Serena breezes, but Venus pulls out

Serena rode a bicycle to work. Venus didn’t turn up — at least not on court. In a scenario that bore some similarities to the notorious incident at Indian Wells that led to the Williams sisters’ boycotting the tournament, Venus pulled out of her match at the Sony Open against Sloane Stephens half an hour before match time with a bad back.

Serena, who would have been the opponent in Indian Wells, played the first night match on this occasion and came through all guns firing, 6-3, 6-3, against Japan’s Ayumi Morita, who hit the ball well, but not well enough despite leading 3-0 in the first set.

When Venus left it so late to default in California all those years ago, a small but vociferous section of the crowd took it upon themselves to vent their feelings on the younger sister when she played the final the next day and retained her title. Some of the comments carried racial overtones, and the sisters have refused to return.

But the similarities end there. There was never a chance of anything like that happening here. The Williamses, who live 90 minutes away up Interstate 95 at Palm Beach Gardens, regard this as their home tournament, and the crowd has always supported them to the hilt. Serena, looking as trim and as fit as at any time in her a career, shrugged off the loss of a couple of service games and hit some brilliant winners on the run. The cheers echoed through the muggy night air.

Typically, Venus was not very forthcoming when she made a brief appearance in the media room.

“Yesterday, I was having some pain. I wanted to see how I felt in the warm-up,” she said. “Just not able to play today. It’s really disappointing. This is just the kind of tournament that you want to play well at.”

The Williamses’ father, Richard Williams, was sitting in a golf cart in the parking lot before Serena’s match, and he said: “Venus felt pain in yesterday’s match against Kimiko (Date-Krumm). It’s the lower back. Usual thing. You never know with backs.”

Stephens said she was told Venus had pulled out about half an hour before she was due to play.

“I was a little bummed out,” said the 20-year-old who has risen rapidly in recent months to No. 15 in the world and was looking forward to her first meeting with Venus. “I don’t know, I wouldn’t say it was a letdown, but you’re so ready to play and it was like … ‘Oh.’ It was tough, but I guess it’s good. At least I get to play another match.”

Serena did not arrive for match in the conventional manner.

“The traffic was crazy, and everyone was saying, ‘I’ve been here for an hour,’” Serena said. “I’m staying eight minutes away, and I’m thinking I’m not going to make my match if I don’t get there. So I asked for a golf cart, and the hotel didn’t have a golf cart. Then they were like, ‘We have a motorbike.’ I don’t do motorbikes. They said, ‘We have a bicycle,’ and I said, ‘I don’t really do bicycles, but I will today.’ It was fun. I went from the Rolls to the bike. It was probably one of my best memories ever, riding a bike to a match. That’s pretty cool.”

Chances are it will be back to the gleaming white Rolls-Royce for Serena for the rest of the tournament as she motors towards her sixth title at Key Biscayne.