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TENNIS LISA DILLMAN

Serena Wins Mind Game

July 08, 2002|LISA DILLMAN

WIMBLEDON, England — All it took was one look at Serena Williams last year, and you had to wonder how someone so fit and so sculpted could be so amazingly susceptible to any germ flying through the air or be so injury prone.

She called herself a hypochondriac last year after losing to Jennifer Capriati in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, suffering from an upset stomach and nausea. Capriati was quite critical, saying it was always something with Williams.

So often, Williams would start big matches quickly and fade. For her, the finish line was like Kryptonite, her legs and arms turning to jelly at the moment of reckoning.

What turned her career around--in the most dramatic fashion--was an injured ankle and another stomach virus.

Williams missed the Australian Open in January because of an ankle injury suffered in a tuneup tournament in Sydney and then got sick before a tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz. Instead of pulling out of Scottsdale, again, Williams showed up and won it, beating Capriati in the final in three sets. And she simply got tired of missing Grand Slam events because of injuries.

"It was kind of crazy," she said. "When I won that tournament in Scottsdale, that was a big up for my confidence. Normally when I go into tournaments I expect to win, but that one I just didn't. And I did. So that was nice, and I've been winning ever since."

Since then, she has lost only two matches--on clay to Patty Schnyder and Justine Henin--and is on a 19-match winning streak, taking the Italian Open, French Open and, most impressively, Wimbledon on Saturday. In four weeks, she defeated her older sister, Venus, twice in Grand Slam finals, taking the French Open and Wimbledon in straight sets.

As it turned out, psychosomatic might have been a more accurate description of her health problems of years past. Serena was open about her previous shortcomings, saying: "I think a lot of my injuries were mental injuries. I could have been winning. I had chances here last year at Wimbledon, the French. I just changed. I think I grew up a little bit."

These reflections came in a small interview room at the All England Club, hours after her 7-6 (4), 6-3 victory against Venus in the Wimbledon final. Serena chatted with a handful of American reporters who watched her win in Paris, and a couple of British reporters, who filled her in on Wimbledon lore, on the days of the Watson sisters in the 1880s.

This was the first match of the nine between the Williams sisters to hit a high level, in terms of shot-making and drama. Quite often, they combine for more than 100 unforced errors in their contests, but the number was greatly reduced on grass, to a combined 47.

The sheer force of Serena's power seemed to devastate Venus, who looked close to breaking into tears afterward in interviews. By Sunday, her mother and coach, Oracene, said in interviews that Venus had moved past this loss, much faster than from others, apparently.

There is always going to be an element of conflicted emotions when the sisters play one another, quite natural because of their closeness in age--Venus is 22 and Serena 20. For them, there is no way to be unconditionally happy when success comes at the expense of a sibling.

"She's always gone overboard with me," Serena said of Venus. "She's always done everything, gone out of her way to make sure that I was happy. There's many times she's done things for me that nobody would have done.

"She saw to it that I was safe even though she may not have been. Even when I go places, she's always calling to check on me. She actually worries about me like a parent. In that sense, yeah, it's going to be difficult for me to accept that fact. But hopefully, we'll share lots of Grand Slam titles between us."

Another area of concern for the sisters this past fortnight was Serena's alleged stalker. A German man has been detained twice in the last three months by law enforcement authorities in Europe, most recently at Wimbledon last week.

Even in the casual interview setting Saturday night, Serena's personal bodyguard stayed in the room with reporters and WTA public relations officials.

"We like to live our lives," Serena said. "I'm definitely worried about people. [But] I'm not going to change who I am."

The security concerns did not prevent her from stopping by the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum during a rain delay. She took a particular interest in fashion, saying: "Everyone was so short! They had these old white linen dresses. They were the length of the ground."

The woman who is raising the bar in this sport, setting a new standard for power and precision, did not have any victory plans other than the Wimbledon Champions dinner. This is despite winning her third Grand Slam title, being one title (the Australian Open) away from a career Slam and becoming the No. 1-ranked player in the world today, replacing Venus.

"I don't understand me," Serena said. "I think there's an old lady living in this young body. I just want to go home and be with my dog. That's enough for me: The smallest things in life."

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