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Serena Williams
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Serena ready to reclaim top billing

The two-time champion has Sharapova and Co in her sights, and at last a clean bill of health.

 

While Justine Henin and Amélie Mauresmo were battling it out down by a breezy seaside in the Eastbourne final yesterday, the other two favourites for the Wimbledon women's title, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, were completing at leisure their preparations at the All England Club.

Whether it is better to be getting serious matches under your skirt at this stage or to be taking it comparatively easy practising before the Big W's curtain rises tomorrow is debatable, but Serena is in no doubt. Let them charge about in Eastbourne if they want to, was her take on it, but leave me out.

"I've never played a warm-up tournament before Wimbledon," said the woman who won here in 2002 and again the following year, lost to Sharapova in the 2004 final and did not play last summer because of injury. "This is, I think, the best route for me. Anyway, it rains a lot in Eastbourne, I'm glad they're duking it out over there."

These days Serena does not play a lot anywhere, but still seems to represent as big a threat as anyone when the majors come around. Playing only 16 matches in an injury-plagued 2006 season nearly cost her a place in the top 100.

Marching into January's Australian Open short of practice and bearing a ranking of 81, she claimed her eighth - and most surprising - Grand Slam by destroying Sharapova in the final.

After winning her "home" event in Miami in March, the younger Williams deemed two clay events, in Charleston and Rome, sufficient preparation for the French Open, only to exit in the quarter-finals to the eventual champion Henin.

She calls her display that day "horrendous, outrageously absurd" and promised: "That's not gonna happen again. I'm not gonna go out without a fight. If I do go out, it's going to be with a punch, with a bang."

The top-seeded Henin, once more her prospective quarter-final opponent, is hereby warned. Though seeded seventh, Serena is the bookies' choice for Wimbledon at 3-1, just ahead of Henin at 10-3. Quite right, she said yesterday: "I believe I'm definitely the best player in the world if I'm playing well, it's hard for anyone to beat me. It's not even a belief, it's more of a fact. I think a lot of people understand that. I don't think anyone that has to play me goes home and shouts with joy.

"The best Serena always shows up for any event whenever I'm healthy. For me, it's always been about being healthy. I'm feeling pretty healthy now." While sharing Serena's opinion about the wisdom of giving Eastbourne a miss, Sharapova is not able to talk so positively about health on Wimbledon's eve because of the shoulder injury which has hampered her all this year. "It's still not exactly where I want it to be. Some days are better than others, but in the last few weeks I've been able to play good and steady," she said.

If Sharapova is to win Wimbledon again the chances are that she must remove both Williamses from her path, though any Serena clash would not come before the final. She has lost twice to Serena this year, both times badly, but insisted: "I'm looking forward to the challenge of changing that."

Perhaps that is because her triumph at the age of 17 in 2004 means that Wimbledon remains special. "It's amazing," she said. "I get goosebumps every time I drive through the village, whenever I see my name on the board, by the trophies. It's an incredible feeling, a bit surreal because I feel like it happened so long ago.

"When I do see my name it's a bit of a reality check, like, yes, that really did happen. Every year I get my member's badge, it's really special because I don't think about those things on a daily basis - wow, I'm a Wimbledon champion.

"No one can take that away from me. Twenty years from now I can walk around the members' area and still see my name there on that trophy."

To see her name up there again, Sharapova reckons Serena will prove the main obstacle - "she's physically one of the strongest" - but praises Henin as "probably the most consistent player this year, as well as last". And a winner at Eastbourne yesterday, too.

ONES TO AVOID: DANGEROUS FLOATERS LURKING IN DRAW

David Nalbandian (Argentina)

In his first appearance on grass five years ago he reached the Wimbledon final, where he lost to Lleyton Hewitt. He was also a quarter-finalist two years ago. He is that South American rarity - good on grass.

Max Mirnyi (Belarus)

Top-level skills in doubles tandem with Jonas Bjorkman mean he is adept at working close to the net. For the last two years, he has reached Wimbledon's last 16. The 6ft 5in "Beast of Belarus" will be confident.

Dinara Safina (Russia)

A six-footer, so she hardly fits the bill of a little sister, but Safina is currently enjoying more success than her better-known brother - Marat Safin - and she has gained top-10 status this year.

Tatiana Golovin (France)

Golovin's family moved from Moscow to France when she was just eight months old, otherwise she would be another of the seemingly endless Russian brigade rather than a French hope who is now at a career-high world ranking of 17th.

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Serena advances after slow start

Serena Williams

Serena Williams recovered from an awful start to her French Open campaign to beat Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova.

The Australian Open champion made 26 errors in the first set and 19-year-old Pironkova emerged from a six-hour rain delay to clinch it.

But Williams suddenly found her form and reeled off nine games in a row before triumphing 5-7 6-1 6-1.

Williams is in the same quarter of the draw as Justine Henin, a 6-4 6-3 winner over Russian Elena Vesnina on day one.

"The conditions were difficult," Williams said. "The rain really slows the court down.

"I was already coming back when there was the break and there's no way I wouldn't have gone to at least three sets.

"I'm a fighter. I've never lost in the first round of a Grand Slam and I didn't want that to change.

"I was also feeling that if I went down, there was a 99.9% chance she would lose in the next round.

"That helped me keep fighting. I couldn't lose on the Sunday, no way."

Henin, the defending champion, meets Austria's Tamira Paszek in the next round while Williams awaits the winner of a first-round match between France's Virginie Razzano and Milagros Sequera of Venezuela.

Paszek thrashed Japan's Aiko Nakamura 6-4 6-0 while the only other women's match to be completed on day one was tenth seed Dinara Safina's 7-5 6-4 win over Ukraine's Yuliana Fedak.

