Ser­ena plays straight bat ahead of ti­tle de­fence bid

The Herald - Herald Sport - - WIMBLEDON 2016 - KEVIN FER­RIE

ERHAPS it is the per­fect state of mind for her to be in as she seeks to hang on to the last of her Grand Slam ti­tles, but Ser­ena Wil­liams was cer­tainly in de­fen­sive mode yes­ter­day.

This time last year the Amer­i­can was the undis­puted queen of women’s ten­nis poised as she was to com­plete the sec­ond “Ser­ena Slam” and not least be­cause of the re­mark­able 12-year gap that separates those two great achieve­ments, her place among the all-time greats of the game has long been se­cure.

How­ever, for by no means the first time in her ca­reer she seemed bored rather than ex­cited when look­ing ahead to the com­ing fort­night and a suc­ces­sion of ques­tions were deemed wor­thy of only cur­sory re­sponses.

So, in brief, she is not feel­ing any ex­tra pres­sure in spite of the loss of her other three Grand Slam ti­tles in the past year; does not care who she meets first; is leav­ing re­search on that first round op­po­nent, Amra Sadikovic, to her coach; reck­ons No­vak Djokovic will get the cal­en­dar Grand Slam that has eluded her “easy”; does not know who the favourite for the women’s ti­tle is; can­not re­mem­ber any­thing sig­nif­i­cant about her first com­pet­i­tive visit to Wim­ble­don; and she def­i­nitely does not have any­thing fur­ther to add to her pre­vi­ous com­ments about the ban im­posed on her ri­val Maria Shara­pova.

In say­ing all of that she claimed to be re­laxed and feel­ing no pres­sure. Yet the con­trast with the de­meanour of the lat­est woman to take one of the big prizes away from her, Gar­bine Mugu­ruza, could hardly have been more strik­ing.

The 22-year-old Spa­niard had looked to­tally at ease, flick­ing her hair around play­fully as she had fun in can­didly an­swer­ing ques­tions about the dif­fi­culty she finds in ad­just­ing to play­ing on grass and pretty much play­ing down her prospects in a way that can only min­imise any pres­sure the new French Open cham­pion will feel as she be­gins her cam­paign.

Per­haps that can partly be at­trib­uted to the dif­fer­ence be­tween Mugu­ruza’s new-found sta­tus and that of a vet­eran who has done all of this be­fore.

And there was cer­tainly no ques­tion of Wil­liams seek­ing to play the un­der­dog in spite of the suc­ces­sion of set­backs she has suf­fered since she also got within a vic­tory of match­ing the 22 ti­tles won by the woman who dom­i­nated the sport in the years be­fore she and sis­ter Venus emerged.

It would prob­a­bly be most fit­ting, too, if Wil­liams was to match St­effi Graf’s Grand Slam haul by also match­ing her seven ti­tles at this par­tic­u­lar venue and she is cer­tainly voic­ing no qualms about be­ing back on this ter­rain.

“I en­joy it just be­ing on grass,” Wil­liams said. “It’s usu­ally the only tour­na­ment I play on grass. It’s a unique ex­pe­ri­ence. You know, it’s just that one time a year you just get to get on this amaz­ing, beau­ti­ful sur­face. It feels re­ally good.”

If age is tak­ing any sort of toll on the 34-year-old then, for all that there is no readi­ness to ac­knowl­edge any sort of in­creased vul­ner­a­bil­ity on any sur­face just yet. There is also the aware­ness that the ral­lies will cer­tainly be shorter than on clay and even hard courts so should make her power all the more telling.

“I guess they’re a lit­tle faster than most other sur­faces, so I think that works good for me, but ei­ther way, I just feel like all sur­faces I’m pretty well adept on,” said Wil­liams.

There is an el­e­ment in her man­ner which sug­gests that she is also deeply aware of the risk of the “fear fac­tor” that forms a ma­jor part of great cham­pi­ons’ ar­moury be­ing eroded by her losses.

Per­haps all the more in terms of the im­pact on other op­po­nents, when suf­fer­ing ma­jor up­sets at the hands of Roberta Vinci in the US Open semi­fi­nal and An­gelique Ker­ber in the Aus­tralian Open fi­nal, than when she was beaten ear­lier this month by Mugu­ruza who is now be­ing tipped to go on and be­come the new force in the women’s game.

For now, too, Wil­liams still knows the cor­rect things to say in terms of deal­ing with that lat­est de­feat.

Even if, in the con­text not just of hav­ing won 21 pre­vi­ous Grand Slam ti­tles, but the way that has been achieved, she has set stan­dards for her­self that will make it very hard to fol­low through upon.

“I think it’s im­por­tant to learn from ev­ery loss that you have,” she said.

“I think in par­tic­u­lar I usu­ally do, through­out my whole ca­reer I have been able to, like, learn a lot, to come off, to come back a much bet­ter player.”

Com­ing back a much bet­ter player than Ser­ena Wil­liams has been will take some do­ing.

ON THE DE­FEN­SIVE: Ser­ena Wil­liams may feel she has a point to prove this year

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