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Serena Williams to miss Australian Open

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Defending champion Serena Williams has withdrawn from the Australian Open, saying she is not ready to return to tournament tennis.

The season’s first major starts on Jan. 15 at Melbourne Park and seven-time Australian Open champion Williams will be missing it for the first time since 2011.

Williams was pregnant with her first child when she won here last year to collect her Open-era record 23rd Grand Slam singles title.

The four-time Olympic gold medalist gave birth to her daughter, Alexis, in September.

Williams played in an exhibition tournament last week in Abu Dhabi and indicated after her loss to French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko that she might not make it to Melbourne.

“After competing in Abu Dhabi I realized that although I am super close, I’m not where I personally want to be,” Williams said in a statement released Friday by Australian Open organizers.

“My coach and team always said ‘only go to tournaments when you are prepared to go all the way.’ I can compete – but I don’t want to just compete, I want to do far better than that and to do so, I will need a little more time.

“With that being said, and even though I am disappointed about it, I’ve decided not to compete in the Australian Open this year.”

The 36-year-old Williams needs one more Grand Slam singles title to equal the all-time record held by Margaret Court, who won 24 titles before and during the Open era.

Her withdrawal comes less than 24 hours after fellow former world No.1 Andy Murray withdrew from the men’s event with a chronic hip injury.

Several other stars, including top-ranked Rafael Nadal, six-time champion Novak Djokovic and 2014 winner Stan Wawrinka, also are dealing with injuries.

Williams last year beat sister Venus Williams in the final, and later revealed she played the tournament despite knowing she was pregnant.

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said Williams waited as long as she could before letting organizers know she wouldn’t be able to compete.

“I’ve been in constant contact with Serena and her team and know this is why she has pushed it and pushed it until the 11th hour to make her final decision,” Tiley said.

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For Venus Williams, Tokyo Olympics an incentive

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Venus Williams sounds more and more definitive about trying to become the oldest Olympic singles tennis player in the modern era.

“I have no plans of stopping anytime soon,” the 37-year-old Williams said, according to an Entrepreneur magazine article published this week. “It seems somehow that 2020 Tokyo is on the horizon. Isn’t that wild? I’m trying to stick around for that.”

If anything is to stop her from qualifying for Tokyo in singles in 2 1/2 years, it’s the depth of American women’s tennis.

A nation can send no more than four players per event to the Olympics. Williams would easily make it based on recent form. She finished the 2017 season ranked No. 5 in the world, her highest placement since January 2011.

But none of her results from this spectacular season — including Australian Open and Wimbledon runners-up and a U.S. Open semifinal — will play into 2020 Olympic qualification.

In the coming years, Williams must keep her game at a high level, assuming sister Serena Williams, U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, U.S. Open finalist Madison Keys and CoCo Vandeweghe, who made two Grand Slam semifinals in 2017, do as well.

Williams could also make the 2020 Olympic team in doubles only if she’s not one of the top four U.S. singles players.

Williams, a five-time Olympic medalist, teased trying for a sixth Olympics both at the Rio Games and later in 2016.

“I am targeting that to see if it’s possible to play there,” Williams said on a TV program that aired last November. “While you’re out there playing, I love that challenge, I love the pressure, it’s all a privilege. If I can be out there, I will be.”

In Rio, Williams won silver in mixed doubles with Rajeev Ram, becoming the most decorated tennis player in Olympic history.

She also became the second-oldest singles player since the sport returned to the Olympic program following a 64-year break in 1988. If she is back for Tokyo, she will break Jonas Bjorkman’s record as the oldest singles player in this era.

“God willing, I imagine if I really wanted to be there, I could,” Williams said Aug. 14, 2016. “So Tokyo is about if I want to be there. If I want to continue to work as hard. It’s a lot of hard work. I have to want to do the work. So we’ll see.”

One American has competed in more than six Olympics — equestrian J. Michael Plumb.

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Indian police probe Maria Sharapova housing fraud case

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NEW DELHI (AP) — Maria Sharapova is being investigated by police in India in a cheating and criminal conspiracy case involving a real estate company who used the tennis star to endorse a luxury housing project that never took off.

Real estate firm Homestead Infrastructure is accused of taking tens of millions of rupees (millions of dollars) from home buyers for a project named “Ballet by Maria Sharapova,” a luxury apartment complex with its own helipad, tennis academy and other amenities.

The five-time Grand Slam champion and Olympic silver medalist traveled to India in 2013 to launch the project at a glitzy ceremony. Police began the investigation on Nov. 16.

Piyush Singh, a lawyer representing one of the home buyers, said Wednesday that Sharapova’s celebrity was the reason most people put their money into the project.

Singh said his client, Bhawana Agarwal, paid Homestead Infrastructure 5.3 million rupees ($81,678) in 2013 because she was impressed by Sharapova’s association with the project located in Gurgaon, a suburb of the Indian capital. The cost of an apartment in the swanky project was 20 million rupees ($308,000).

Agarwal then spent the next three years chasing the builders for updates on the property and her investment in it but they stopped taking her calls, Singh said. On Wednesday, several calls to the numbers of the building company’s website went unanswered.

“The project never saw the light of day,” Singh said.

Singh said the police investigation based on his client’s complaint was testing relatively new legal ground – that celebrities endorsing projects that draw vast sums of money from investors had a responsibility “to do some due diligence” on the project before lending their name and credibility to it.

Sharapova isn’t the only international sports celebrity that the real estate firm roped in. Its website also advertises a project with Formula One great Michael Schumacher called the Michael Schumacher World Tower.

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