Italian Open 2003
May 14, 2003
Williams firmly focused on more grand-slam glory
By Neil Harman, Tennis Correspondent in Rome
SERENA WILLIAMS says that she is getting antsy. The French Open and Wimbledon are sweeping inexorably into view, two of the four championships she owns, tennis gems that sparkle as vividly as the encrusted jewel holding her pigtail in place. There are few better cities than this for the shopaholic with millions in the bank but Serena is focused on the six weeks that can further endorse her position among the true greats of sport.
The Italian Championships have a certain allure (the Via Condotti makes Oxford Street look decidedly shabby) but, in truth, they are a stepping stone to the grottoes filled with bounty in Paris and London that she has raided with rapacious vigour in the past year. The 21-year-old, the younger of the Williams brood that has changed the character of women’s tennis, takes a moment, leans back on her left hand and ponders the greatness of her achievements.
“You know, I was practising the other day and hit a bad shot and it suddenly crossed my mind what I have done, so I said to myself: ‘Serena, you have won four grand-slams in a row, you shouldn’t be so angry.’ It is quite an amazing feat, an historic thing, especially being so young. I’m No 1 in the world, I have these titles. I couldn’t be happier with what I am. It’s pretty cool.
“I had always wanted to win Wimbledon since I started to hit tennis balls and the atmosphere there is so amazing, but it all started at the French Open. For me that was huge. Everyone said neither Venus nor I could win on clay, we weren’t that good on it. It had also been three years since I had won the US Open and I was beginning to wonder.”
Since that May afternoon at Roland Garros, all the doubts have flown away, like tree pollen on a sudden breeze. Serena stands in colossal command of women’s tennis and if she paused to look at the magnificent statues surrounding the Pallacorda court here — built as monuments to the might of man — she might wonder if someone will one day sculpt a physique that reflects her dominance of the women’s game.
Only once in 24 matches this year has she lost — to Justine Henin-Hardenne, of Belgium, in Charleston last month — otherwise 2003 has been a spotless vindication of the poise that underpinned her breathtaking successes last year. There were patchy periods in her 6-4, 6-3 victory over Klara Koukalova, of the Czech Republic, in the first round of the Tennis Italia Masters yesterday (at one stage she lost nine points in a row) but there never seemed a shred of doubt that she would pull through.
It is what makes Williams so special. Of the recent standard-bearers, Martina Navratilova intimidated opponents on grass because so few felt that they could beat her on it, Steffi Graf was an irresistible power on clay, Billie Jean King wore her opponents down through sheer force of will.
Williams has a bit of each, plus a physique that thunders authority. “I am able to fight a little bit harder, work a little bit harder in any conditions and that’s what makes the difference,” she said. “My confidence is high as well. If there is one thing that counts against me it is that I am such a perfectionist in everything I do. Everything has to be absolutely right and it can’t always be that way. I feel like I’m really, really ready for the next six weeks. I’m ready now. I just have to make sure I don’t get overly anxious to get the jobs done I want to do, because then I would lose the focus I need to have.”
There was a perception that she had shed a couple of pounds since the spring. “Oh, really, you think so, great,” she said, the child in her still beating strong. “To be honest I haven’t stepped on scales for at least six years but I have been watching what I eat. I don’t take meat any more, I’m not ready for that ‘mad cow’ disease.”
When Richard, her father, flew into print recently, insisting that his two champion daughters — we should not forget that Serena has beaten Venus in the past four grand-slam championship finals — can win anything for as long as they please, one wonders if Serena blanches or simply finds it fun when the old man lets off steam.
“Everybody is playing better, you had better believe that,” she said. “Venus and I have raised the bar. Without us, the sport would not have been as competitive as it is now. There are some girls I played when I first came on to the tour who have improved incredibly. They are all much faster. We cannot rest.
“Actually, Venus loves the sport a lot more than I do. She was telling me the other day that she will probably play into the thirties and I thought ‘Oh, wow’. I’d be pretty surprised if she did, but she really enjoys the work that goes into it. More than I do, I think.”
And, inevitably, as she heads to Roland Garros and Wimbledon, the two grand-slam events that do not offer equal prize-money, the opinions of their champion are fascinating to hear and will be received with great interest — and perhaps a touch of anxiety — by Tim Phillips, the Wimbledon chairman, and Christian Bimes, the president of the French federation. “You would never hear me say that a woman tennis player doesn’t deserve exactly what a man gets,” their leading lady said. “I definitely feel very strongly about it. It has to happen.”
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