Two Roads: Sharapova, Serena prep for Australia
By Bill Scott
PERTH, Australia—After winning the Australian Open a year ago from a standing start, with her fitness and dedication under fire from all corners, Serena Williams has been aiming to silence doubts before they begin in 2008.
Almost 12 months ago, the American managed to earn her eighth Grand Slam title, triumphing at Melbourne Park over Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-2 while in what many considered the worst physical shape of her career.
This year, a noticeably more svelte Williams arrived Down Under last week for the Hopman Cup in Perth. She ended the tune-up week by maintaining her unbeaten record in singles at the event and getting a good look at what challenges await her in the fast-approaching Melbourne title defense.
Williams had planned to arrive early in Australia – a scenario delayed by 48 hours as she recovered from a virus at home in bed around Christmas. But once on the ground, she made up for lost time, beating Alicia Molik and earning a walkover as Jelen Jankovic fell victim to injury in the group stages of the eight-nation, mixed team competition.
While Williams was fine-tuning in the Australian heat and humidity, the now LA-based Sharapova was implementing the opposite geographic strategy. Instead of firming up her game at one of the Aussie events which dot the competitive calendar in January, the Russian began her preparation in Asia.
The eminently-marketable Sharapova found herself greeted as royalty in fashionable Singapore, where she spent a weekend for an exhibition against fellow Russian Anna Chakvetadze after Christmas.
In the city-state that rivals Shanghai and Hong Kong in food, fashion and lifestyle, Sharapova's every move was documented, her hotel towels were auctioned to eager fans and the sport received a boost ahead of the new WTA event that will take place in the metropolis in October, 2009.
Sharapova managed to divert the glare of publicity away from herself long enough to put in the hard yards on court before moving onto Hong Kong for an elite New Year's week exhibition featuring the likes of Venus Williams and Ana Ivanovic.
"I have to take every single match seriously, it's my only preparation for the Australian Open," said the Russian midway through here well-rewarded Asian swing.
Though she ultimately lost in the final to Venus Williams at Victoria Park, Sharapova said she was happy with her preparation going into the Australian Open. "I've had one of the best off-seasons of my career," she said during the event. "I've been able to hit some good shots and to serve my way out of trouble."
Sharapova and Serena Williams, the 2007 Melbourne finalists, will find out soon enough which approach yields the most success.
Williams, whose last match of 2007 went for just one set before she retired with knee problems against Chakvetadze at the November WTA championships in Madrid, said she has made the effort this year to build up her form during the short winter break.
"I've been practicing more than normal – that's a good thing. I just want to try and keep my rhythm, I don't want to lose it. And I don't want to work so hard, I love to breeze through the early rounds of any tournament."
Her ranking back up to seventh after winning Australia 2007 standing in the 80s, Williams refused to be drawn on what may have motivated her during this off-season.
"I don't know when I made the decision, I just know that I wanted to keep working. I also wanted a vacation, but it's hard to be a tennis player and take a vacation."
She rates her current confidence as off the charts: "I'm more confident now than 12 months ago, I had put a lot of pressure on myself. Now I'm relaxed."
The stint in Asia gives Sharapova only a week to get acclimated to the new Australian Open tennis surface which replaced Rebound Ace, the less rubbery and hopefully less grippy Plexicushion.
The courts were installed for all Aussie summer events and have been getting mixed reviews from players, many of whom say it's not as fast as they would have thought.
This week, the Russian will be finding out for herself. "I heard it's going to be a faster surface and I also heard that it's not going to be as sticky. That's beneficial for all players especially in extreme heat. The court gets very sticky and a lot of injuries can occur.
"I'm very excited about it."