January 05, 2008 12:00am
NEVER let it be said that we don't listen to the readers around here.
This from the letters page during the week: "Last year the media gave Serena Williams a hard time about her appearance, yet this year she looks great and (surprise) there's little comment?
"No wonder females have body issues. How about reinforcing the positive for a change?"
Consider it done, Sofie Kowalinski, of Traralgon.
Yep, Serena is back - and looking trim, taut and terrific, too. Judging by her form at the Hopman Cup in Perth, she's playing accordingly, too.
This column tries hard to learn from its mistakes, so we'll be heading to the bookies, if that's not an offence in the current tennis climate, to have something on the American winning the Australian Open, which is just nine days away.
Last year we watched Serena - obviously overweight, unfit and coming off an injury-riddled year with a world ranking in the 80s - struggle through her first-round encounter against an ageing battler of no particular note, and declared her title chance "Mission Impossible''.
In fact, we wondered whether she might be washed up for good.
A fortnight later, Serena had done what champions love to do - proved all the critics, sceptics and knockers wrong - by winning the major for the third time; becoming only the second unseeded woman to win the Australian Open.
It was fascinating to watch Serena impose her will and unique aura on a string of bewildered opponents caught like rabbits in a spotlight, until she humiliated tournament favourite Maria Sharapova 6-1 6-2 in the final.
By all the normal dynamics that govern elite sport, Williams had no right to win the Open. But of course she and her sister, Venus, have always occupied a territory somewhere beyond normal, and their presence at any tournament is always a welcome bonus.
It means that the entertainment factor - both on court and in the media room, where their chat is as colourful as their clothes and their performance - is always enhanced.
Serena has put herself through a savage training routine and despite a recent stomach upset, she is fit and well. Her ranking is back to No. 7, and she has declared herself as ambitious as ever.
"Of course I want to be No. 1 and to win grand slams," she said in Perth. "I wouldn't be out here if I didn't have those goals."
This is great news for the Australian Open, which, as usual, has attracted virtually every player in the top 100 of both genders, and yet isn't exactly overflowing with tantalising story-lines.
Since the last Open, tennis has developed a significant image problem, largely due to persistent rumours of match-fixing.
Only this week, Martina Navratilova said the game was easily corruptible. John McEnroe has said he suspects the Russian mafia is involved in tennis.
Russian world No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko has been under investigation for months for allegedly tanking, and two Italians, Potito Starace and Daniele Bracciali, will miss the January 14-27 Open after being suspended for gambling on matches.
Australian authorities have deemed it necessary to form an anti-corruption commission that will work with the police.
We have also had German Tommy Haas claiming he might have been poisoned during a Davis Cup match in Russia, and Swiss Martina Hingis disappearing off the scene after being busted for cocaine at Wimbledon last year.
It adds up to a lurid backdrop to the first grand slam of 2008, and the focus urgently needs to return to the players.
That is just another reason why the new super-slimline Serena has been such a welcome sight.