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TRYING TO BEAT SERENA WILLIAMS

Five Appear to Have Chance

January 12, 2003|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

MELBOURNE, Australia — Who can stop Serena Williams ... besides Serena Williams?

Almost everyone concedes that Williams is going to have to be off her game, even slightly, if she is to stumble at a Grand Slam tournament. A flawless Williams? Well, forget about it.

Four of her five losses in 2002 were to Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium and Patty Schnyder of Switzerland, on clay, to Chanda Rubin on a hard-court surface outdoors, and to Belgium's Kim Clijsters, indoors, at the season-ending WTA Championships at Staples Center in November. The other defeat was the result of a sprained right ankle against Meghann Shaughnessy in Sydney, where she retired in the first set.

"Obviously her serve is great," Jennifer Capriati said. "She's strong off the ground and can mix it up. She plays well [but] sometimes she's erratic. That makes it difficult to play her because she can get on a roll and then miss a bunch of shots."

There are arguably five players capable of upsetting Williams on the Rebound Ace surface used at the Australian Open, starting with a member of her own household, older sister Venus Williams:

Venus Williams: Her big weapon, her serve, went missing at crucial junctures in the three Grand Slam finals the sisters played in 2002. The drop-off in speed and accuracy was most notable in the French Open. The Venus Williams serve of 2000 and 2001 could make the difference against her younger sister.

Capriati: She used to be able to beat Serena in emotional three-set matches. The matches between the two are so close, it seems to come down to self-belief and psychology. Capriati's warmest memories, and a 14-match winning streak, are at Melbourne Park, and at her best, she has the footwork and endurance to test Williams.

Clijsters: The young Belgian had the optimum game plan against Williams in November. She often took away the angles from Serena, kept the ball up the middle and never let her opponent get grooved on her ground strokes. Clijsters mixed up the depth of her shots, rarely letting Serena get a second ball in the same spot -- which, of course, is no easy task against the power of Williams.

Lindsay Davenport: She's leaner than before and has the power and serve to stay in matches with Williams, plus the momentum of a fresh voice, new coach Rick Leach.

"She has to beat herself a little bit," Davenport said. "She has to throw in some errors. Someone has to take it to her. I don't think you're going to get a retriever beating her too often."

Monica Seles: Seles is the kind of player Davenport was talking about. Her go-for-broke style has worked against the sisters in the past. She fought off six match points to beat Serena in Manhattan Beach in 2001, and upset Venus in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open last year. The slower surface in Melbourne will help her stay in rallies longer than at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Though a lack of endurance often hurts Seles, she is still capable of a sparkling singular performance, but not in successive matches.

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