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Is Serena vulnerable in Paris?

By Matthew Cronin
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FROM ROLAND GARROS – Even though Serena Williams has lost only four matches since winning the '02 Roland Garros a year ago, there are some who believe the five-time Grand Slam champion is ripe for a fall when she attempts to defend her title in Paris during the next two weeks.

Serena has suffered two losses in the last two months on clay, to Belgium’s Justine Henin-Hardenne in the final of Charleston and to France’s Amelie Mauresmo in the semis of Rome. Both those defeats were tight three-setters and clearly indicated that Serena must tame her bouts of impatience, but by no means did they show that she is not the clear favorite in Paris.

Serena is 53-4 over the past year, has won the last four Grand Slams and in the process has overcome one emotional hurdle after another. There are those who say that Venus is long overdue to win another Slam, that Jennifer Capriati is primed for another assault in Paris, and that Mauresmo looks as mentally fit as any Frenchwoman has in three decades or so. There are even those who have gone so far as to say Henin and No. 2-ranked Kim Clijsters are more "complete" players than Serena. That comment drew a big, sardonic smile from Williams on Sunday.


Fred Mullane/Camerawork USA, Inc.
"Sure, they’re more complete," chuckled Serena, who must have been recalling that she is 4-2 lifetime against Henin and 7-1 against Clijsters. "[I’ve been working on developing] a more all-around, complete game."

STILL THE ONE
Serena is the most physically imposing, technically sound and mentally tough player out there, which is why she remains the favorite on every surface. But while she's a standout clay court player, it's on dirt where she is the most vulnerable because she can’t simply overpower the other elite players. She will, unquestionably, have to dig down deep the next two weeks and re-familiarize herself with the vagaries of Roland Garros’ crushed red brick. She seems more than willing to do so.

"I love the clay," she said. "I actually can be lazier. I don’t have to work as hard. I can be out of a point and get back in. I really like that."
There are some who believe that Serena has already gone Hollywood and is much too interested in guest starring in sitcoms, modeling for magazines and going clubbing than she is in staying on top of her sport. But Serena says her fitness is "unbelievable" now and that she locked in on the task ahead.

"You can lose your focus but I have to remember that tennis is my No. 1 breadmaker right now so I have to stick to that, whether I want to or not. Obviously, I really do."

Serena isn’t taking her recent losses as a sign that she’s in for a long fall. In fact, she said that she learned from them.

"It’s definitely good because I get the feel of what I need to do and some things I might want to work on," she said. "It’s often good for me because I realize that everybody wants to beat the No. 1 player, to take them out, to see where their game matches up against mine. … I'm in a good state. I'm feeling really good and confident about my game and that's what matters most."

THREE CONTENDERS HAVEN'T WON A SLAM
Even though she owns more physical weapons than anyone on tour, Serena’s biggest edge over the field is purely psychological: She’s the one who took the last five majors. Venus hasn’t beaten her since 2001, nor has Capriati and none of the Euros – Henin, Clijsters or Mauresmo – have ever won a Slam and have all significantly choked under the spotlight at one time or another. Serena hasn’t gagged in a long, long time.

When asked whether she was anxious about defending her Roland Garros title, the ever-confident Serena intensely responded, "I don’t have anxiety, I have desire. "I’m going in thinking, 'I want to win another Grand Slam, I don’t want to defend.'If you go into tournaments trying to defend, you can get too much pressure on you."

Yet there is pressure on Serena, even if she’s says she going out to have fun. She's attempting to become the first woman since Steffi Graf to win five majors in a row and the tennis world knows that the attention-loving Serena would like to be mentioned in the same breath as arguably the best woman player ever.

Most importantly, Williams has to bear down and battle, just like she did five months ago in Australia, when Clijsters had her on the ropes in the third set of their semifinal, and also when a game Venus pounded at her during all three sets of their final – their most hotly contested match ever.

Serena says she’s more than willing to scratch and claw, which may mean that her most dogged rivals will be watching her lift her sixth Slam trophy two weeks from Saturday.

"It important when I’m playing to make sure I’m giving 200 percent, opposed to just 100 percent," she said.
 
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