Venus Williams loses match, but inspires peers. Wozniacki advances, speaks out on Halep

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The Miami Open Grandstand crowd Tuesday was smaller than the packed stadiums Venus Williams attracted back in 2002, when she was the top-ranked player in the world, battling the likes of Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters and Martina Hingis.

And there weren’t as many cameras focused on the seven-time Grand Slam champion.

But the love from her fans was just as strong for Williams, who turns 44 in June, has dropped to No. 457 in the rankings and was granted a wild card to the main draw of the Miami Open.

Every big point she won was followed by a roar from the crowd, which included her sister Serena. Every time she fell behind 15-30 or 15-40, fans shouted “C’mon V! You got this!” Despite the encouragement, Williams lost her first-round match 6-3, 6-3 to 19-year-old rising Russian star Diana Shnaider, who played college tennis at North Carolina State and left early to turn pro.

“I could totally feel the support and it felt amazing,” Williams said after the match. “Every time I won a point everyone was like, `Ahhh!’ and when I didn’t they were disappointed. It felt nice to feel that home crowd.”

Serena Williams watches her sister American tennis player Venus Williams play against Russian tennis player Diana Shnaider during the Women’s First Round of the Miami Open in the Grandstand at the Hard Rock Stadium on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Serena Williams watches her sister American tennis player Venus Williams play against Russian tennis player Diana Shnaider during the Women’s First Round of the Miami Open in the Grandstand at the Hard Rock Stadium on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, in Miami Gardens, Florida.

There were moments when Williams displayed flashes of the powerful groundstrokes that made her famous back in the day, but Shnaider had a big enough game to neutralize her.

She said that is understandable, considering she has played just two matches since the 2023 U.S. Open. She lost two weeks ago to Japanese qualifier Nao Hibino at Indian Wells, California.

“I haven’t played here in five years, so it’s amazing to come back,” said Williams, a three-time champion in Miami. “Five years goes fast. Also, I haven’t played very often, so it’s up and down. Sometimes I’m playing at my normal level and sometimes not. Either making the right choice, or rusty. I think that’s to be expected now. Overall, I had a lot of fun.”

The fact that she is still on tour after so many years inspires her peers.

“It’s incredible to see how much she loves the game, what the game has meant to her,” said Frances Tiafoe, an American playing in the men’s draw. “It’s so hard for her to walk away. She’s loving this game, at that age, and still loving to practice. It’s just about playing matches but practicing and getting prepared and wanting to be out here. I hope she continues to enjoy it and plays as long as she wants to play. She’s such a legend. It’s good to see her out there.”

American tennis player Francis Tiafoe smiles as he answers questions during Media Day at the Miami Open at the Hard Rock Stadium on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, in Miami Gardens, Florida.
American tennis player Francis Tiafoe smiles as he answers questions during Media Day at the Miami Open at the Hard Rock Stadium on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, in Miami Gardens, Florida.

Shnaider said it was a dream come true to play against Williams.

“Growing up I never thought I would have a chance to play such an incredible legend, it means a lot to me,” Shnaider said. “She’s a big fighter and can find a way in any opening to win, so I tried to stay focused and not let my emotions take over.”

Williams was one of three former No. 1 players entered in the Miami Open as wild cards, along with Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep.

Wozniacki, a 33-year-old mother of two, was back on the Hard Rock Stadium courts after returning from a three-year maternity leave last summer. A year ago this week, she was at the Miami Open as a TV commentator and caring for her daughter Olivia, who is now two and a half, and her son James, who is one and a half.

On Tuesday, she defeated Clara Burel of France 6-1, 6-4 to advance to the second round.

Like Tiafoe, Wozniacki was delighted to see Williams on the court.

“It’s amazing to see Venus still out there, I mean, she’s 43 years old,” Wozniacki said. “She’s a legend. She’s won so much, and she’s earned the right to do whatever she wants to do. If she wants to play another 10 years, that’s great, and if she never wants to play again, that’s also great.

“It’s such an inspiration to see her playing, and fit, competing against all these youngsters. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of hard work behind the scenes.”

Wozniacki was not as thrilled to see Halep get a wild card into the main draw after the Court of Arbitration for Sport recently reduced her four-year drug suspension to nine months. Although she said she likes Halep and always got along with her, she was outspoken about the decision to grant her a wild card. Halep lost her opening match 1-6, 6-4, 6-3 to Paula Badosa.

“I have always wanted a clean sport, fair for everybody, and if someone, this is not directly at Simona, but if someone purposely cheats, tests positive for doping, it’s my personal belief people should not be awarded wild cards afterwards,” Wozniacki said. “If you want to come back, and it’s been a mistake, I understand. You should work your way up from the bottom… I’ve always been a very honest athlete, and even taking Tylenol I double and triple check.”

As for her own comeback after a three-year maternity layoff, Wozniacki said she brings a different perspective to her matches.

“I didn’t think I was going to be here again, so for me to be out there competing against the best players in the world is a lot of fun,” she said. “I definitely don’t put as much pressure on myself. My family doesn’t care whether I win or lose. They’re still there and want Mom.”

Finally, Wozniacki offered condolences to world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, whose boyfriend and former professional hockey player Konstantin Koltsov jumped to his death from a Bal Harbour hotel early Monday.

“I can’t even imagine what she’s going through right now,” said Wozniacki, tearing up and wiping her eyes. “It’s such a terrible situation, so hard. I reached out to her and told her I was here if she needed anything. I love Aryna. She’s always so happy, and to see her going through that is heartbreaking. Everyone grieves in different ways. I saw she was walking past today and I gave her space, but let her know I am here, we’re here for her.”