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Serena's amazing run starting to sink in

By Greg Garber

She was minding her own business the other day, striking tennis balls on the practice court at home in Florida, when it finally hit her: "Gosh, I've won four in a row!" Serena Williams said to herself.

Even with her perfect season over, Serena Williams hopes to only lose a few matches this year.

Williams was in a relaxed mood Tuesday after winning her first-round match at the Italian Open, 6-4, 6-3 over Klara Koukalova.

"That's a pretty amazing feat," Williams said. "It's historic. When I was young, I always wanted to win a Grand Slam. It's kind of cool."

Kind of cool in a historic kind of way.

Williams, the game's hottest player right now, has an opportunity to close in on tennis history when the French Open begins on May 26. Just 21 years old, Williams has won four consecutive Grand Slam events -- beginning with last year's French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open, followed by this year's Australian Open. It was dubbed the Serena Slam -- a nod to Tiger Woods' four consecutive major victories over two seasons -- but the purists insist that a true Grand Slam consists of victories in all four Slams in the same calendar year.

For context, consider that only four other women have won four consecutive Slams: Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf. Now, pay attention because there will be a quiz later.

Only three women have won all four events in a single season: Connolly (1953), Court (1970) and Graf (1988). Both Graf and Navratilova won four straight Grand Slams over two seasons, Navratilova in 1983-84 and Graf in 1993-94.

Court and Navratilova hold the record of six consecutive Grand Slam victories. Court won the 1969 U.S. Open and Australian Open (when it was held at season's end in December). Navratilova won the 1983 Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open events, then took the 1984 French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open.

In less than two months, with victories at the French Open and Wimbledon, Williams could tie Court and Navratilova at six.

When she was younger, Williams would have tightened up at the thought of trying to repeat as French Open champion.

"But Venus told me never to look at it as defending a title," Serena said. "I'm going to Paris to win Roland Garros, not to defend my title. It becomes really stressful if you worry about it like that. Looking at it this way, it's a lot easier."

Williams insisted she is not looking ahead, thinking about sweeping this year's Grand Slams, which would break the all-time record.

"I don't look at it as winning four in a row in one year," Williams said. "My goal right now is to focus on Roland Garros."

That steely one-Slam-at-a-time focus has been impressive. Think about it, in the crucible of the Grand Slams, Williams has won 28 consecutive matches. Sister Venus, 22, was the victim in all four finals, but there have been impressive wins over Jennifer Capriati, Kim Clijsters and Lindsay Davenport in that span, as well.

You might imagine that the 2002 Wimbledon or U.S. Open might have generated the fondest memory for Williams, but she said that it was last year's French Open and, upon examination, it makes sense.

Before last year's event at Roland Garros, Serena Williams was still widely viewed as Venus' little sister. She had been the first of the sisters to break through in a Grand Slam event, winning the 1999 U.S. Open, but she was 0-for-9 after that. She went out in the fourth round of the 2000 Australian Open, skipped the French Open and fell to Venus in the Wimbledon semifinals. Four consecutive losses in the quarterfinals followed before she lost the U.S. Open final to Venus. When she missed the 2002 Australian Open with a twisted ankle, few imagined she would come to dominate the game.

Williams outlasted Capriati in a three-set duel in the 2002 French Open semifinals, then dispatched Venus 7-5, 6-3. It was, in retrospect, the turning point in her brief career.

"Winning the French, for me, was huge because everybody said I couldn't win on clay," Williams said. "Roland Garros stands out because I could not only win on clay, but be the champion on clay. They are all special, but Roland Garros meant the most to me."

Williams was so confident coming into the 2003 season that she actually talked openly about going undefeated. This, of course, has never happened. Nor will it happen this year, either.

Williams was off to a 21-0 start when she ran into Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne in the finals of the Family Circle Cup on April 13. Williams lost on the clay surface in South Carolina, 6-3, 6-4.

"What happened was I couldn't get the ball over the net or inside the lines -- that was my problem," Williams said. "I just happened to have a bad day. It was my goal to go undefeated, but I didn't expect to go the whole year undefeated."

Navratilova, in her incandescent season of 1983, went 86-1. The following year she was a sporty 78-2. Graf was 86-2 in 1989 and 75-2 in 1987. Twice, Navratilova finished a season with only three losses (90-3 in 1982 and 89-3 in 1986), while Graf (72-3 in 1988) did it once. Chris Evert (56-3 in 1978) is the only other woman to get through a season with only three losses.

"I never knew that fact," Williams said, laughing. "I'm going to try to keep it out of my mind. I would love to [join that group] and make a mark, a stamp, in history. Since I'm writing that history, so to say, it's vital that I stay focused. I can always stop at three [losses] and, hey, I'll be right there."

Williams is currently 23-1. Her nearest pursuers are Venus (17-3), Amelie Mauresmo (19-4), Clijsters (31-5) and Henin-Hardenne (29-5).

In her first-round match in Rome, Williams was not particularly sharp. Koukalova -- whom she recently defeated 6-2, 6-2 in the decisive Fed Cup match -- actually broke Williams' serve twice. Maybe it was the one-month layoff; after losing in South Carolina, she withdrew from the German Open to get completely rested for the Italian Open and French Open. Perhaps it's because history beckons.

"The [French Open and Wimbledon] are two weeks away," Williams said. "I feel like I'm motivated -- what's the word I'm looking for? I'm antsy. I'm ready to get it over with, ready to go to Paris. I'm ready."
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