Serena still has No.1 ambition
Once a giant of the game, Serena Williams has returned to Australia to make the most of the latest withdrawal in women's tennis.
Just before Williams boarded a flight in Los Angeles, her latest successor as world No.1, Justine Henin-Hardenne, pulled out of the Australian Open for personal reasons, reported to be marriage difficulties.
Tournament withdrawals are something Williams, now ranked No.95, is all too familiar with, having played only four tournaments in a 2006 season marred by knee injuries and failing to make a final.
Williams, 25, flew into Hobart on Friday for this week's Moorilla Hobart International, a WTA tier-four level tournament, which she has rarely entered since she chased elder sister Venus all the way to the No.1 ranking in 2002.
The American practised indoors yesterday, accompanied by her mother and coach Oracene Price, because of steady rain in Hobart.
"I'm hitting the ball solid and I'm really excited about my form," Williams said after her first session.
Williams's status as a grand slam winner is reflected in her place on the seventh line of betting at $17 in a redrawn market for the Australian Open, now headed by Maria Sharapova at $3 and former world No.1 players Kim Clijsters and Amelie Mauresmo at $5.
Serana's sister Venus is $41, having missed the Hopman Cup with a recurrence of a wrist injury.
She appears odds-on to withdrawal from Melbourne Park this week, especially as she has not come to Hobart.
Serena Williams has not played in four months since the US Open, at which she spoke with what turned out to be empty words about her intention to play several tournaments in Europe before year's end to improve her ranking.
She also spoke about wanting to go to Africa "more than anything" so her non-appearance in Europe was hardly a surprise development.
It is two years since the flamboyant American quietened temporarily claims that she showed too little focus on her tennis at the expense of her television acting and fashion ventures by winning her seventh grand slam title at the 2005 Australian Open.
Since then she has played in five of the eight grand slam tournaments on offer, but not made the quarter-final in any of them.
"The only difference is I'm older and I'm more calm than I was. That's it," Williams said.
"I don't think lack of match play had anything to do with it (her record in 2006) too much.
"I, at best, had a mediocre time."
In a rare moment of revelation, Williams said that her knee had a one-hour limit in a match before it started hurting again and when she had a long first set in her fourth-round loss to dual major winner Amelie Mauresmo she "knew my US Open was done".
Her Hobart appearances will give a clue to how much training Williams has been able or willing to put into her body.
Williams said Andre Agassi's climb back from No.141 to No.1 in 1999 made her think a similar comeback was possible for her.
The difference is that a 30-something Agassi was willing to commit himself for years to the hardest training and dietary discipline of his life.
"Everyone has their ups and downs. Everyone's in and out of shape," Williams said.
Bright teen prospects such as world No.14 Ana Ivanovic, of Serbia, are too respectful of the Williams sisters' achievements to enter into debate about them.
"It's very hard to say (if they're finished) because they have had injuries the past couple of years," Ivanovic said last week. "They brought tennis to another level and played different tennis. It helped to improve the game."
"I dream of people watching me holding up my third Wimbledon trophy... Most of all I dream of being a good person to all that are inspired by me I dream of having girls, women, boys, men being fond of not only what I have done on the tennis court, or on the big screen or what I design but I dream of what people think of me as a person.
I dream that people think of me as a giving person as a person that
loves life and is fun to be around." - Serena
Official Princess off the Royal Court