Serena Williams Acknowledges a Decline
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY
Published: January 14, 2007
MELBOURNE, Australia, Jan. 13 — It was another long and eventful off-season for Serena Williams, who made her first visits to Africa and a Florida courtroom.
she still wanted to be a tennis player. On Saturday, with a warm wind swirling and the stands in Margaret Court Arena nearly empty, Williams grunted and threw her heavy frame into forehands and backhands during practice, trying to make up for lost months and matches before the Australian Open begins Monday.
There is much work to be done.
Melbourne is where Williams once dominated; the city where she beat her sister Venus in the 2003 final to win her fourth consecutive Grand Slam singles title; the place where she relied on her trademark combativeness to take the title in 2005.
But since then, she has not come close to winning another tournament, not even last week’s minor event just across the Bass Strait in Hobart, Tasmania, where she returned after a four-month absence from the sport and lost in the quarterfinals to the unheralded Sybille Bammer of Austria. After watching Williams, 25, huff through Saturday’s blustery practice session in the Australian summer heat, it required a J. K. Rowling-sized imagination to envision her winning this tournament.
“She’s rusty,” said Oracene Price, her mother and coach.
That was no surprise, considering that Williams played only five tournaments in the past year and was now ranked 81st in the world. But what was more surprising, despite her repeated declarations that she was eager to return to the highest level, was that she was still well over her ideal playing weight and looked heavier than when she reached the fourth round at the United States Open with an ailing knee last September.
Asked Saturday if she was satisfied with her physical conditioning, Williams answered, “Yeah, I’ve been doing a lot better.”
But movement, particularly the lateral movement that once defined her, was clearly a challenge during a practice session.
“What she did before the season I couldn’t tell you, because I wasn’t in Florida,” Price said. “But when I look at her, I don’t know. I have my doubts.”
“The level is there, because even when she’s not in the best of shape, she really gives people a hard time,” Price added. “So she has to get in the best of shape.”
Williams has a difficult draw here. She faces 27th-seeded Mara Santangelo of Italy in the first round, and Nadia Petrova and Jelena Jankovic are also in her eighth of the draw. But Williams was in an upbeat, sometimes reflective mood Saturday as she discussed her off-season burdens and delights.
The biggest burden was the lawsuit filed against her, Venus and their father, Richard Williams, for breach of contract by two would-be promoters of a “Battle of the Sexes” match that never occurred. The trial, not the kind of court time that the Williams sisters had in mind, lasted more than five weeks and ended Dec. 21 with a jury in Palm Beach County, Fla., awarding no money to the promoters despite finding that Richard Williams had breached a contract and committed fraud.
“It was very difficult to say the least,” Serena Williams said of the trial. “Some days you can get upset and be very discouraged. At this point, I was just excited to be able to make it all the way here after such a strenuous off-season mentally.”
But Williams said she did take enormous pleasure in her 10-day visit to Senegal and Ghana in West Africa in November. She gave tennis clinics, participated in an immunization campaign and toured schools.
“I felt I was finally able to go home, if that makes any sense,” she said of her first visit to Africa. “I just felt real comfortable there.”
Williams said she intended to finance the building of a school in Senegal on a plot of land that was given to her during her visit by Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade.
Serena made the trip to Africa with Price and two of her sisters but not with Venus, 26, who was recovering from a left wrist injury that had restricted her to one tournament in the past six months and forced her to miss the past two Grand Slam events. Venus had hoped to play here, but withdrew last week.
“It was disappointing, but it’s never like the doctors say,” Price said. “I don’t know what they do to those football players when they go in. Do they just shoot them up with painkillers or something?”
Price and Serena expressed confidence that Venus would return soon with the wrist problem resolved. “It’s fixed,” said Price, who declined to confirm whether Venus had had surgery to repair the problem
With Venus and Serena unavailable for much of the past year and with a pregnant Lindsay Davenport taking what is probably a permanent break from the game, American women’s tennis is at a historic low. For the first time, no American woman is seeded at the Australian Open, all the more remarkable considering that there are 32 seedings instead of the once-traditional 16.
“It’s all my fault, I guess,” Serena Williams said. “I should have been a little more serious. But it won’t happen again, at least as long as I’m playing.”
Williams agreed that the current situation felt unnatural coming after a six-year stretch when she, Venus, Davenport and Jennifer Capriati all reached No. 1 in the rankings. “You would think someone would have been like, ‘Oh, I want to be like Jennifer’ or, ‘I want to be like Venus,’ and would have a more promising career than what they’ve had already,” Williams said. “I’m sure someone somewhere is always working hard. I just don’t know where.”