Tennis

Ageless Venus topples No.1 Kerber, Nadal cruises past Sock to advance to Miami Open semis

Venus Williams, of United States, returns a shot against Angelique Kerber, of Germany, during their match at Miami Open tennis tournament on Wednesday, March 29, 2017, at Crandon Park in Key Biscayne.
Venus Williams, of United States, returns a shot against Angelique Kerber, of Germany, during their match at Miami Open tennis tournament on Wednesday, March 29, 2017, at Crandon Park in Key Biscayne. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

Angelique Kerber is ranked No. 1 in the world, but had not been playing like it for much of this season, so she was fired up to face seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams under the lights Wednesday night at the Miami Open quarterfinals.

She wanted to prove she could beat a Top 20 player again, something she had not done in 18 matches so far in 2017.

Her 12 victories this season were over players ranked below No. 35, including wins this week over No. 66 Ying-Ying Duan, No 61 Shelby Rogers and 87th-ranked qualifier Risa Ozaki. All six of her losses were to players ranked below No. 10.

On Wednesday night, Kerber had a chance to make up for her underwhelming season start against the resurgent 12th-ranked Williams, who turns 37 in June. Instead, she handed Williams the first set after double-faulting on the last two points, and Williams rolled to a 7-5, 6-3 win.

Williams had a statement of her own to make: She may be the oldest woman in the field, but she is two victories from winning her fourth title on Key Biscayne. Williams will play 10th-seeded Johanna Konta of Great Britain in the semifinals on Thursday night.

Asked about her next opponent, Williams smiled and said: “She’s living the dream. I’ve got a dream, too.”

Watching the match from courtside was Williams’ ailing father Richard Williams, who has not attended many tournaments the past two years. “My dad is one of the loves of my life and the reason I am here in this game,” she said. “It was such a happy moment to see the joy, pride and excitement in him. I could win the match just for that.”

The father and daughter shared a big hug as she left the court.

In the late-night match, four-time Miami Open runner-up Rafael Nadal dashed American Jack Sock’s dreams 6-2, 6-3 in 1 hour 23 minutes. Sock, with a forehand as blistering as Nadal’s, led the tour with 18 wins this season and had beaten four of his past five top-10 opponents. But Nadal was too strong. The Spaniard fended off four break points in the third game of the second set to keep Sock from taking a 3-0 lead and dominated the rest of the match.

Nadal faces unseeded Italian Fabio Fognini in the semifinals. Fognini upset No. 2 Kei Nishikori 6-4, 6-2, earlier in the day.

Williams’ victory validated the complaint fans have of the women’s game – there aren’t enough dominant players once you get past the Williams sisters.

Unlike the men’s game, where Roger Federer, Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have dominated at the Grand Slam events, battled for the top four rankings, and thrilled fans with stirring matches, the women’s tour has been lacking consistency at the top from everyone other than Serena Williams for several years.

Serena Williams, Venus’ younger sister, sat atop the rankings for 186 straight weeks from 2013 through the end of the 2016 U.S. Open, equaling a record held by Steff Graf between 1986 and 1991. Williams won seven majors and 24 titles during that stretch, and she won 90 percent of her matches (210-21).

Back in the day, the women’s game featured Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Graf vs. Monica Seles, and Kim Clijsters vs. Justine Henin. Serena and Venus Williams have had a sibling rivalry on the court, Serena’s matches against Maria Sharapova were always spicy – although Williams won 19 of the 21 times they played.

Over the years, women have held onto the top ranking for extended periods of time. Navratilova had a string of 156 weeks, Evert 113, Seles 91 weeks, Martina Hingis 80 weeks and 73 weeks, and Henin 61 and 44.

In recent years, many of the women who reach the top don’t stay there for long – Clijsters, Dinara Safina, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic. Viktoria Azarenka won back-to-back Australian Opens in 2012-13, reached No. 1, but hasn’t won another Slam and is now on maternity leave.

Petra Kvitova and Garbine Muguruza won majors, but haven’t built on those titles.

Asked why no woman other than Serena Williams has lasted at or near the top, ESPN commentator Chris Evert said: “Gosh, that’s a good question. I think a lot of the problem has been Serena Williams. I honestly think, as I look, especially the past five years, I think Serena has played at such a high level, and no one has been able to match her power and match her athleticism, and I think she’s at such a high level that the other players are two levels below...I think Kerber is going to have a hard time keeping the No. 1 ranking with power taking over the sport.”

Brad Gilbert, also working the ESPN booth, said: “Heck, the Williams sisters may go until their early 40s, but at this moment, I can’t tell you a player who’s ready to step forward and is going to win five or ten Slams. I don’t see anybody capable at the moment of being that next dominant player.”

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