Serena enters main stage underdone, but be wary
Comment by Leo Schlink
SERENA Williams has not lost a match at the Australian Open since 2001.
What she has lost in those five years is mobility because of severe knee and ankle problems, while at the same time, just as clearly, gaining weight.
The Women's Tennis Association media guide lists Williams' weight as 61kg.
The same publication also credits Kim Clijsters with four majors. The Belgian has only one singles slam to her name.
It simply goes to show everybody make mistakes.
Williams, 24, is the subject of fierce scrutiny because of her conditioning.
She has returned to Melbourne Park to defend the Australian Open title in less than ideal circumstances. A spate of ankle and knee complaints has left her shy of matchplay and below peak fitness.
On that score alone, Williams is in the best of company. Tennis has always had a glut of players with questionable athleticism.
The issue with Williams is extremely sensitive. Not just because of colour, or status.
It is because female players are attacked more often, and more ferociously, for perceived poor body shape more often than their male counterparts.
Over time, the men have largely escaped the scorn.
Remember burly Americans Fritz Buehning and Eric Korita? The lunch buffet was hardly safe.
Recall Marcelo Rios's paunch? It was always the subject of locker-room ridicule even when the moody Chilean was world No. 1.
Yugoslav Slobodan Zivojinovic was hardly svelte and still reached the Australian Open and Wimbledon semi-finals.
And what about reigning Tennis Masters Cup champion David Nalbandian? The Argentine probably doesn't have the best skinfold numbers.
But remember also the "Linebacker Lindsay" gibes current world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport had to endure?
South African talent Mariaan de Swardt was forever categorised on the basis of physique, while others such as Rosie Casals' achievements were usually obscured by comments about her weight.
The Williams story remains one of the most irresistible, inspiring and compelling in international sport.
A girl from the Californian badlands who grew into a beacon for minority groups by overcoming racism to reach the top of one of the most conservative sports in the world, Williams has achieved on a monumental scale.
Along the way there has been a string of challenges, none greater than that presented by the murder of her sister Yetunde in the Los Angeles slum the family had once fled. Now she is being gauged by a different measure.
The American will shrug off the issue publicly. Beneath the surface, she will be hurt. And justifiably.
Commentary on women's tennis reached its nadir at Wimbledon in 1992 when Dutchman Richard Krajicek said 80 per cent of women playing at the tournament were "fat, lazy pigs".
Not even his 1996 victory at the All England Club erased the remarks from memory.
Williams will not shy from confrontation. And she has shown in the past she is at her most dangerous when under attack.
Given her injuries and lack of matchplay, it will take a miracle for her to win the Open for a third time.
But beware. Williams has a lifetime habit of winning.
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