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Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Williams sisters have eyes set on doubles title

By Sandra Harwitt
Special to ESPN.com

Double your pleasure

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The sun was shining brightly Tuesday on Margaret Court Arena, an intimate stadium with no escape to shade. The weather conditions weren't as bad as the 100 degree temperatures originally predicted, a bonus for the Williams sisters as they played in what normally is the heat of the day.

While Serena Williams' quarterfinal opponent, Svetlana Kuznetsova, was probably conserving energy for their scheduled match on Wednesday, the reigning U.S. Open champion was busily fighting for a spot in the women's doubles semifinal with big sis Venus. America's favorite tennis sisters prevailed, but not before spending nearly two hours on court to secure a 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 win over Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai.

Residents of what often is a clammy South Florida, neither sister minded the outdoors doubles responsibility that kept them from the air-conditioned cool of indoors.

"It wasn't that hot to me today, it was just bright," Serena said. "I was totally fine."

For fans of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, it is a treat to see the siblings in doubles action. They don't often play the tandem game -- Serena has won 13 doubles titles and Venus 12, and they have won seven Grand Slam trophies and two Olympic gold medals together. But every once in a while, when a stress-free environment exists, they partner together.

William West/Getty Images

The Williams sisters are seeking their eighth Grand Slam title together.

"Traditionally, we always play the Australian Open," said Serena, with the thought being finished by Venus: "It's easy to play here. It's easy to get to the tournament and the matches go pretty fast."

The other Grand Slam they favor is Wimbledon, where they headquarter themselves in Wimbledon Village, with the tournament just minutes away.

"It's just like Wimbledon," Serena said of the Grand Slam they've won three times. "It's easy to get to the site. It's easy to leave the site, so it makes playing a lot easier.

"The U.S. Open is impossible -- it's like an hour to get there, so just for doubles, it's too much," added Serena.

Working out after their Tuesday doubles match, the siblings ducked out of the Australian Open gym to speak to two American reporters. Questioned as to whether she would've been better off not playing doubles since she was still in the singles, Serena quickly refuted: "I feel good, feel totally fine. I'll go home and relax. That's what I've been doing this whole tournament, staying in the hotel so I have a lot of energy stored up."

The sisters, who don't have much time to get involved in grassroots tennis back home, realize they stir interest with people, nonetheless. But they also regret that tennis is not growing exponentially since they took up the sport in their youth.

Serena believes the lack of professional tournaments for spectators in the states is heavily responsible for the lack of an abundance of talent coming up through the ranks.

"I think when we were growing up, there were tournaments in Houston and Chicago, and everywhere in the United States," Serena said. "And now there's just, like, literally a handful of tournaments, and I think that makes a major difference. All the tournaments are in Europe and Asia, and that's where all the players are coming from. We got started because my dad saw a match that was local."

Venus bemoans kids who aren't taking up the game. She thinks it offers youngsters a healthy lifestyle.

"I think it's a good game because I think ultimately it helps you build self-esteem," Venus said. "You feel good about reaching goals; even if you don't reach all of them, you worked for something. Plus, being outside and moving around makes you feel good. There's a lot of positive benefits besides, maybe, being a Wimbledon champ one day. Ultimately, [it helps your] confidence and life experiences."

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.

Five things we learned on Day 9

1. A-Rod is still a charmer: A press conference involving Andy Roddick hardly passes without a bout of humor, and the Austin resident obliged yet again Tuesday, teed up by a British reporter following his quarterfinal win over defending champion Novak Djokovic. The exchange went like this:

Q: How much of what you've achieved here so far is to do with the self-control that you seem to be showing out there? Good or bad, it doesn't seem to matter to you. Your reaction is very level and noncombustible.

A: Noncombustible? I love you English dudes. I don't know. I don't know how to put percentage points on how well I'm playing compared to being a little bit better shape compared to being noncombustible.

Emotion aside, Roddick served at 71 percent against Djokovic, which is mighty fine.

2. Those on-court interviews entertain: Host network Channel 7 conducts on-court interviews after matches on the main Rod Laver Arena, which the crowd can hear, and they routinely entertain. Local darling Jelena Dokic explained the significance of pint-sized fluffy bears attached to her equipment bag, Rafael Nadal was asked to pick his favorite in the women's draw -- he cheekily chose fellow Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro -- and French showman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was asked if he had a girlfriend. Tsonga suggested he didn't and joked he liked guys.

On Tuesday, upon surprisingly being told that she looked in good shape by interviewer Chris Dittmer, Russian Vera Zvonareva paused, then gushed: "Oh, thanks a lot." Laughter spread.

Zvonareva demolished 2007 Wimbledon finalist Marion Bartoli 6-3, 6-0, reeling off the final 11 games to reach her maiden Grand Slam semifinal. She hasn't lost a set yet.

"I think I played very good tennis," said Zvonareva, one of the most consistent performers last year. "I think Marion has been playing very good as well, but I was able to play a very clean match. I think that's what made the difference."

3. Double faults run in the family: Marat Safin's much-anticipated third-round clash against Roger Federer turned out to be a dud. Safin didn't help matters by delivering a vital double fault in the third-set tiebreaker.

Little sister Dinara Safina is well-acquainted with the doubles, too. Safina uncorked 11 against Dokic in their quarterfinal, hitting two back-to-back to hand the Aussie the second set. The third seed constantly fiddled with her ball toss, too, and got a warning for receiving coaching from the stands.

