske. Within the first four hours of play, Venus, Sloane, and CoCo -- three of the four semifinalists from the 2017 U.S. Open -- were out. The top two American men, John Isner and Jack Sock, also bowed out in the first round. I certainly can’t remember a day like this for American tennis at a Slam, can you?
James: There were probably a few French Opens back in the day that saw this much American blood spilt. But to your point, it was a shocking display from the U.S. contingent. I was actually most surprised by Vandeweghe’s performance; going in, I felt that she had momentum and a tricky, but not impossible, first round. I heard reports that she had the flu, though. What about you -- any true shockers for you, or was it just jarring that this all happened on the same day?
Jon: Not really. I think it’s not so much that these individual American players lost to these particular opponents, but that they all lost on the same day and in such a large volume. Bencic was always going to be a tough out for Venus; nobody has played and won more matches than her since Singapore. Sloane Stephens hasn’t won a match in a long time and she was playing Zhang, ranked #34 and the highest ranked first round opponent for a seeded player. I take your point about CoCo; she came in fresh off that ESPNW article aiming to debunk the perception of her being arrogant, and was viewed as a legit threat on these fast courts to build on her two Slam semis last year. Babos played top tennis, and if you’re not at your fighting best physically, then it becomes all the more difficult to perform at this level. While her loss may have been surprising, CoCo’s outbursts were not, just as they weren’t again from Ryan Harrison. These two continue to lower the bar for expectations of Americans overseas.
James: There’s just no excuse for hurling obscenities at your opponent or your opponent’s fans. I’ll never understand the bloc that believes that this abusive and embarrassing behavior is “good for the sport.” It is amazing to me that Ryan Harrison, especially, has any fans left. At least Colleen, for her part, put on her gentle, reasonable voice when conversing with the chair last night after getting a point penalty. The universe is serving Jack Sock a bit of restorative justice lately; after his less-than-full-effort performance in Auckland, there’s talk of rescinding his $100k appearance fee, and now he’s out in the first round in Melbourne after ending the 2017 season on a high.
Jon: Sock says it’s been very difficult to deal with the start of a new year after finishing on such a high at the end of 2017 (winning Paris to qualify for the year-end championships). Paraphrasing here, but it’s been a struggle for him to get motivated after having such a short turnaround between seasons, having never played that deep into a season before. All that makes perfect sense, but it’s not a good look when your performance is so bad that people are calling it tanking, and not for the first time in your career. Being in the top 10 also means added scrutiny, and having to answer for behaviour that would have flown under the radar when he was a less accomplished singles player.
As for Harrison, it’s not just about the swearing on court, which some have suggested dismissively. It’s about, as you pointed out, swearing at your opponent (in the case of Hanfmann), and your opponent’s supporters. It’s certainly not behaviour that would be tolerated or excused if done by someone like Nick Kyrgios; there is absolutely a double standard there, one that I believe has to do with race. Context is very important when debunking the “oh, who hasn’t cursed before” argument. This is an American player, casually and aggressively saying "fuck THOSE people" directed at an obviously majority Jewish group of people, on foreign soil. It reinforces some really ugly stereotypes about Americans, ESPECIALLY in this day and age.
James: Yet totally in keeping with the tenor of our national conversation. Can we talk about something more fun? Sloane Stephens’ press conference, for example. When Sloane feels like participating, she is such a hilarious presence in press. Take this, haters: “Relax, everybody. It will be okay. Don't worry. We will get back to having fun soon.” I’m not too worried about Sloane, because she took this attitude last summer right before she went on a tear through the American hard courts. Just as she did then, she ensured the assembled press, “I’m going to beat someone eventually. I’ll have the best Instagram picture when I snap this losing streak.”
Obviously, Sloane was not in fighting shape to start this tournament. It’s really only her second tournament back after her knee injury, which she played on for much of the fall. Nike’s atrocious kit certainly didn’t help her mystique.
