Sports

Blinded by the light, Serena Williams prevails at Miami Open. Osaka, Isner also win

Serena Williams, of the United States, reacts to the sunlight during her match against Rebecca Peterson, of Sweden, at the Miami Open tennis tournament on Friday, March 22, 2019 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.
Serena Williams, of the United States, reacts to the sunlight during her match against Rebecca Peterson, of Sweden, at the Miami Open tennis tournament on Friday, March 22, 2019 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. mocner@miamiherald.com

After 23 Grand Slam titles, eight Miami Open championships, and countless T.V. commercials, Serena Williams is used to the glare of the spotlight.

But she was not expecting a natural beam of bright light to shine on her side of the court late Friday afternoon as the sun began to set over Hard Rock Stadium. Blinded by the light, Williams shielded her eyes with her left hand as she attempted to hit a shot with her right. She lost the point, lost the second set, and had to fight not to lose her composure.

She wound up beating Rebecca Peterson of Sweden 6-3, 1-6, 6-1 after giving herself a pep talk heading into the final set.

“I told myself I could not lose this match,” Williams said. “I knew that I could play a lot, lot, lot better. I just had to be better. At this point it was irresponsible to be playing the way I was playing in the second set, so that determination was, `I cannot lose this match’ and `What do I have to do to win this match?’

She lost her opening Miami Open match last year to eventual No. 1 Naomi Osaka, and she was not going to let that happen again. The shifting light on the court made things tricky.

“It was interesting because first it was all dark out there, which was really odd,” Williams said. “I wasn’t sure if there should be lights. The shadow was so intense it was actually dark. Then there was light, but only on my side. That was weird because I literally couldn’t see. Every time she hit, I’d say `Okay, do I lob?’ But whatever.

“I need to just move on and really focus on playing better or not being in the tournament much longer.”

Asked how she measures her success at this point in her career, Williams gave it some thought.

“That’s a tricky question because I feel like with my career, I’ve had a tremendous amount of success. I think coming back from my situation (having a baby), playing four, five tournaments, jumping into the top 10, is extremely successful,” Williams said.

“It’s just a step at a time. I have to force myself to take a step back and say, `You’re doing great, don’t be so hard on yourself.’ Just because my level of success is so much higher than what’s natural, I have to take these moments encourage myself in a positive way so I can get that success that I want to have since coming back from the baby.”

The stadium lighting was kinder to Isner, the 6-foot-10 defending Miami Open champion, who looked relatively small playing on Stadium Court inside massive Hard Rock Stadium.

Isner heaped praise on the tournament’s new home after serving 20 aces and advancing to the third round with a 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (9-7) win over qualifier Lorenzo Sonego of Italy.

“It’s great to come back here as defending champion,” said Isner, who is ranked No. 9 in the world. “It’s a different feel because it’s a different venue. It’s a brand-new tournament for everyone, me included. I’m a huge fan of this site. The amount of space and how state-of-the-art the facilities are, I think all the players are liking that.”

The 33-year-old American also likes the conditions of the new courts, particularly center court. He played at 2 p.m., just before Serena Williams, and felt the lighting was optimal.

“As far as the court goes, I think it’s fantastic,” he said. “The shade covers the court pretty early on. Definitely before 2 o’clock it’s all shade. And that’s cool, for the fans especially and for the players.”

Isner, a huge college basketball fan, was not as enthusiastic about his NCAA Tournament bracket.

“So far it’s totally average,” he said. “But it’s all about keeping your Final Four teams. I picked all the number one seeds. We’ll see how it goes.”

The biggest afternoon upset on the men’s side was Serbian Dusan Lajovic rallying to knock out No. 5 Kei Nishikori of Japan 2-6, 6-2, 6-3. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic defeated Australian Bernard Tomic 7-6 (7-2), 6-2 in the night match.

The most notable players in the women’s bracket got through. Osaka needed three sets, but got past qualifier Yanina Wickmayer 6-0, 6-7, 6-1 in the noon match on Stadium Court. After the victory, she was presented the keys to Miami-Dade County by Commissioner Jean Monestime and Senator Oscar Braynon.

“It was really hard for me, I think, emotionally in the second set because I just started thinking about winning, not exactly the things I could do in order to win,” Osaka said. “So, yeah, I had a bit of a dip. She was also playing really well. I think between the second and third set I tried to breathe and regroup.”

Osaka said it is understandable that she would feel some pressure.

“It’s the first match I’ve played here. I wasn’t able to defend (my title) in Indian Wells, so of course I really want to do well here. I think it was all of that combination.”

She explained that she shut off her emotions on the third set, and that made the difference.

“I find myself doing it often when I’m really in emotionally stressful situations. I find it easier to focus when I do that,” Osaka said. “I just think it’s sort of an energy saver instead of constantly being riled up for every point. I don’t think that I’ve won two Grand Slams and I’m No. 1. I just think that I want to win the match and I want to do well in the tournament.”

Defending Miami Open women’s champion Sloane Stephens cruised past Ons Jabeur of Tunisia 6-2, 6-3. Second seed Simona Halep beat Taylor Townsend 6-1, 6-3.

Three-time Miami Open champion Venus Williams, at 38 the oldest woman in the draw, started slow with three double-faults in the first game, but found her rhythm and eliminated Cara Suarez-Navarro of Spain 7-6 (7-4), 6-1. She said she was energized by the lively crowd at the 5,000-seat Grandstand Court.

“I’ve had a lot of battles with her, so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, so I just did what I could and came out with the win and a lot of times that’s all you can do,” Williams said. “It was a lot of fun. Fans here have been really behind me. I think I heard them stomping their feet, that was really, really fun. I was like, `Am I hearing this right or is that a train?’ The people were in it. I got some compliments on my hair, so it’s nice to see the fans that involved.”

Miami Herald sportswriter Michelle Kaufman has covered 14 Olympics, six World Cups, Wimbledon, U.S. Open, NCAA Basketball Tournaments, NBA Playoffs, and has been the University of Miami basketball beat writer for 20 years. She was born in Frederick, Md., and grew up in Miami.


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