Perhaps the above title should be extended to, "Double faults run in the country." Nikolay Davydenko, Elena Dementieva and Anna Kournikova have also been beset by serving foibles.

Safina endeared herself to Aussies after defeating Dokic, saying, "I'm sorry I had to beat your Australian [hopeful]. I hope you'll be behind me next time."

Safina meets Zvonareva next.

4. Dokic had to lose sometime: Dokic captivated a nation with her performances, playing five straight three-set matches against quality opposition. The wild card fell just short against Safina, losing 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.

Safina staved off two break points in the final game, hitting a second-serve ace at 30-40. It was all the more impressive given the earlier double faults.

Dokic's ranking is set to climb from 187th to inside the top 100, and the former world No. 4 will be hard-pressed not to ascend even further.

"It's been great," said Dokic, who is estranged from her controversial dad, Damir. "I've had a great time here and really enjoyed the matches, even today. Went up and down today as well. Could have pulled it through, but I just don't think I had it in me."

5. Novak still has a chip on his shoulders: Djokovic felt all the world was against him at times last year, and it's clear his sentiment still hasn't dissipated.

The first thing he uttered in his press conference, not prompted, was: "Wow, big crowd when I lose, huh?"

Well, of course, Novak, you're the defending champion. The only reason there probably weren't many journalists in his previous postmatch press conference was because it began after 2:30 a.m.

-- Ravi Ubha

Sweltering days ahead

Djokovic

A foreboding record heat spell expected to be the worst to strike the Australian state of Victoria in a century has nothing to do with the scorching competition at the Australian Open.

The sizzling 100 degree temperatures surprisingly didn't arrive on time on Tuesday -- it reached only 95 degrees at around 5:30 p.m. The slight reprieve came courtesy of a sea breeze off the bay that prevented northerly winds from bringing in the anticipated unbearable sultriness.

Bob Leighton, who retired three years ago from the bureau of meteorology after 48 years of employment, is now the official Australian Open on-site meteorologist. His usual responsibility is keeping tournament officials abreast by the hour of possible rainfall so they can make an informed decision about whether to close the roof.

But this year the concern is about steamy conditions more than threatening skies.

"What's happened is we have a northerly airstream over us the next four or five days, which brings the heat down off the continent, and it's persisting," Leighton said. "Normally it stays only one or two days. So there should be four or five hot days, which are not that common here. There's potential for the air to be exceedingly hot."

Temperatures are expected to be less than ideal for players until the heat lifts just in time for the men's final on Sunday.

Fed Cup fanfare

Fernandez

Mary Joe Fernandez will not go into her debut as U.S. Fed Cup captain with the best of teams to face Argentina in Surprise, Ariz., Feb. 7-8, but she's still forecasting a victory.

It comes as no surprise that Fernandez was hoping that either both or one of the Williams sisters would show up for the first round, but she was unable to entice them into action. After Venus' early loss in Australia, she made one last effort to recruit her, but had no luck.

Thinking ahead, Fernandez had an alternate plan in picking Lindsay Davenport to anchor her squad. Davenport, however, came up with a solid excuse -- she's pregnant with her second child. Fernandez couldn't resist a joking comment about the pregnancy of her good friend and former doubles partner, saying, "What's up with that?"

Fernandez will announced on Tuesday that she is going with an enthusiastic third-string team: newly married Fed Cup newcomer Bethanie Mattek, fully recovered from a hip injury; veteran Jill Craybas, who has a 2-4 record in Fed Cup; naturalized American Liezel Huber, the top doubles player in the world; and 17-year-old Melanie Oudin, who will have her Fed Cup coming-out party.

"You always want the best team possible, and Venus and Serena are the best team," acknowledged Fernandez, in Melbourne working for ESPN. "But their priorities are little bit different now. They're a little older now and hoping to extend their careers as much as possible, so at this time it's not fitting into their schedules. Obviously, they're going to be welcome anytime, anyplace, and I'm always hoping to have them come."

Tuesday in Down Under news

Dokic

Channel 7, the Australian Open host broadcaster, featured an exclusive interview with Jelena Dokic's mother, Liliana, who lives in a small apartment in Sydney. Mother and daughter have recently reunited and are working to re-establish their relationship. Liliana says she has been speaking with her daughter during the Australian Open on the days she isn't playing. Mom says she isn't worried whether Jelena wins or loses, she just wants her to be happy. Liliana stayed in the background while her ex-husband Damir created scenes around the world -- neither Jelena nor her mom have any contact with him now -- and said her biggest regret was when the family abandoned Australia to go back to Serbia.

Critic's choice

Tsonga

When it comes to the Australian Open, neither France nor Spain has made a huge splash -- Frenchman Jean Borotra won the 1928 title, but a Spanish senor has never taken home the trophy. Could Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Spaniard Fernando Verdasco change history? Tsonga came close to rewriting the tennis annals last year , becoming the third unseeded Australian Open finalist in three years at Melbourne Park. Despite missing the summer to mend from arthroscopic knee surgery, Tsonga picked up his first two career titles this past fall.

As for Verdasco, he will be making his Grand Slam quarterfinal debut when he takes on Tsonga for the first time on Wednesday. The Spaniard with a big forehand grew up playing on hard courts that just happened to be in his backyard. He gained a huge psychological boost from clinching the 2008 Davis Cup title for Spain in a come-from-behind victory over Argentine Jose Acasuso in November.

ESPN.com prediction: Tsonga in four.