Jon: Sloane’s mystique? We need to do a segment to delve into what you mean by that at another time. To expect Sloane Stephens to have continued that otherworldly form in New York through the rest of her career was just never on the table. She will never be Serena, nor Venus; she is Sloane, and that’s (BIG SHOCK) totally OK. I’m glad to hear she is comfortable enough in her skin to push back against the press for trying to pigeon hole her into that lane. She will come back and win again, and continue to do HER in the meantime.
One of the most anticipated storylines of day one was Rafa’s return to sleeveless tops, a full decade after he last wore one on the ATP Tour. I am saddened to report that it was a big big miss.
James: Perhaps “mystique” is not the word I was going for! As for Rafa’s kit, Nike is trash. They gave us a full line of unimaginative, bland, and just plain ugly kits for their top players this year. Fumbling Rafa’s return to the sleeveless look is something I cannot forgive. But, I was glad to see that Rafa got through his match without drama.
Sadly, I was asleep during Rafa’s match, as it started at 3 am here. I just went to check the stats on ausopen.com, and wouldn’t you know, they don’t work! It’s actually impressive how the tournament has fumbled just about every aspect of their digital technology: the app and website went down simultaneously in the first minutes of play, and even when they are purportedly working, they are full of bugs. As a layperson when it comes to technology, all I can do is laugh. I don’t understand the need to completely rework the app each year; I don’t recall having any problems before. Between the tech problems, the “draw ceremony,” and having to reckon with the ever-irritating Margaret Court, there’s a dark cloud over the Happy Slam which hopefully moves away soon.
Jon: If I know you, those last few sentences read like you’re about ready to put a wrap on this Diary entry! Let me just say about Rafa’s kit...the pink is the LEAST of the trouble with it. For whatever reason, the arm holes of the shirt are enormous and have Rafa’s still-very-ample musculature swimming, and the grey colour of the shirt just makes it look dirty. It looks like one of those patterns that designers first cut to put on a mannequin. It looks entirely unfinished and unwashed. A bright white shirt or even charcoal (although not hot weather friendly) would have done much better.
James: Why not an homage to Rafa’s signature pre-2009 look? What a shambles. Anyway, you’re correct that I was wrapping up; we have to save something for the podcast! To look out for: who will take advantage of holes in the draw left by Venus, Sloane, and CoCo? CoCo’s section now looks like a cakewalk for Wozniacki to reach the semifinals. I’ll also be especially interested to see Novak and Stan tonight. ‘Til next time!
This Week In Tennis
We're excited to bring you a sit-down chat with the first Canadian player on our podcast, up and coming Montrealer Francoise Abanda. We also answer some of the questions you all were so generous to ask us, with the help of friend and listener Chad. The rest is just us: recapping the stunning Muguruza-Kuznetsova quarterfinal, the perplexing men's draw, Querrey's rudeness, and more happenings from on-site.
8:00 The odd men's draw: Rafa the only superstar left
9:20 Odds and ends - Giorgi's no handshake, Sam Querrey's abominable behavior, Makarova-Kerber epic
15:00 Thiem - our analysis of Thiem proved to portentous (lost to Ferrer after we taped)
18:00 Our sit-down with Francoise Abanda, our first Canadian player on the pod!
32:20 Our listener mailbag, with the silky Southern stylings of Chad (@ccsmooth13)
36:30 Most importantly, what's good to eat here?
45:30 Question from @AnnaMarseille: have any players changed your impression of them after speaking with them in person?
Photo credits: Jonathan Newman
It wasn’t always pretty, but Garbiñe Muguruza powered through Madison Keys’ sustained aggression, a 2-hour rain delay, and three match points against her to win a third-set tiebreaker against the in-form American. The Spaniard survived a tough test in Cincinnati on Thursday afternoon, handling unpredictable conditions and an opponent whom she had never beaten. Keys had won their previous three meetings: here in 2012, in Rome on her way to the final in 2016, and in Stanford just two weeks ago.
Keys got off to a fast start, punctuated by a dazzling down the line forehand to secure the early break and 2-0 lead. Muguruza, unnerved, broke right back in the next game, the trade of early breaks setting the tone for the rest of the match. The serving struggles were in no small part due to the wind -- a portent of the wild thunderstorm to come -- which wreaked havoc on both players from the onset. But, it was Keys’ ball toss that seemed to be the most affected.
