TIMES NEWS NETWORK
[ SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2006 01:47:30 AM]
Commentators often remind us that “being hungry” is fundamental to success, though in all probability they were not re-ferring to the same desire that has you reaching for the handle on the fridge. Serena Williams seems to have messed up on that fundamental.
She no longer gets out of bed being the best at what she does best — playing tennis. She wakes up in an alien world, where for the first time in eight years, Serena finds herself ranked out of the Top 20.
Languishing at 37, the former world champion is today an over-weight, distant version of the champion who was ruthless on the tennis court, who used to smack winners at will as she defended the baseline with the grace of a panther and the speed of a gazelle.
After recording her first career-loss to Daniela Hantochova in the third round of the Australian Open, Serena’s ranking has plummeted to five places below our own Sania Mirza - not necessarily an indicator of Sania’s phenomenal growth but a pointer to the sad and steady decline of a world class athlete.
Since winning at Melbourne in 2005, Serena hasn't reached another final, and in her last three Grand Slam events, she has struggled to progress beyond the fourth round. Her 2005 Australian Open victory is beginning to look more like an irregularity now instead of a precursor to another dominant phase.
The signs of decline have been there but we just dismissed them hoping she would come back, like she always does. Serena’s success has been as much the result of her power game as of her iron will. She has always believed that she could beat anyone, anywhere, anytime and for years, she did that.
On her own terms.That Friday three weeks, when Hantuchova took the lead, Serena appeared unusually at peace with the result. “I was really calm,” was her muted reaction. The criticism wasn’t.
The sharp-tongued Nick Bollettieri wrote: “You are not physically fit, and you no longer control the centre of the court. I can’t help but believe something is lost.” Is Serena disturbed by the fact that she's not even in the Top 10?
As an athlete, it would be impossible for her not to flinch everytime she saw her name below players that were till last year, easy pickings for her. Perhaps Serena is growing accustomed to the prospect of a life beyond tennis.
In the past couple of years, tennis has had to fight for space with her fashion aspirations and television commitments. Less than fit for the rigours of the WTA Tour, injuries, new and recurrent, kept her off the court but not out of the news. She found time to design clothes and earrings and star in every popular American soap. Pity, she forgot about tennis.
At the US Open last year, she appeared to be more concerned with having the bling than the game. Even in Melbourne, Serena was more into shopping than training. Over-weight and rusty, the younger Williams sibling opted to spending her time and money in the Wayne Cooper boutique trying on couture dresses and sunglasses.
Also, the pressure of being the highest paid woman athlete after the deal with Nike might have been too much to handle.Maybe it’s just a passing phase and some day, not too far from today, Serena Williams will dominate the game. The skills are there, only the will is missing.
From knocking ratty, old balls against a concrete wall in Compton, Serena made it to world champion. Surely she can conquer 36 ranking spots to become a tennis diva again.