Friday, March 20, 2015

Serena withdraws; Raonic saves 3 MPs, upsets Nadal

Serena Williams addresses the media after withdrawing
from the BNP Paribas Open. Photo by Paul Bauman
   INDIAN WELLS -- It couldn't happen again.
   But it did.
   A Williams sister withdrew shortly before her semifinal in the BNP Paribas Open.
   Serena Williams, who had boycotted the tournament for 14 years, pulled out of tonight's match against Simona Halep with inflammation and pain in her right knee.
   Halep, seeded third, will meet resurgent Jelena Jankovic, seeded 18th, in Sunday's final. Jankovic, a former world No. 1 and the 2010 BNP champion, beat 24th-seeded Sabine Lisicki 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.
   Halep, 23, is 3-1 against Jankovic, 30, with three straight wins. In addition, Jankovic is recovering from a torn leg muscle.
   Earlier today, sixth-seeded Milos Raonic saved three match points in a 4-6, 7-6 (10), 7-5 victory over third-seeded Rafael Nadal, a three-time BNP champion, in the quarterfinals. That prevented the first "Big Four" semifinals since the 2012 Australian Open.
   Williams' withdrawal was the third premature exit in the BNP Paribas Open in two days. On Thursday, qualifier Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine retired with an ankle injury with Jankovic leading 6-1, 4-1, and 32nd-seeded Bernard Tomic of Australia pulled out of his quarterfinal against top-ranked Novak Djokovic with a back problem and infected wisdom tooth.     
   Williams, 33, said she felt pain in practice two days ago and received an injection before her scheduled match, but it didn't help.
   "I have never done an injection before," a cordial, upbeat Williams told reporters. "I think if this was any other event, I probably wouldn't have considered it. I wanted to give 200 percent. It just wasn't meant to be this year."  
   Williams rated her pain level as "9 or 10" on a scale of 1 to 10 but said she needed only two days to recover. She added that she hasn't decided whether to defend her title in Miami, which begins next week.
   Williams addressed the fans in Stadium 1 about her injury and received mostly cheers and a few hoots. It was almost as if Williams was testing the crowd after the 1991 controversy.
Milos Raonic blasted 19 aces at up to 147 mph (236.6 kph)
in his victory over Rafael Nadal. Photo by Paul Bauman
   That year, Venus Williams withdrew 20 minutes before her scheduled semifinal against Serena with knee tendinitis. Fans were upset that they got a doubles match instead, and some suspected that Richard Williams had orchestrated the withdrawal so his daughters wouldn't have to play each other. Also, Richard Williams said fans directed racial comments at him.
   Serena, then 19, was booed loudly throughout the final against Kim Clijsters but won her second title in the tournament. Venus still hasn't returned to the BNP Paribas Open.
   The Serena-Halep semifinal was supposed to be the second match of the night session, following Jankovic-Lisicki. But because the afternoon match between Raonic and Nadal lasted almost three hours, the night session actually kicked off with a men's doubles semifinal. Williams-Halep was not replaced with another match or exhibition.
   Serena said she did not fear talking to the crowd.
   "I think both myself and the crowd have a great appreciation for each other, and I have really enjoyed my four matches here," she said.
   Regarding the irony of both sisters withdrawing from semifinals in the tournament, Williams said: "I don't make anything of it. I feel that was 14 years ago, and this is now. I did the best that I could at this event, and I really am happy to have put a lot of that behind me."
   When asked whether she will return next year, Williams said, "I think it's going to be a must."
   Raonic needed 2 hours and 58 minutes to subdue the valiant Nadal for the first time. Raonic had been 0-5 against the Spanish star, although the last meeting, in the quarters at Miami last year, went to 6-4 in the third set. Nadal won the first four encounters in straight sets.
   In Saturday's semis, the sixth-seeded Raonic will face No. 2 Roger Federer, and No. 1 Novak Djokovic will play No. 4 Andy Murray.
   Federer, who owns a record four Indian Wells titles, dismantled No. 9 Tomas Berdych 6-4, 6-0. Djokovic and Murray advanced on Thursday.
Nadal, who was plagued by health problems last year, is getting
closer to top form. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Federer is 8-1 against Raonic. But, just as against Nadal, Raonic extended the victorious Federer to 6-4 in the third set in their last encounter. That occurred in the Brisbane final in January.
   Djokovic leads Murray 16-8, including a four-set victory in the Australian Open final in January. Murray, a two-time Grand Slam singles champion, is still returning to form after undergoing "minor" back surgery in September 2013.
   With Nadal standing practically in the next country to return serve on many points, the 6-foot-5 (1.96-meter) Raonic blasted 19 aces at up to 147 mph (236.6 kph) and saved six of the seven break points he faced. He was broken for the only time in the tournament to trail 2-1 in the first set.
   All of the match points against Raonic came on his serve in the second-set tiebreaker. He converted his first serve on the initial two match points, winning on a forehand approach and an overhead. There wasn't much Nadal could do about either.   
   The third match point, at 10-9, was another story. Raonic missed his first serve and hit -- by his standards -- a powder-puff second delivery at 101 mph (162.5 kph). Nadal mis-hit the return into the net with a forehand.
   "That was a big mistake," conceded Nadal, 28. "That's the only (regret) during the whole match."
   The left-handed Nadal missed three months last summer with a right wrist injury and underwent an appendectomy in November. He ended a nine-month title drought in Buenos Aires on clay three weeks ago.
   "Maybe with more victories on my shoulders, (after) being outside of the competition for several months, maybe I will win that match because I will not play a return like this," Nadal said.
   "But is normal that you are a little bit more nervous in that moment than usual. It's true that I didn't compete at that level of intensity for a long time. This is a big improvement for me. I was very focused, playing with positive energy for three hours." 
   Raonic broke Nadal for the only time in the match for 6-5 in the third set on a floater that landed just inside the baseline. By the time Nadal retreated to the ball, he could only flick a backhand long.
   Raonic then served out the match. He showed little emotion during the battle or afterward.
   "That's just the way I am," said the 24-year-old Canadian, widely considered as a potential Grand Slam champion. "It's really great what I was able to do today, and I'm very happy with it, but I don't let myself get caught up, because this isn't where it ends. There is a lot more that I want to achieve this week.
   "It's always about what I need to do next to get better. It's always been like that."
   Raonic took some pleasure in ending talk of a "Big Four" semifinals.
   "I guess (it's nice), because you want to prove people wrong in that sense," said Raonic, who won the last four SAP Open titles (2011-13) in San Jose before the tournament folded. "But I can't control what people say. I just try to get in my own system, in my own bubble, and focus on things that I do have control over." 

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