2 Jan 2017

Williams sisters set to light up ASB Classic

10:10 am on 2 January 2017

Auckland's festival of tennis starts off with a bang today when arguably the best player of all time takes center court.

Serena Williams

Serena Williams Photo: PHOTOSPORT / 123RF

Serena Williams, the biggest name in women's tennis with 22 individual grand slam titles, is in the country for the ASB Classic along with big sister Venus and fellow superstar Caroline Wozniacki.

There have only ever been 22 world number ones in women's professional tennis, five of those are still playing and three of them will star in the Auckland tournament.

However, the field will not feature defending champion, American Sloane Stephens, due to a foot injury while former world number one Ana Ivanovic pulled out at the last minute after announcing her retirement.

That said, ASB Classic tournament director Karl Budge expects it to be a successful week with world number two Serena Williams in the country for the first time.

"We see the very competitive, hard edged player that you see on center court, we seem to admire that in our rugby players and Serena's no different.

"Off the court she couldn't be more different, she's very lightly hearted, she's a lot of fun, she's pretty quick to poke the piss out herself. She's a great girl," Budge said.

While most of the pre-tournament talk has been about Williams, Serena herself has remained quiet.

She's pulled out of two scheduled media sessions in the lead up to the event - something that rarely happens.

The 35-year-old got engaged just before coming out to New Zealand and has kept a low profile while here.

Venus Williams 16x10

Venus Williams 16x10 Photo: Photosport

Her big sister Venus however is more open.

This will be Venus's fourth ASB Classic and while she considers herself an honorary New Zealander, she's jealous of the welcome Serena's received.

"Actually she's probably going to show me things to do because she got to do things that I haven't got to do yet so she's more Kiwi than me," the older Williams said.

The sisters did share one experience before the tournament, pairing off with All Black brothers Julian and Ardie Savea in a charity match for the Kaikōura earthquake fund.

Over $65,000 was raised on New Year's Day as fans packed out the ASB Tennis Arena to catch a rare glimpse of top athletes from different sports coming together.

Venus admitted she didn't know much about rugby - but Julian and Ardie said they had always admired the Williams sisters.

The Saveas certainly didn't pose a threat to the Williams' winning record, both looked out of their depth but enjoyed the exhibition match.

All Black Ardie Savea and Venus Williams played a charity match with their siblings to raise money for the Kaikōura earthquake fund in Auckland.

All Black Ardie Savea and Venus Williams played a charity match with their siblings to raise money for the Kaikōura earthquake fund in Auckland. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Ardie Savea said it was a surreal experience.

"We were saying to each other it was more nerve wracking waiting to go out there than it was a Test match.

"Once we got out there and got to rub shoulders with the sisters it was quite relaxing and we just enjoyed ourselves," Ardie Savea said.

Also taking part in the fund-raiser were New Zealand's two professionals playing in the tournament - Marina Erakovic and 18-year-old Jade Lewis.

The ASB Classic will be Lewis' first professional event and she faces Venus Williams in the first round tomorrow.

Lewis said she didn't pick up many weaknesses in Venus's game given it was just a friendly but playing on the same court as two of her idols was a dream come true.

"It was pretty cool, I mean obviously they're very experienced and great players. It was for the charity and I think it was a really good thing to do," Lewis said.

Lewis will have to wait until tomorrow to face Venus again but Serena, the hot favourite to take out the tournament, will be in action at 6.30 this evening.