Big sister Venus keeps the Williams name centre stage

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THE WEEK THAT WAS: Mum’s the word for Serena but Venus is still making her racquet talk loudly as the sisters continue to keep the tennis world fascinated, says chief writer RON REED:

SURELY IT WAS ordained to be the other way around for the Williams sisters. If either was going to excuse herself from the circuit to have a baby and explore what else life has to offer than tennis, you’d have bet on it being Venus, at 37 the older by two years. And the one powering on with her career, perhaps proving more difficult to defeat than ever, would be the ultra-ambitious, super competitive Serena. But that’s not what has happened.

The most astonishing story in that sport this year has been Venus’s appearance in two finals – the Australian Open and Wimbledon – and one semi-final, the Us Open, at a stage when most people had more or less taken it for granted that she was winding down gracefully and enthusiastically, but inexorably. This week, she was in vintage form again before losing in a three-set thriller, 6-1 0-6 7-5, to compatriot Sloane Stephens, best known in this country for reaching the semi-finals of the 2013 Australian Open, taking down Serena en route. After splitting the first two rapid-fire, lop-sided sets, Venus and Sloane turned on a classic, see-sawing decider that was a superb advertisement for the women’s game before the 13-year age gap asserted itself.

Or did it? Age appears to be the least of the worries for Venus, who now returns to the top five in the rankings for the first time in six years. She admits she has surprised herself with her level at a time most stars are long-retired. Asked earlier in the week what her secret was, she said: “I don’t know. If I could do it, I’d put it in a box and maybe I’d sell it. But I love the game and you’ve got to have health, you’ve got to have fitness, you’ve got to have skill, desire, the love. All that stuff.”

And, she added, her sister motivates her. A lot. The pair continue to enjoy a sibling rivalry as well as an obvious enjoyment in each other’s achievements. It took Serena to prevent Venus from adding to her seven Grand Slam titles when the pair met in the final in Melbourne in January. With Serena off the scene since then, Venus has flourished – and now it seems likely Melbourne will be the venue for the new mother’s comeback, even though she herself has described such a quick return to the fray as bordering on the outrageous.

By then, Serena has hinted she may be married to the baby’s father, Alexis Ohanian, but as for the baby itself … well, that seems to be a secret. There is no suggestion it has been a virgin birth but it was an accidental conception, she says, and pretty much a silent and invisible denouement. She reportedly cleared the entire floor of a Florida hospital for the event, which took place on September 1 – right in the middle of the US Open, which Serena was missing for the first time since 1998 – and in the ensuing week there have been, unless I’ve missed it, no pictures of the infant, no name revealed, no quotes from the happy mum. All we know is it’s a girl. The glossy magazines must be becoming extremely frustrated.

No doubt all will be revealed in due course – and Serena will be back on court, resuming her chase after Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles. She needs one more to equal it. Her coach Patrick Mouratoglou told Eurosport this week that Serena was “in a good place at the moment. She is incredibly happy and looking forward to building a family. That was something that was so important to her, and she made it. It is a new era for her. She is in a different mindset and I am sure she is going to be an incredible mother.

“She says she still has things to achieve in tennis. She is both a tennis player and a mother and she has to deal with both. She wants to be able to win Slams otherwise she will stop. The idea is to come back to practice as soon as she is ready. Having a baby is not a small thing so you have to give your body time to recover. When her body is back to normal, we have to rebuild her physically and her tennis. And get ready as soon as possible. As soon as we feel she is ready to compete she will. If that is Australia, great. If it’s a bit later, that’s fine. For Serena, anything is possible.”

Spanish superstar Rafael Nadal is among those who has said he has no doubt she can get back to No 1.

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IF, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, this one is worth thousands of games of footy. We all knew it has become a vintage year for big-name retirements from the AFL but it has taken Simon Schneider, one of Sportshounds’ stable of superb cartoonists, to put it in context at a single glance. Being the classy caricaturist that he is, the faces are all readily recognisable – if you’re a fair dinkum footy fan. So, can you name them all?

