MONTREAL – Venus Williams loved her Québec experience so much, she's coming back next month.
Given the tennis star's spotty attendance record here - actually, it was downright horrible until this week – Quebec City tennis fans might want to keep a lid on their excitement until she actually checks into the Château Frontenac.
But the Rogers Cup finalist confirmed on Sunday that she indeed plans to compete in the Coupe Banque Nationale, a lower-tier WTA International event. The tournament itself has yet to announce it formally.
Tournament president Claude Rousseau told La Presse: "We're honoured to welcome her in Quebec. We've invited her the last four years and she accepted a month ago."
That's actually a pretty interesting little factoid, that Williams committed to the tournament long before she ever set foot on Québec soil for the first time and put forth her candidacy as an honorary québécoise after the city of Montreal welcomed her with open arms. They certainly kept it impressively under wraps.
Tournament director Jack Hérisset seemed to have a different take. He told Le Soleil:
"We began discussions with Venus with the aim of familiarizing her with the city of Quebec. Then we began negotiations," Hérisset said, who added the negotiations were going well and he was eager to know what her decision would be. "We certainly didn't expect that Venus would announce she's coming to Québec at her Montreal press conference. We thought we would get news via her agent. For us, it's simply extraordinary to know she'll be there," Hérisset told Le Soleil.
It's a small event, albeit run with major-league panache. To give you an idea, Venus earned $214,000 U.S. for reaching the Rogers Cup final. The entire prize purse for the Coupe Banque Nationale (recently renamed after being the Challenge Bell for years) is ... $250,000 U.S.
It takes place immediately after the U.S. Open from Sept. 9-15, the same week as the Canadian men travel to Halifax, N.S. to play Davis Cup against Colombia.
She seemed to be quite excited about it Sunday.
"I am coming back to Québec. I'm so excited. Right after the Open. This has been a year where I've, like, been doing things that I've never done before, which is coming to Montréal, coming to Québec. I'm excited about that," she said. "What's great about that tournament is it's the first place Serena ever played a professional match. It will be nice to go back to that, experience the things she experienced. I would love to continue my winning ways in Canada, in Québec, so I'm looking forward to it."
She's right about that. Do you think her sister might want to tag along, for old times' sake?
It was early November, 1995, and Serena had just turned 14. She had no ranking, and was wild-carded into the qualifying where she met the immortal Annie Miller, a 18-year-old ranked No. 149 at the time who reached a career high of No. 40 about three years later.
Serena lost, 6-1, 6-1 and earned an impressive $240 for the effort – which probably is a lot for the average just-turned-14-year-old, when you think about it. She didn't play singles again until nearly a year and a half later, in the qualifying (ironically enough), at Indian Wells.
You wonder whether Miller remembers it.
The Quebec City event has had the occasional big star pop in. There is usually one top-25 type player in the field; last year, Lucie Safarova won it.
In 2007, Lindsay Davenport and her then baby son (she added a few more to the brood after that) made it a family trip. She was ranked No. 124 at the time, and it was just her third tournament back after about a year off. It was a big deal, and they rolled out the red carpet for her – as Quebec City does so well.
Davenport won it, and said at the time she absolutely loved every minute of it. But it was hardly a cakewalk. She defeated a young Angelique Kerber in the first round, then Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak, and Vera Zvonareva in the semifinals.
In recent years, getting name players has been more of a struggle, one reason the tournament date changed from the first week in November to the week right after the U.S. Open.
Until now, the top player on the Quebec City entry list was American Madison Keys, followed by Ajla Tomljanovic and Kristina Mladenovic.
It was decided awhile back that the big local star, Genie Bouchard, was going to skip it. Her agent Sam Duvall told Eh Game that it was felt she had played enough in Canada this year, and she was going to head off to the Asian fall circuit.
At this point, though, Bouchard's name doesn't appear on the entry lists of any tournaments through the third week of September. Bouchard was a semi-finalist in Quebec City and a quarter-finalist in Tokyo a year ago. But her ranking was around No. 50 then. The Beijing Open, a Premer event, takes place the last week of September.
Rousseau told La Presse that they were keeping a wild card available for Bouchard.