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psychotic banana
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Serena Williams: the player to beat

By Sandra Harwitt

Serena Williams

Venus Williams

Kim Clijsters

Justine Henin-Hardenne

Amelie Mauresmo

Jennifer Capriati

Lindsay Davenport
Susan Mullane/
Camerawork USA
Siggi Bucher
Ron Cioffi/
There are those who might say that Serena Williams went from the "Serena Slam" to the "Serena Slump" having lost two recent matches she played.

But no one should look at these defeats – a semifinal loss to Amelie Mauresmo at the Italian Open last week and a final loss to Justine Henin–Hardenne at the Family Circle Cup last month – as any major signal that the world No. 1 is losing her hold over the tour.

While the Mauresmo and Henin slip ups can't be ignored, especially since they are both Top 10 players and have the capability to take advantage of Serena on an off day, it would prove foolish to suggest the best in the business is showing serious vulnerability.

Serena has not only won the last four Grand Slams played – the '02 French Open, Wimbledon, US Open and the '03 Australian Open – she is 26-2 on the season which is way too impressive. And that's just the weighty results on paper, which doesn't take into account that most of the players are of the opinion that Serena is pretty much unbeatable except for an occasional hiccup.

Williams was quick to take the blame when she succumbed to Mauresmo, but she also was quick to put the match in perspective.

"Everything went wrong for me," Williams said in Rome. "I was making too many errors and struggling with my serve. I guess that sums it up. You can't win a match with a second serve. There was nothing in particular she did. When I lose a match, it's usually because of how I played. In the end, it's better to lose in Rome than in Paris."

Therein lies the truth – although Williams set about the goal of winning every match she was to play this year, once that opportunity fell by the wayside, she started to worry about winning the most important matches and enjoying any other victories that might come along for the ride.

Williams is a defending champion that will be hard to force out of the limelight in Paris; she is every inch a top flight star and she is going to be much more careful not to play sloppy tennis at the French than at Rome. These days, even if Serena has a letdown, she usually knows how to bear down and escape unscathed in the end, especially when Grand Slam trophies are at stake. She had moments at the Australian Open when she could have given in to pesky opponents, but she buckled down and bounded ahead.

As for the confidence department, it is impossible to say that Serena's older sister, Venus, is in the same position as her sibling. Venus not only knows she's vulnerable against Serena every time they play, but she shows vulnerability against some of the other top competitors as well. For the season, Venus is 1-3 in finals, losing to Serena at the Australian Open and Mauresmo at Warsaw, but taking the kudos over Kim Clijsters at Antwerp.

The rap on Venus is not only that she doesn't feel she's in control of every situation, but with her height she's failed to develop a masterful and reliable second serve and this is a serious flaw. These days, her first serve is not standing firm which makes a solid second serve even more critical.

If Venus can get her head and heart around tennis again, she is certainly capable of successfully challenging everyone out there besides for Serena, and could also be in shape to take a big bite out of Serena's glory as well. But with attention taken away for her V Starr Interiors design firm, Venus might not be concentrating just on tennis with business matters also a concern.

Last month, Clijsters shoved Venus back into third place and secured her highest career ranking by slipping into the second slot. On Sunday, as the French Open looms only a week away, Clijsters solidified her strength as a potential Roland Garros champion with a 3-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-0 win over Mauresmo at the Italian Open.

Clijsters, who's won three titles this year – Sydney, Indian Wells and Rome – has the goods to go far in Paris. In 2001, she reached her only Grand Slam final at Roland Garros and played neck-and-neck tennis with eventual champion Jennifer Capriati in the final until the American finally captured a 12-10 third set to take the title.

The problem with the talented Clijsters is that while she does possess a competitive spirit it comes with limitations. Attaining high rankings and winning major titles would be something she enjoys, but doing so is far from a life-and-death matter for the teen. As recently as after her win in Rome, Clijsters, once again, made reference to the fact that being the best or winning the most prominent titles are not a necessity for her happiness, saying, "None have been a major goal of mine. I like seeing my name at No. 2 and thinking it doesn't seem real. It's a weird feeling, I think. I just want to enjoy being on the court and then we'll see if I can keep up the results. If I can go to No. 1, it would be an unbelievable feeling. If not, I would still be happy and it would be something I could tell my kids about."

Clearly, Clijsters subscribes to a different theory then boyfriend Lleyton Hewitt, who just surrendered his No. 1 ranking to Andre Agassi and is now situated at No. 2. Hewitt not only plays every match as if it was a matter of life and death, but he seems to make constant waves and to be constantly political fighting battles at every turn.

Justine Henin-Hardenne
Clijsters' compatriot, Justine Henin-Hardenne, a former semifinalist at the French, is certainly capable of making her first Grand Slam stand in Paris. Henin has had a good showing during the clay court season as the only player to win two titles on the dirt – The Family Circle Cup and the German Open. Her exquisite one-handed backhand – a vision of beauty as it sails down the line – is an admirable weapon and her enjoyment at approaching the net is a style not often seen in the women's game these days, especially on a clay court. Henin as well as Clijsters are two of the few players that could challenge Serena Williams for the title.

Mauresmo has the qualifications to win a Roland Garros title as well, but her ability to handle an overly enthusiastic Parisian crowd that would love nothing more than a homegrown champion, continues to come under question. If Mauresmo is healthy – always a question to be raised with the injury prone Frenchwoman – she could be the player to bring great delight to French fans in hopes of a French champion. But, thus far, the pressure has proven too much for Mauresmo, who in eight appearances at Roland Garros was a first round loser three times, a second round loser three times, and reached the fourth round in '00 and '02.

Jennifer Capriati
Capriati knows how to win at Roland Garros – she did so in 2001 – but these days she doesn't brim with confidence. For Capriati, an aggressive baseliner, a big sigh of relief would come if Mauresmo is not sitting on her side of the draw since she seems unable to puzzle out a win against the Frenchwoman. The inability to conquer Mauresmo kept Capriati from even having a chance to face either of the two Williams sisters at Wimbledon and the US Open last year. Capriati seems to have returned to a time where she rarely showed signs of happiness and rarely won tournaments. Unless she can recoup that lighthearted approach to life she briefly experienced during the time she won the French Open as well as the '01 and '02 Australian Open, it's questionable as to whether there's another Grand Slam trophy in Capriati's future.

Lindsay Davenport
The recently married Lindsay Davenport seems to have found her way back from a serious knee injury and become a major factor in the game again. Nevertheless, Davenport is a player with a big game that never seemed to translate well to the terre battue. A three-time Grand Slam champion, Davenport's best showing in Paris was making the semifinals in 1998 and it would be difficult to see her making headway towards the title in 2003.

Other players to keep a watchful eye out for at Roland Garros are Elena Dementieva, who won her first career title at the Bausch & Lomb Championships; Daniela Hantuchova, Chanda Rubin, Jelena Dokic and Anastasia Myskina.
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