Ser­ena shoot­ing for Slam his­tory

The Borneo Post (Sabah) - - SPORT -

MEL­BOURNE: Ser­ena Wil­liams has adopted a low pro­file ahead of the Aus­tralian Open, but ri­val play­ers ad­mit the Amer­i­can’s shadow looms large in Mel­bourne as she eyes a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam crown.

Wil­liams won her 23rd ti­tle and sev­enth at Mel­bourne Park while eight weeks preg­nant two years ago, and now at­tempts to match Mar­garet Court’s mark of 24 sin­gles ma­jors on the Aus­tralian’s home soil.

The 37-year-old’s last out­ing on tour was her melt­down in los­ing the US Open fi­nal to Naomi Osaka in Septem­ber and she en­ters the sea­son-open­ing Slam as the 16th seed.

Yet she has proved in the past that such num­bers mean lit­tle to her and Osaka said most in the locker room be­lieved the vet­eran re­mains the one to beat in Mel­bourne.

“I’m pretty sure (that’s the case),” said the Ja­pa­nese star.

“But there’s a group of play­ers that I think ev­ery­one thinks is very dif­fi­cult to play against, es­pe­cially in Grand Slams,” Osaka added.

Ser­ena’s 2017 tri­umph Down Un­der gave her the out­right Open­era record for sin­gles ma­jors ahead of St­effi Graf’s 22, leav­ing only Court’s tally of 24 ti­tles -13 of which were earned in the am­a­teur era be­fore 1968 -- for her to chase.

De­fend­ing cham­pion Caro­line Woz­ni­acki ad­mit­ted Ser­ena, al­ready hailed by many as the great­est of all time, was an un­known quan­tity in Mel­bourne after sit­ting out the end of the 2018 sea­son fol­low­ing the US Open blow-up.

“I haven’t seen her play a match, so I don’t re­ally know,” Woz­ni­acki re­sponded when quizzed about the Amer­i­can’s form.

The Dan­ish third seed pre­ferred to con­cen­trate on her own prospects, dis­miss­ing con­cerns health prob­lems were af­fect­ing her game.

She achieved a ca­reer mile­stone last year to claim her maiden Grand Slam at Mel­bourne Park, but also re­vealed she was suf­fer­ing the de­bil­i­tat­ing au­toim­mune con­di­tion rheuma­toid arthri­tis.

But the 28-year-old in­sisted she was manag­ing her ill­ness and was relishing the prospect of de­fend­ing her crown.

“All I can say is that I feel good. I feel like I’m hit­ting the ball well,” she said.

Woz­ni­acki’s van­quished op­po­nent in last year’s fi­nal, Si­mona Halep, ar­rives in Aus­tralia with the world num­ber one rank­ing and her con­fi­dence over­flow­ing after win­ning the French Open.

The Ro­ma­nian said she was un­trou­bled by the back in­jury that cur­tailed her 2018 sea­son and was men­tally stronger as a re­sult of last year’s loss in the de­cider.

“I didn’t want to think that much about that match be­cause it was re­ally painful to lose it, but I learned some things from that match,” she said.

“Now I know how to man­age bet­ter if that hap­pens again.”

Sec­ond-ranked An­gelique Ker­ber has al­ready in­di­cated her pri­or­ity for 2019 will be the French Open, the only Slam to elude the 30-year-old Ger­man in her ca­reer.

Osaka is the lead­ing con­tender among the younger gen­er­a­tion of play­ers, warm­ing up for Mel­bourne by mak­ing the semi-fi­nals of the Bris­bane In­ter­na­tional.

While the 21-year-old has ap­peared level-headed since her break­through at Flush­ing Mead­ows, she said she was still get­ting used to the spot­light.

“For me one of my big­gest goals is to be more ma­ture, like to ma­ture as a per­son,” the fourth seed said.

“I feel like in a way I am, but in other parts I’m very, like, three years old men­tal­ity, you know? I feel like just lev­el­ling that out is one of my big­gest goals I had dur­ing the off-sea­son.”

Lo­cal hopes will rest on Ash­leigh Barty after the 22year-old Queens­lan­der went on a seven-match win­ning streak be­fore los­ing the fi­nal of the Syd­ney In­ter­na­tional to Czech Pe­tra Kvi­tova on Satur­day.

Maria Shara­pova has failed to im­press since re­turn­ing from a dop­ing ban and, now ranked 30, is look­ing some way from the player who won five Grand Slams.

Two-time ma­jor cham­pion and for­mer num­ber one Gar­bine Mugu­ruza was an­other who had an in­jury-blighted 2018 which saw her drop out of the top 10. - AFP

Ser­bia’s No­vak Djokovic hits a re­turn dur­ing a prac­tice ses­sion ahead of the Aus­tralian Open ten­nis tour­na­ment in Mel­bourne on Jan­uary 13, 2019. - AFP photo

Ser­ena Wil­liams of the US hits a re­turn dur­ing a prac­tice ses­sion in Mel­bourne on Jan­uary 13, 2019, ahead of the Aus­tralian Open ten­nis tour­na­ment. - AFP photo

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