Serena's hungry to get back on top
Recovered from injury, her aim is to be No. 1 again
After successful knee surgery last August, Serena Williams
will be driven in 2004 to reestablish herself as the most dominant
player in women's tennis, says Tracy Austin of NBCSports.com.
By Tracy Austin
Updated: 9:09 p.m. ET Dec. 30, 2003
The WTA tour will serve up great competition in 2004 as Belgians Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, each having risen to the top of the sport in 2003, battle for the No. 1 ranking against Serena and Venus Williams, the two most dominant players in women's tennis, both of whom are coming off injuries that sidelined them since last summer.
Serena did not play again after winning Wimbledon, for her second major of 2003 as she also captured the Australian Open.
A partial tear in the mid-portion of her quadriceps tendon of her left knee required surgery on Aug. 1.
Overall, Serena was 38-3 last season, but her injury wound up ending her 57-week reign as the world No. 1 when Clijsters claimed the top spot on Aug. 11 after she won a tournament in Los Angeles.
With Venus Williams also injured for the second half of 2003, Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne eclipsed the Williams sisters for the spotlight in women's tennis.
Serena, ranked No. 3 to start 2004, wants that spotlight back as I don't think falling from No. 1 in the world sits too well with her. Serena likes the attention that comes with being top-ranked and that will fuel her desire to get back to No. 1. She is going to start 2004 fresh, eager -- and I think -- very hungry.
The key question is how quickly can Serena get her game back to where it was before she was injured?
Upon returning from a serious injury, most players have to deal with the impact on their tennis of a lack of match play while they were sidelined. A player can take part in many practice matches, but it's not the same as playing tournament matches.
One thing I've noticed with both Serena and Venus is that they are able to get back in a groove pretty quickly after layoffs from competition.
With most players that process takes considerable time, but not with the Williams sisters.
I can't bet against Serena finishing 2004 as No. 1 in the world.
VENUS ALSO RECOVERED
Like Serena, Venus last played at Wimbledon, where she lost to her younger sister in the final.
She sat out the rest of the season due to a strained abdominal muscle that hampered her since late April.
Venus ended 2003 ranked No. 11, the first time since 1997 that she was not in the top five.
With her stomach muscle healed, I think she will be ready for the new season, but if that nagging injury returns, her game suffers as she is unable to deliver her big, booming serve that is such a huge weapon in her game.
Venus needs to get back to the level at which she can win majors. After that she can turn her focus towards beating her Serena, who has won all five of their meetings in Grand Slam finals.
BELGIANS ARE FORMIDABLE
Henin-Hardenne is ranked No. 1 for a reason as in 2003 her game rose a couple of levels and she won the French Open and the U.S. Open. The 21-year-old is on a complete high and she has tons of confidence.
Henin-Hardenne has been training for 2004 in Florida with strength and conditioning coach Pat Etcheberry, who in the past has been the fitness guru for other world-class players like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Jennifer Capriati.
Henin-Hardenne has gotten so much stronger and she is super fit, two prime reasons why her tennis has elevated so much.
Like Henin-Hardenne, Clijsters' play improved tremendously last season and she spent some time as the No. 1-ranked player.
The 20-year-old ended 2003 as the world No. 2 after reaching the semifinals at 20 out of 21 WTA Tour tournaments. She successfully defended her Tour Championships title by winning the season-ending event last November.
Clijsters has not yet won a major, which is a goal of hers in 2004.
TWO CAREERS AT THE CROSSROADS
Jennifer Capriati, ranked No. 6 to start 2004, faces a pivotal season. Her loss to Henin-Hardenne in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, where she was two points from winning the match 10 times, I think has been psychologically tough on her. Also, shoulder and hip injuries contributed to a disappointing fall for Capriati.
It will be important to guage Capriati's desire in 2004. At 27, is she still willing to put in all the hard work needed to be in top physical condition?
Capriati has won only two tournaments over the last two seasons. She still has the game to give the other top players fits, but she is not winning titles, something she would like very much to change in 2004.
A nerve condition neuroma in Lindsay Davenport's left foot, which began in the fall of 2002, finally forced the American to have surgery on Oct. 15. Davenport told me at the end of November that her foot feels so much better since the operation.
Last July at Wimbledon, Davenport hinted she might be considering retirement, but in talking to her late in the year, I think she is hungry to compete again and gearing towards what she hopes will be a solid and injury-free 2004 season.
The 27-year-old strikes the ball as well as anyone and she has a huge serve, but she needs to be in top physical condition to help her cover ground on the court because she's not as quick as the Williams sisters or the two top Belgians.
Confidence will be a key for Davenport as she must remember she has won three majors and has the weapons to play with the best.
MAURESMO AND SHARAPOVA
Amelie Mauresmo of France, ranked No. 4 to start 2004, is someone I feel can still take out any of the top players on a given day. She has all the shots, but she isn't consistent in her play.
With all her talent, I keep expecting Mauresmo to have a breakout season, but that hasn't yet happened and some are wondering if it ever will.
All the other top players respect Mauresmo because she has come up with big wins, but never knowing what to expect from her match to match makes her the most enigmatic player on the WTA tour.
Maria Sharapova of Russia ended 2003 ranked No. 32 and her star continues to rise at a meteoric pace. She was ranked No. 186 at the end of 2002.
The 16-year-old is feeling more comfortable on the tour after winning two singles titles in 2003 (Tokyo and Qubec City). She doesn't lack confidence and she has great weapons so I expect big things from her as she gains more experience.
Sharapova belongs in the top 20 and could very well get there in 2004.
© 2003 MSNBC Interactive
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