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Defending champion Serena Williams has withdrawn from the Australian Open, saying she is not ready to return to tournament tennis.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

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Serena Williams hopes to return from pregnancy (due date by the end of the summer) to defend her Australian Open title in January, according to Vogue.

“It’s the most outrageous plan,” Williams said, according to the report. “I just want to put that out there. That’s, like, three months after I give birth. I’m not walking anything back, but I’m just saying it’s pretty intense.”

Williams, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title last January and, two months later, said she played that event while about two months pregnant.

Williams, 35, is already the oldest Grand Slam women’s singles champion in the Open Era. That’s by virtue not of her 2017 Australian Open title but of her 2016 Wimbledon crown.

She hopes to pass Margaret Court‘s record of 24 Grand Slaim singles titles, though Court won the majority of her events before the Open Era began in 1968.

“In this game you can go dark fast,” Williams said, according to the report. “If I lose, and I lose again, it’s like, she’s done. Especially since I’m not 20 years old. I’ll tell you this much: I won’t win less. Either I win, or I don’t play.”

As for another Olympics?

“I can’t promise that … Tokyo 2020 is a lot,” Williams said on Japanese TV on Jan. 28 after winning the Australian Open, while knowing she was already, secretly, two months pregnant.

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Maria Sharapova could be left off Russia Olympic team, official says

Maria Sharapova
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Maria Sharapova doesn’t plan to play for Russia in Fed Cup against the Netherlands in the first week of February, which will jeopardize her Olympic chances.

“If she withdraws from playing with Netherlands and we lose the match she will not play at the Olympics,” Russian tennis federation boss Shamil Tarpishchev said, according to Agence France-Presse, citing comments in Russian to news agency TASS.

Sharapova must be part of a Fed Cup team one more time to be eligible for the Rio Games.

Sharapova was named to Russia’s initial team last week for its Fed Cup date with the Netherlands in Moscow from Feb. 6-7. Russia will be heavily favored to advance, since it has seven players ranked in the top 91. The Netherlands’ best player is ranked No. 95.

Sharapova, who lost to Serena Williams in the 2012 Olympic final and again in the Australian Open quarterfinals Tuesday, said after her latest match that she doesn’t plan to play again until March due to a forearm injury that she’s dealt with since before last week’s Fed Cup announcement.

“I’m going to go and take care of my forearm first,” she said Tuesday. “I think that’s really important. I’m going to go to Moscow [for Fed Cup], be part of the team. I don’t think I’ll be playing. Then I’m not sure.

“But I think this will be a time to just get myself ready for a long year. I don’t see myself playing anything before Indian Wells [in March].”

Regardless of if Russia wins or loses against the Netherlands, it will play Fed Cup again in April, but Tarpishchev said Sharapova’s Olympic eligibility will be tied to Russia winning in February.

“If Sharapova wants to compete at the Olympics she has to play for Russia in the Fed Cup,” Tarpishchev said, according to AFP. “That’s the rule, and she needs either to play against Netherlands or in Russia’s next Fed Cup match if we manage to go through.”

The International Tennis Federation said Sharapova doesn’t need to play Fed Cup to be eligible, but she must be on the team.

“In order to complete her eligibility for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Maria Sharapova must be part of the final nominated Russian team,” an ITF official said in an email. “She does not need to contest a rubber, however she must be present at the tie. If she chooses not to join the team for the first round [against the Netherlands], she will have the opportunity to meet the Olympic criteria again in the semifinals and play-offs in April.”

Sharapova missed the 2008 Olympics due to a shoulder injury and the 2004 Olympics because she wasn’t ranked high enough when the Russian Olympic team was determined, before she won her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon that year.

She carried the Russian flag at the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony and was among the final torch bearers at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Opening Ceremony.

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NBC Olympics producer Dan Levinsohn contributed to this report.