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Serena Basks at Center Stage

Top-seeded Williams, after sitting out for nine months, celebrates a sweeping return to the tennis court at the Nasdaq-100 Open.

March 27, 2004|Alix Ramsay | Special to The Times

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Ladies and gentlemen, she's back. For 12 days only at the Nasdaq-100 Open, Serena Williams returns in a reprise of her most famous role: tennis player and former world No. 1.

The story so far: Our heroine has spent the last nine months away from the court thanks to a combination of injury problems, family tragedy and conflicting career interests. At the same time she has become the highest-paid female athlete, signing a $40-million deal with Nike. From the moment the ink dried on the contract, though, she has not been seen to hit a ball in anger. Until now.

As Williams swept on to the Stadium Court at Crandon Park on Friday, resplendent in a little white and silver number complete with matching white headband and rhinestone trim, it soon became apparent that very little had changed. She is still bigger than most of the opposition, she is still stronger than most of the opposition, and she still frightens the living daylights out of all but the bravest and the best.

Ever since she set the date of her return to competitive action, she has been telling all who cared to listen that tennis is still her No. 1 priority. But with a film director for a boyfriend and a diary full of filming dates, it is hard to tell where the line is drawn between Williams the professional athlete and Williams the A-list celebrity.

Her Miami opening night lasted only 42 minutes as she pummeled Marta Marrero, the world's No. 83 from Spain, 6-1, 6-0. She began with an ace, wrapped up the first set with another and cracked five in all. There were errors -- there are always errors -- but there were marginally more winners.

In front of Marrero, it really did not matter. The Spaniard never stood a chance. And she knew it.

"I was very nervous," she said. "It's difficult to play against someone like Serena."

Asked to expand on this theory, she simply shrugged. "Serena's Serena," she said.

Then again, Williams, after so long in rehearsal, was suffering from a little stage fright herself.

"I was very nervous going out there," she said. "My dad was with Venus practicing, so I was just waiting on my own."

And a star is not used to facing her public alone.

The tennis was of little importance, in Williams' eyes. She has little to worry about until she reaches the semifinal stage here, considering that Justine Henin-Hardenne and Lindsay Davenport pulled out because of hectic schedules, Kim Clijsters withdrew with a sore wrist, Amelie Mauresmo was felled by a bad back and Anastasia Myskina threw in the towel after spraining her left big toe. This tennis lark is obviously a dangerous profession.

The only woman with a chance to steal the Williams limelight may be Jennifer Capriati, but both would have to reach the last four for that to happen.

By that time Williams thinks she will be back to her best. She will analyze Friday's efforts on videotape and then make the necessary tweaks and adjustments. Even so, her assessment of her form had overtones of a film review.

"Watching myself on TV, I'm very critical of myself," she said. "I like to have things really perfect at all times. That's the same as watching myself do a role, a different acting role. I'm extremely critical. But it gets better and I learn, I take notes in both scenarios. I learn from each experience."

At her happiest talking about the new dress -- "It's very Hollywood, very Hollywood glam with the silk," she enthused through seemingly newly veneered teeth -- she was still insistent that her return to the circuit was serious, long term and all she really wanted to do.

"A lot of people say, 'Serena isn't serious about her tennis, she wants to go to Hollywood,' which is true," she said. "I would love to get a lot of acting gigs, but you wouldn't believe the stuff I turn down because of my tournament schedule."

With Elena Likhovtseva waiting for her in the next round, Williams seems fairly secure in her latest role as the returning and all-conquering heroine. The only question is: What is her motivation? Roll closing credits.

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