Friday, November 02, 2012

'Thrilla' in Africa!: Williams Sisters Visit Nigeria

‘Thrilla’ in Africa!

Thursday, 01 November 2012 20:42
By Ayo Ositelu Sport
Nigerian Guardian

...As Serena faces Venus in today’s historic match

FOR the first time since February 1976, when the world’s very best male tennis professional players were in Lagos to participate in that year’s World Championship of Tennis (WCT) tour circuit, Nigeria (thanks to the yeomen’s job by the Connect Marketing Company), will today play host to two of the world’s greatest women ever to wield tennis racquets.

At the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club, Race-Course, Lagos today, the world famous Williams sisters take their storied sisterly rivalry to another level, after previously facing each other 23 times in their illustrious careers.

Thirty six years ago, African-American Arthur Ashe then world number two and reigning Wimbledon champion, and world number three fellow-American Stan Smith (1972 Wimbledon champion), led the finest male players on the planet, including Romania’s Ilie Nastase, the Netherlands’ Tom Okker, Australia’s former world number one John Newcombe, American Roscoe Tanner (the world’s fastest server at the time), Victor Amaya (former ‘Big Ten’ champion in the South West of the United States), etc. to contest the Lagos stop on the WCT tour schedule.

That was the first and major breakthrough of Nigeria’s hosting of international tennis tournaments. It was also the last, as the WCT was concerned about the future safety of the world’s best players, who were chased off the court (at the same Lagos Lawn Tennis Club) by gun-totting soldiers who took exception to an international competition going on at a time Nigeria was mourning the assassination of the Head of State, General Murtala Muhammed, in a bloody coup d’etat, which sad event occurred on the second day of the tournament.

As time has been known to heal all wounds, this is the first time in 36 years that the world’s best tennis players would show interest again in coming to play in Nigeria. This time, it was the women, the world’s very best, who ‘broke the mould’ in keeping with the theme of the organisers of the Williams Sisters visit “breaking the mould.”

To be sure, this is not the first time many an organization had tried to bring the Williams sisters who have always been keen to and use themselves as examples to demonstrate to youths in the developing world that, if they could make it to the top despite the hurdles and disadvantages stacked up against them, anyone can accomplish their dreams, with sheer dint of determination, hard work, and self-belief.

It is now common knowledge around the world that the Williams sisters’ seemingly miraculous accomplishments, since both were teenagers up till now, have continued to inspire youths in any country they have been privileged to visit.

To the sisters’ ever-growing fans in Nigeria, many of them through the social media as Serena informed during the world press conference held at the Federal Palace Hotel, Lagos however, watching the sisters rise to the pinnacle of the sport on Tv is one thing, being privileged to watch them live is another.

This is why you do not get a medal if you forecast that a record crowd would jam the Lord Rumens Centre Court of the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club to play a part in history when the sisters, both former world number ones, and still a handful for the world’s best ranked players, get to face-off one more time today.

Although today’s match is officially billed as an “Exhibition Match,” a very high-profile one at that, I have it on good authority that each champion has promised to play their best tennis, and that the match, which is not necessarily a grudge match, will surely be full of strokes of genius, which would remain in the memory and sub-conscious of the biggest crowd ever assembled to watch a tennis match in Nigeria.

Yes, “no one loves to see their children fight,” in the famous words of Richard Williams, the father of the sisters, and ‘poker-faced’ Oracene (their mom) who is in Nigeria with them, would certainly not show her preference of the winner between her two superstar daughters.

One thing is sure, either will be trying to win the latest match in their long and interesting rivalry, which has now shifted to Africa, hence the tag “Thrilla in Africa,” in line with legendary heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali’s famously-coined “Thrilla in Manila” back in 1975.

Neither will today’s match be a “Rumble in the Jungle,” but the best tennis you probably have ever seen will be on offer. Perhaps a little bit of family bragging rights too. After all, Serena has been severally quoted as saying, “I go into any match trying to win, sister or no sister.” But then, as she (Serena) herself confessed while answering one reporter’s question during Wednesday’s Press Conference at the Lagos Federal Palace Hotel, “It hurts deeply to see Venus lose any match. It gives me pain when she loses, and it always felt like it is me who lost such a match.”

Asked how many aces she expects to serve against “big sister” Venus today, Serena answered, “Venus is hard to ace.” Venus, on her part, remarked, “We know each other’s game so well. That may be why I do better against her than other players, but my sister is difficult to beat, even for me, her elder sister.” That is how much they love each other, and respect each other’s game.

Perhaps because both sisters were trained by the same person, (dad Richards), they have the same approach to the game, and for sure, nobody plays like them. They both try to take the initiative early to control the point, even when they are not serving. They return the opponent’s serve with such aggression and accuracy that the server is often forced to be on the defensive since the returned serve often returns with interest. This is why they believe they can break right back if even their serve is occasionally broken.

Take the Championship point of last week’s final of the season-ending WTA Championships in Istanbul, Turkey for example. Having lost the first set 6-4, and was serving to stay in the match trailing in the second set 3-5 and 15-40, Russia’s Maria Sharapova, in a match in which she had played well enough to defeat any player whose last name was not Williams, unleashed what was expected (by most) to be an ace, or at the least a crushing service winner against any other player (not Venus).

How did the point go? The returned serve from Serena down-the-line traveled so fast the Russian began to trot discouragingly to the net to shake her victorious opponent in obvious acceptance of defeat.

But need anyone remind the all-conquering Serena that Venus is a different ‘animal’ from Sharapova, if even the co-13 times Grand Slam Ladies Doubles champion has just won her first WTA tournament Singles title (in Luxembourg) in two long years.

Today na today, as they say. In today’s potentially entertaining encounter (their matches always are), the woman with the official fastest serve in history of the women’s game (Venus), is up against a woman who officially has served more aces than any woman, dead, or alive.

Don’t go anywhere! Lagos Lawn Tennis Club is the place to be.

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