Posted on Tue, Mar. 20, 2007
Serena not to be taken lightly
BY MICHELLE KAUFMAN
Many of the world's top tennis players were sweating it out at a tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., last week, all their attention focused between the baselines.
Not Serena Williams.
She spent last Monday in a fire suit, strapped into a NASCAR race car, sweating bullets as she sped 130 mph around Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., with actor William Shatner and singer Jewel for an upcoming reality TV show called Fast Cars andSuperstars.
Williams, always craving challenges, admitted this one was a bit more than she had bargained for.
''Scariest experience of my life,'' said Williams, reached by phone Saturday as she prepared for the Sony Ericsson Open, which begins today on Key Biscayne. 'All of a sudden, as I was racing around the turns, I was thinking, `This could kill me. I'm insane. What am I doing?' ''
Many tennis observers might be asking the same question of the former world No. 1. Why on earth would a woman coming off a stirring Australian Open title run divert her attention from tennis? Why wouldn't she devote every waking minute to the sport that made her famous, the sport she and her sister, Venus, so thoroughly dominated from 1999 to 2003?
Why would she choose not to play any tournaments between the Australian Open and this week?
Williams has her reasons, and she makes no apologies for dabbling in the entertainment and fashion worlds.
''I've been playing tennis since I was 4 years old, I'm a darned good player and I've always had outside interests,'' Williams said. ``If all I did was play tennis, I'd be burnt out by now and out of the game. I really believe that. It's not to say I don't work hard at tennis. It's a big misconception when people think I just show up out of shape and win. I work very, very hard, and I'm in better shape than people think I am.''
Williams said she was amused by TV coverage of her run at the Australian Open. She came in at No. 84, having played only four tournaments last year and dropped to No. 140, but she quieted the critics, brushing aside four top-20 players and obliterating then-No. 1 Maria Sharapova in the final 6-1, 6-2.
STUDENT OF THE GAME
Williams was so determined to win in Australia that she watched and dissected every match involving men's finalists Roger Federer and Fernando Gonzalez.
''I enjoyed how Fernando was playing, so aggressive with so few errors, and of course, I loved what Federer was doing, so I tried to pick up some pointers,'' she said. ``Can't say what they are, because my opponents might be reading this story.''
Williams has climbed to No. 18 heading into the Sony Ericsson Open, and firmly believes she will continue to rise in the rankings and strike fear into her opponents.
''Nobody thought I was in shape, and that worked in my favor,'' she said. 'I was watching an early match of mine on replay and the commentator was saying, `If this goes to three sets, Serena will be in trouble,' and I was actually feeling fine. I had trained hard, practiced a lot, and I knew I was ready, even though everyone underestimated me. But I don't care what the media or anyone else thinks.''
She said she no longer gets upset when people make remarks about her physique.
''I always wanted to look like Venus growing up, that tall, thin body that looks so good in all the clothes,'' Williams said. ``Sometimes I felt like I hated her because I wanted my body to look like hers, and I knew it couldn't because I'm built different. I have a big butt and big chest. As females, a lot of us go through that, to the point where people get eating disorders, but we have to learn to love who we are. Other people would tell me they love my body, but I didn't love it. I finally realized not everybody's Mary-Kate [Olsen], and I've been happier with myself.''
Williams is eager to keep her comeback going with a victory at the Crandon Park Tennis Center, where she has won three titles but hasn't played since 2005. If she doesn't win, then she will be rooting for Venus, who also is surging back up the rankings after an injury-filled 2006. Venus, now No. 39 in the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour rankings, is coming off a title at Memphis. The sisters are in the same quarter of the draw.
''We're trying to bring the title back home,'' Williams said. ``Venus and I have both had a lot of success there, and we're going in with a lot of potential. We're back, and we can't be counted out.''
And tennis certainly is more interesting when the Williams sisters are around.
''When Venus and Serena were around and playing each other in the finals, people complained it was boring, but the sport needs them right now,'' TV analyst Mary Carillo said. ``It was astonishing what Serena did in Australia. It was such a one-woman show. I don't know that I've ever seen such a dominating performance in a final. The ferocity in Serena's eyes, you just knew nobody was beating her that day. If she played like that all the time, she'd be Roger Federer.''
BATTLE TO BE WON
Said coach Nick Bolletieri, who has worked with Williams in the past year: ``Serena might have been a little out of shape, but she's a fighter, and that can make up for a lot of deficiencies. She played with a vengeance, with an inner spirit that was a joy to watch. I remember when Richard Williams first introduced me to his daughters. They were 9 and 10. He told me they would rewrite the books.''
And they still might.
''The hallmark of a champion is high quality consistently, fill the pail year after year,'' Carillo said. ``If Serena and Venus decided that's what they want to do, they will put marks on this sport. It's up to them.''