Here’s who they are:

Bottom: Luke Hodge, Bob Murphy, Steve Johnson, Matthew Boyd, Sam Mitchell, Nick Riewoldt.

Second line: Scott Thompson, James Kelly, Jobe Watson, Andrew Mackie, Tom Lonergan, Josh Gibson.

Third line: Brent Stanton, Matthew Priddis, Leigh Montagna, Drew Petrie, Zac Dawson.

Back line: Chris Yarran, Jesse White, Lachie Hanson, Denis Armfield.

There are 21 of them, one short of a full team. We set out to see what that team would look like if placed in position, but will bow to the greater expertise of former St Kilda coach Grant Thomas, who tweeted his version:

B: Armfield, Gibson, Boyd

HB: Hodge, Lonergan, Mackie

C: Montagna, Priddis, Kelly

HF: Murphy, Riewoldt, Johnson

F: Stanton, Petrie, Thompson

Foll: White, Watson, Mitchell

Thomas didn’t name a bench, but that leaves Dawson, Hanson and Yarran.

To emphasise the quality of the retirees, Thomas reckons his team would make the finals if it played together next year.

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SPEAKING of Steve Johnson, his celebrated career might not be quite as over as it seemed when the GWS Giants dropped him for the qualifying final against Adelaide. Even at his mercurial best Stevie wouldn’t have made enough difference to avoid the thrashing that ensued but now that it’s do-or-die next week his ability to conjure up moments of match-winning magic might be hard for coach Leon Cameron to resist.

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He might have been in good company during the week. The Socceroos also have a mercurial matchwinner who is clearly struggling to have his usual impact as he enters the deep twilight of his brilliant career, and Tim Cahill was unable to make any real difference against the Thais before being subbed off well before the finish. Coach Ange Postecoglou sees him as a bench player these days and if they get to Russia next year he will have some big calls to make on how Cahill is used – or, maybe, IF he is used. Both Johnson and Cahill deserve the chance to make their exits in style rather than as faded forces who stayed on slightly too long, and here’s hoping that they get it. But with so much at stake in both cases, there is not much room for such sentiments.

* * * *

STEVEN O’Keefe’s comeback to Test cricket is highly likely to be very short-lived – and rightly so. The left-arm spinner made almost no impact in the second Test against Bangladesh on a wicket and in circumstances that enabled fellow spinner Nathan Lyon to dominate the match with 13 wickets, giving him an amazing 22 for the two-match series. O’Keefe went wicketless in the first innings and took only two in the second, despite being given plenty of overs by skipper Steve Smith, who appears to be both a friend and a fan. Captain’s pick? The real question, though, is why O’Keefe was rushed to Bangladesh between matches in the first place when a replacement for injured paceman Josh Hazlewoood was required, given he was under suspension by NSW for boorish, drunken, sexist behaviour at an awards night. Cricket Australia often makes much of the importance it attaches to the concept of “culture” and image, so it is difficult to understand how it can approve the recall of a player who has yet to complete his penance for seriously unacceptable behaviour.

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It’s not even as if he was a stand-out candidate for the SOS call, with Victorian Jon Holland having followed up a superb Sheffield Shield season with a strong performance in the pre-tour practice match in Darwin. Even one of O’Keefe’s best mates, Victorian pace bowler John Hastings, said what a great many cricket fans are thinking: “I really feel for Dutchy (Holland). Steve O’Keefe was best man at my wedding so I’m rapt for him but he … probably doesn’t deserve to be there. He’s suspended by NSW and he’s over playing for Australia. It’s an interesting one that one.” Hear, hear!

One thing is for certain – Australia will not be playing any more than one spinner when the Ashes series starts in Brisbane in November and that bowler will be Lyon.  O’Keefe will almost certainly be a spectator again, a role in which he will get plenty of practice during the domestic one-day season while he serves his well-earned suspension.

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SPORTSMAN OF THE WEEK

Test off-spinner NATHAN LYON wasn’t quite a one-man band as Australia won the second Test against Bangladesh – David Warner and Peter Handscomb contributed too – but what won the match were his 13 wickets, giving him an amazing 23 for the two-match series. Only a year or so ago there were rumblings about his worth, now he’s Australia’s second most successful slow bowler behind only Warnie – enough said.