Still, Keys inched ahead on serve to 4-3, before Muguruza left the court for treatment on a lower back problem. When she returned, her thigh taped, the Spaniard took control of the first set and sped to the finish line: she held serve, broke Keys, and served it out with little fanfare. In their previous three meetings, the loser of the first set went on to lose the match; would this match prove different?
After six straight service holds to start the second set, Keys broke to go up 5-3. Serving for the set, the American handled a tough shoelace volley, and launched a deft lob to reach set point. She then bagged the set with a trademark wide serve and inside-out forehand combination, one that she used effectively throughout the match.
With the match in the balance at 2-2 in the third set, the Mason skies produced an almighty storm, delaying the proceedings for two hours. When the thunder and lightning abated, Keys sprinted away with a 4-2 lead in the decider; but, in what was the story of this third set, her untimely errors squandered the multiple leads and chances she held. Still, Keys kept coming, breaking again with a barrage of winners to serve for the match at 6-5.
With the match on her racquet and a 40-15 lead, Keys failed to convert three match points, undone mostly by the unpredictability of her backhand. While Keys was erratic in the key moments, Muguruza remained steadfast, returning with extreme aggression and drawing costly mistakes from Keys.
Muguruza credited her experience in getting her through tough moments: “I knew that no matter what, I’m there and I have my options as well . . . sooner or later I’m going to have a chance.”
That chance came in the third-set tiebreaker. The Spaniard’s sustained aggression finally wore down Keys. After failing to serve out the match and squandering three match points, Keys doubled down with error after error in the tiebreak, thanks in no small part to Muguruza’s brilliant stretch of hitting from the backcourt. A final backhand error sealed the win for Muguruza after 2 hours and 18 minutes.
The Body Serve Tennis Podcast
Join us for Round 2 of player pressers - you'll hear good stuff from no. 1 Pliskova, Kerber, Domi Thiem, Wozniacki, Halep, and Svitolina. But first, we catch you up with what's been going on in Cincinnati in our own words: Venus blazing through her first match, Fabio-Dominic play a strange one, the heat, and balancing the packed schedule despite of the withdrawals.
1:00 What we've been up to in Cincinnati today
6:00 The men's draw was already a huge mess - and then Fabio barfed on court
9:15 Venus plays an efficient, powerful match against Alison Riske
14:30 Watching Ash Barty in singles and doubles (Venus' next opponent)
20:50 Meeting tons of Tennis Twitter folks in Cincinnati
25:45 What is going on with the famous Applebee's?
27:00 Getting into the player interview snippets
32:00 Simona on another level no passengers on her plane ....
40:00 Elina Svitolina talks about her steady rise
44:30 Mega Thiem talks about why he recaps his matches on Facebook
46:26 Angie Kerber brings the honesty
51:00 Karolina Pliskova is funny!
54:45 A few words from Caroline Wozniacki
Venus Williams, donning an atypical white baseball cap, led from start to finish as she blitzed past Alison Riske 6-2 6-0 in her opening match in Cincinnati. Williams served with intent from the first ball. The four points she won to take the opening game came on first serves clocking 109, 110, 105, and the last a 108 mph ace out wide to Riske's backhand. Despite Venus' quick 2-0 lead, Riske was playing well, and fought back to tie the match at two games apiece. Game on.
Or so we thought. The pivotal moment of the match came with Riske facing break point at 2-3; after a prolonged, intense rally, Riske seemed to wrest control of the point when she lured Venus into the net with a stealthy drop shot. Instead, Venus sprinted forward and with one last audible thud of her right foot, pelted a cross court forehand winner to seal the decisive break. The crowd roared as Venus made her way back to the service line with a 4-2 lead. Riske would not win another game.
