In beating Kerber, Venus played with imperiousness of her glory years

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Venus Williams is in the Miami Open semifinals for the first time since 2010. (AP) 

Venus Williams has been “back” for a while now. In 2015, she broke back into the Top 10 for the first time in five years. In 2016, she made it back to her first Wimbledon semifinal in seven years. And in January, she turned back the clock long enough to reach her first Australian Open in a whopping 14 years.

Even during this recent resurgence, though, Venus had rarely played as well as she did in her 7-5, 6-3 win over Angelique Kerber in Miami on Wednesday night. It was the 36-year-old Venus’ 15th victory against a world No. 1.

Yet this performance didn’t come as a complete surprise. Venus has been gathering steam since she saved match points against Jelena Jankovic in the first round at Indian Wells three weeks ago. After reaching the quarters there, she hadn’t dropped a set in three matches in Miami. But facing Kerber, who beat Venus in the Wimbledon semis last year, meant going up a level or two.

On Wednesday night, in front of a pro-Williams audience—“I think half the people here are my friends,” she said—Venus made raising her game and rising to the occasion look easy. Even when she has played well in her 30s, it has often taken her a set to get her game into gear; and winning has often meant using her experience to thread her way through the bad patches of play and past a younger opponent. But on this night Venus was sharp from start to finish. She played with the measured, imperious aggression of her glory years.

While Venus and Kerber traded breaks early, you could see that Venus was seeing the ball well, and was committed to getting in the first strike. Down 3-2 in the first set, she came up with a shoe-top forehand volley winner that even Kerber had to applaud. At 3-3, Venus fended off a break point with a backhand winner and toughed out a long, crucial hold. At 5-5, she went down 15-30 before putting another backhand on the sideline for a winner, and holding with an emphatic swing volley. That shot was there for her all night.

“I’m 6’1”, Venus said afterward with a smile. “I have no excuse not to get to the net.”

The net is where the biggest shot of the night came for Venus. With Kerber serving at 5-6 in the first, the two women pushed and pulled each other around the court, until Venus closed the point out with a powerful smash. It was powerful enough that it seemed to rattle Kerber, who double-faulted twice in a row to give away the set. 

The German tried at times to combat Venus’ power with her own down-the-line forehand, and the first set was high quality all around. But by the second, she was clearly frustrated and on the defensive; too many of her service returns were landing too short in the court, allowing Venus to take the initiative right away. From there, the winners continued to flow from Venus’ racquet. Crosscourt backhands, down-the-line returns, aces up the T and that trusty swing volley: They were all flying past Kerber. 

Down 2-5, and facing match point three times, Kerber fought back with a flurry of winners of her own. For a second, it looked like it might be enough to rattle Venus, who went down 15-30 on her serve at 5-3. Venus missed her first serve on the next point, but Kerber couldn’t take advantage of the second serve. When her return found the net, she put her hands on her hips and glared at the court. It was that kind of night for her.

Even for world No. 1s, though, there’s no shame in losing to Venus Williams. As she said earlier this week, in one of the many quotes of hers that are destined to go in tennis’ version of Bartlett’s, “I know that no matter what, I’m going to leave everything on the court: all my guts, blood, sweat, tears.” 

This time, there was no need for blood or tears. Venus’ shots were more than enough. Now the oldest woman in the Miami Open draw is back in the semis there for the first time since 2010.

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