BIGGEST WINNER

They copped plenty of flak for losing to lowly Bangladesh for the first time ever so it’s only fair to acknowledge the Australian cricket team’s fightback to win comfortably second up and square the series, a rare positive result for the baggy greens anywhere in Asia.

BIGGEST LOSER

Is it possible to win a match and yet still emerge as the loser – well, Australian soccer fans would probably vote yes to that after the Socceroos prevailed 2-1 over Thailand but still fell well and truly short of their goal, direct qualification for the World Cup. Still, all is not lost yet.

 QUOTE UNQUOTE

“At the moment, he’s hanging by a thread in my opinion. Serious consideration should be given to the fact we need a different voice because these players, regardless of what they’re saying publicly, aren’t responding like they used to.” Soccer commentator MARK BOSNICH goes for coach Ange Postecoglou’s jugular after the Socceroos failed to clinch direct entry to the World Cup.

“The Australian football industry chewed me up and spat me out 10 years ago so this is nothing new to me. I won’t be pushed into the shadows of Australian football history like others. I’ve survived worse than this. If anything, it’s what motivates me to keep going.” POSTECOGLOU fails to flinch under the heat of the blowtorch.

“It might seem ridiculous to other people but then again it is peanuts to me. When you have close to $14 million I think it only equals 0.36 of what I’m worth, so it is not a lot of money.” His tennis is in tatters but BERNARD TOMIC has no problem spending $50,000 on a night out for himself and a few mates.

“As long as I’m performing better than anyone else can perform I’ll stay, but if someone came up to me and said, ‘OK, this is what I can bring to the Collingwood Football Club,’ and I thought they were better, I’d put them there. If I thought putting them at centre half-forward would get us a kick, I’d put them there too.” Magpies president EDDIE McGUIRE has no plans to sack himself because he’s still the best.

“I feel I suffered as a player due to a lack of cultural understanding by my employer and by some of my team-mates. I didn’t get the best out of my career especially in my final two seasons and I feel this was somewhat due to what I experienced and how certain situations were handled by the club.” Former Collingwood footballer ANDREW KRAKOUER agrees with former team-mate Heritier Lumumba’s assertion that racism was a problem at the famous club.

“We’re all mental cases, spinners. I think we’re all a little bit funny in the head.” Former Test bowler JASON KREJZA confesses that he and his ilk are a bit different.

“As heroic as her two recent escapes have been, this is not the Winx of old … the great mare is now being heroic rather than dominant and that means she is giving them a chance.” Racing journalist MATT STEWART is thinking the unthinkable – at his peril.

“It’s not a matter of wanting to do it or not – it’s just impossible.” Geelong coach CHRIS SCOTT pouring cold water on Cats’ fans hopes of a Gary Ablett homecoming.

“That is one of the lowest acts I have seen on a cricket field.” Statistician RICK FINLAY gets it about right after West Indies player Kieron Pollard bowls a deliberate head-high no-ball to prevent opponent Evin Lewis completing a century off the last delivery of a Caribbean T20 league game already well and truly won.

“If I could do it, maybe I’d put it in a box and sell it. But I love the game, and you’ve got to have health, you’ve got to have fitness, you’ve got to have skill, desire, love. All that stuff.” Tennis star VENUS WILLIAMS searches for the recipe of sporting longevity as she chases another Grand Slam title at age 37.

“As a West Indian, I was truly embarrassed. As a young cricketer who looked up to a lot of individuals in the team, it was one of the saddest moments in the world. I felt the West Indies being the best team in the world needed to play cricket in a different way.” Legendary batsman BRIAN LARA admits the gamesmanship of the great West Indies teams of the 80s and 90s was nothing to be proud of.

“Dad had this saying, ‘You can’t walk around during the week like a mug and expect to be a champion on the weekend.’ I’ve always remembered that.” Storm captain CAMERON SMITH knows who to thank for the dedication to training that has allowed him to break the NRL games record.

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Author: Ron Reed

RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.

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