Yes, Venus Williams is 37 years old. But, like she did in making the finals of both the Australian Open and Wimbledon this year, Venus showed that she still cuts a fierce and intimidating figure as weekly contender, regardless of age. At 2-5, and having played well to that point, Riske called her coach to the court; what could she possibly do to stem the Venus tide? Her main failure to that point was to protect her second serve: up to 2-5 and 30-all, Riske had yet to win a point when made to serve twice. Venus would go on to win the first set 6-2 and win eight of nine points on Riske's second serve.
The last glimmer of an opening for Riske came in the third game of the second set with Venus serving at 2-0, 15-30. But, Venus summoned another of her seven aces to stifle that opportunity, and her subsequent break for 4-0 sealed it shut. All told, Williams broke Riske six times, while losing her own serve just once. Her first serve, of which she lost only four points, was the fortress that kept Riske at bay.
With the match at just a touch over an hour, Venus fired one final forehand winner to seal the win 6-2 6-0. It was, in short, one of the cleanest and most efficient performances you will see from Venus Williams, her serve and groundstrokes working together like a well-oiled machine. She improves her record against Riske to 3-0, all straight-set victories in the last 18 months. Up next, Williams will face Ashleigh Barty, 21, in their first ever meeting. Barty, a qualifier ranked 48th in the world, defeated Varvara Lepchenko 6-4 6-4 on Tuesday.
In this rematch of the Stanford final -- which Keys won in two tight sets -- it was easy to appreciate both players’ intensity and power off the ground. Keys came out of the gate strong, pounding returns to earn a break in the third game. At one point in the first set, 14 straight points were won by the server (two holds at love for Keys, one for Vandeweghe). Both players protected their serves with ease after Madison’s early break, but Keys and her ground game drew sloppy errors from CoCo to decide the set.
Vandeweghe pounced to a 3-0 lead in the second set after breaking Keys’ serve. CoCo did a good job to stay tight to the baseline, her aggression forcing Madison to produce a rash of errors. Serving for the set at 5-3, Vandeweghe scrambled to return an overhead smash by Keys and finished the point with a brilliant pass. She won the set with a 117 mph unreturnable serve.
The third set saw Madison race to a 3-0 lead, aided by a few poorly timed double faults from this year’s Australian Open semifinalist. At that point, Madison couldn’t miss; even her mishits clipped the lines. Despite CoCo’s comeback to tie the set at three games apiece, it was Keys’ serve that would ultimately decide the match.
At 5-3, CoCo saved three straight match points, but Madison closed her out 6-3 to bring their head-to-head to 2-0. After the match Madison noted, “It’s never easy to play a friend.” The two shared a warm embrace at net after the match, like they did two weeks ago in Stanford, and it was Keys who was again the victor.
Keys’ serve guided her through the tensest moments of the third set. It got her out of trouble when Vandeweghe erased Keys’ 3-0 lead: “In my head I was just thinking, you’re back on serve. It’s back even, and just focus on your serve and see if you get any chances in return games. And luckily I did.”
That game plan can be exciting in its simplicity. There is a terrible beauty to 115 mph serves, to Madison’s graceful ball toss with her palm raised toward the heavens, to CoCo’s menacing forward motion. Women’s tennis must always defend itself on many fronts, from style to athleticism to economics. But, Keys and Vandeweghe led the night session in a tournament marred by withdrawals, reminding fans that American women’s tennis is thriving. There was magic tonight in two women facing off, thumping the stitching out of the ball, sounding their yawps over the rooftops of American tennis.
The Body Serve Tennis Podcast
02:00 James gives his thoughts on his first ever player roundtable interviews
11:20 Muguruza reflects on being a two-time Slam champion
13:36 Garbiñe gives insight into learning how to keep things closer to the vest, navigate media
16:26 "I like that I like to be in those situations" - Muguruza on embracing the big stages
20:45 Reflecting on her emotional French Open press conference
26:22 Nadal responds to news of reclaiming world #1 ranking
31:35 Sveta for President?
34:29 Who Sveta texts with most, and a BIG BIG laugh
35:36 Konta commits to fun and games, segues to Wimby reflections
40:29 How Jo deals with the trolls: block block block block
44:59 Jo's take on some of the funniest players on the WTA