Picture: Peter Ward
Size up Serena Williams at your own risk
FAT or fiction? That is the question hovering over defending Australian Open champion Serena Williams, who has become the butt of jibes about her weight two days into her Melbourne Park training regimen.
Williams is clearly heavier than she was this time last year and would tip the scales at significantly more than her official weight of 61kg, as listed in the WTA player guide.
Fitness guru Dr John Tickell, who puts overweight stars through their paces on Channel 9's Celebrity Overhaul, simply said "wow" when he saw photos of Williams in yesterday's Herald Sun.
But given the 24-year-old superstar won the 2005 Australian Open after entering the event underdone, Tickell has joined other medicos and leading tennis figures in refusing to write off Williams.
"One wonders when you look at the pictures. How much of that thigh is muscle or fat? It's a bit hard to tell," he said.
"If it's all muscle, then good luck. But my next question is how does a female get that much muscle and do they need that much muscle?
"I'm not going to recommend her for Celebrity Overhaul on one photo."
The Open has a habit of throwing up weight controversies, with Mary Pierce and Jennifer Capriati coming under scrutiny in recent years.
Williams' fitness made headlines as recently as Wimbledon last year, after she crashed to unheralded American Jill Craybas in the third round.
"Serena needs to get in condition. She's in the worst condition," Williams' father Richard said at the time.
Williams has not played a tour match since September and has battled niggling knee and ankle injuries. She is equal sixth in Open betting, rated a $13 chance by TAB Sportsbet.
She practised again on centre court yesterday, ditching Tuesday's threequarter white lycra pants for more conventional shorts, and Open chief executive Paul McNamee is content with what he has seen.
"She's a had a very tough year with injuries and could've possibly not come," McNamee said.
"Serena was hitting the ball pretty well yesterday and I wouldn't speculate on anything. Serena wasn't 100 per cent last year and she won the tournament. We know what a great competitor she is.
"Her and (former world No. 1) Maria Sharapova have had chequered preparations and it's great they're here."
Leading sports medico Dr Peter Larkins took a close interest in the latest Williams shots, using a piece of paper across the waist to split the photo of her body in two.
"If you look at the upper half, gee she looks in good shape," Larkins said.
"If you put a sheet of paper over the top half and look at the bottom, you'd think that person couldn't be an athlete."
But Larkins said it was a case of genetics as much as anything.
"It is the African-American race. They just have this huge gluteal strength," Larkins said. "Jennifer Capriati was clearly out of shape and overweight (in Australia in 2003). With Serena, that's her physique and genetics.
"She might be carrying a little bit, but I don't see it as a huge risk. Look at (sprinting superstar) Merlene Ottey and look at the size of her backside. Those sprinters always look like they've got big backsides even when they're breaking world records.
"It is a factor you have to take into account."
Commentator and former Australian Davis Cup hero John Alexander said Williams would not put herself at risk if she thought she was not fit enough for grand slam battle.
"She has a lot of pride and is one of the greats of all time. She would not come here and expose herself to playing badly or being beaten by lesser people if she didn't think she was right," Alexander said. "She has missed grand slams before."