Venus Williams, Jelena Jankovic and Nicole Vaidisova are all due to play on Monday, but more rain is forecast.

Serena's passion still burns bright



 

Serena Williams does not want to die. Not again, anyway. It was a distressing experience, and not one she would like to repeat in a hurry.

 
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Sparkling return: Serena Williams' form has silenced all the critics

"A plane crashed into a building I was in and I ended up dying. It was pretty sad. It upset me when I watched it. I thought: 'I don't want to die any more'. I thought it would be cool but it made me realise dying isn't all it's cracked up to be, especially as I could see the effect it had on other people." She died exquisitely - "I thought it was one of my better roles" - during an episode of American hospital drama ER last year. There was a lot of screaming, hysterics and blood, which is pretty familiar territory to those who know their women's tennis. Only this week, Serena Williams, in her other guise as tennis superstar, was in trouble for venting her frustration in Rome on a tennis ball which almost caused bodily harm to a line judge.

She promptly disarmed her critics with a fulsome confession. "Thank God, I didn't hit her. I felt so bad. I think I need to go to anger-management classes." This, while nursing another deep controversy that fascinated the Italian press: having her hair cut short. A sort of Posh-esque bob dyed black. She calls it her "rebel look".

Nothing could be more appropriate because, in 2007, the younger of the terrorising Williams sisters has taken a sledgehammer to the accepted wisdom that her love of tennis is cooling. No such thing. She won the Australian Open in January, crushing Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-2 in a final that lasted only 63 minutes. She swept the benighted Russian aside again 6-1, 6-1 in the quarter-finals of the Sony Ericsson Open in Florida. By coincidence, Sharapova has not been seen since. To the imperious former No 1, this is clearly worse for her image than when the news broke at Wimbledon that she was a stamp collector.

Meanwhile, Williams was starring in her own reality Rocky movie. Down 0-6 in the first set to Justin Henin in the final, Serena fought back like a racket-wielding tigress, staving off two match points and ultimately winning 0-6, 7-5, 6-3. "Even though I was down, I was never out. I kept fighting. It was important not to surrender. I never threw up the white flag." Those are trademark sentences from the woman who owns eight grand slam singles titles. So is "Uh-huh" when she is far from taken by your line of questioning. Like her groundstrokes, her monosyllables can pack pure menace. You have to be on your guard. One, for disapproval and two, for concussion by earring when she kisses you hello. The Williams sisters have always gone the route of major jewellery. The earrings in Rome looked like something Claudius might have presented to his favourite gladiators.

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For all her new poise, results and maturity, there is something still a little nutty about Serena. She is the first to admit it. "Mmmm, I'm actually still really bouncy. I've just been playing video games in my room that I'm obsessed with. A tennis game. I play games all day and night. Old arcade games. I watch a lot of animation programmes. I'm a big kid, really. I just put on a show." The show has been running for some time. It is 12 years since she turned professional at the age of 14, trying to catch up with her bigger sister, Venus, and the plot lines have been scarcely credible, featuring tragedy, comedy, world dominance and owning a dog with anorexia. This last may not be entirely true, but it is her only explanation for the slenderness of the Jack Russell, Jackie, with whom she shares her travels. (Note to police: she is not bringing Jackie to Wimbledon. No arrest necessary.)

She was in Rome for the Italian Open. where she lost yesterday to Patty Schnyder - only her third defeat this year. But it may be a blip, not a change of tack. She is still on course for the French Open, which she won in 2002. Those were the days of her apparent invulnerability. Her role model was less Chris Evert than Thor. By January 2003 she held the four grand slam titles simultaneously. Then ennui and acting appeared to set in. She suffered chronic problems with her left knee and would disappear from the scene for months on end, only to pop up in a soap opera on TV. She would make comebacks, win the Australian Open and then disappear again. Last year, she missed Wimbledon and dropped out of the top 100 for the first time in a decade.

Game over, it was assumed. The assumption was wrong. Her career didn't die, it was just on pause. This is a rehabilitation, not a resurrection. After dabbling in many different fields, it is as though the youngest Williams has decided she likes tennis best, after all. Most notably, the feeling of destroying the opposition.

Serena reaches Rome quarter-final
 
Serena Williams
Williams has had the better of Peer three times this season
Serena Williams reached the last eight of the Italian Open with a 6-3 6-3 win over Shahar Peer, the third time she has beaten the Israeli this season.

Williams, who also beat her in Miami and Australia, now faces Patty Schnyder who beat Samantha Stosur 6-4 6-4.

Williams's win began with five breaks of serve in a row before a marathon final point finally earned her victory.

"It wasn't as easy as I expected. We had a lot of deuces and the last point was really long," said Williams.

"This was a good test, she gets a lot of balls back and plays well on clay. It was a good match for me."

Jelena Jankovic survived being broken three times in the second set for a 6-4 7-5 win over Alona Bondarenko.

Her next opponent will be Elena Dementieva, who earned her last eight spot when opponent Nadia Petrova was forced out with a back injury when trailing 4-3.

Petrova, who injured herself in training, said: "It had been getting better, but when I ran for a wide ball I felt a sharp pain. It just kept getting worse."

Daniela Hantuchova beat Russian seventh seed Anna Chakvetadze 6-2 6-3 while last year's runner-up Dinara Safina beat Kateryna Bondarenko 6-2 6-3, to set up a last-eight match with Svetlana Kuznetsova.

The second seed had to work harder than she would have expected as she beat Yulina Fedak 7-6 6-1.

Kuznetsova is the highest-ranking player left in the tournament after the elimination of top seed Amelie Mauresmo.

But she twice failed to serve out for the first set and was 4-1 down to the world number 138 in the tiebreak before recovering and breezing through the second set.