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Serena begins a Grand quest

Younger Williams could hold four Grand Slam titles at once if she wins in Australian Open.

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2003

While preparing for the Australian Open, top-ranked Serena Williams offered this assessment of her game: "I haven't begun to play my best."

You can just hear the collective "uh-oh" uttered by her competition.

The thought that Williams has not peaked scares the rest of the tennis world. In 2002, she completed one of the greatest seasons in women's tennis, going 56-5 and winning three Grand Slam tournaments. This week in Melbourne, Australia, she begins her quest to become the fifth woman to hold four Grand Slam titles at once.

Williams calls it the Serena Slam. A better word might be domination.

"I want to be undefeated" in 2003, said the 21-year-old Williams, last year's Associated Press female athlete of the year. "Now I've had a long break, and I'm rejuvenated and really excited."

The Australian Open is the only major Williams hasn't won. She skipped the event last year because of an ankle injury, then went on to win eight tournaments and defeat her older sister, Venus, in the finals of the French Open, U.S. Open and Wimbledon.

Second-ranked Venus might have the best chance of crushing the Serena Slam. Venus has been a finalist in seven of her past 11 Grand Slam events, winning four. But like Serena, Venus hasn't reached a final Down Under.

A leg injury slowed Venus at the end of 2002, but she should be full strength in Melbourne. Venus, who won her first match against 45th-ranked Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-4, 6-2 Sunday night (Melbourne is 16 hours ahead of Tampa Bay), appeared to have a favorable draw and would not face a top-10 player until the quarterfinals. Because the Williams sisters are on opposite sides of the draw they could meet in the final, making a fifth all-Williams championship possible.

With all the hype surrounding Serena and Venus, it's easy to forget Saddlebrook resident Jennifer Capriati has dominated the Australian Open recently. Capriati, who is in Venus' half of the draw, won in 2001 and 2002 and reached the semifinals in 2000.

"Of course I'm confident I can win it," Capriati said.

Others aren't so sure.

Capriati hasn't won a tournament since last year's Australian Open, and she lost to 24th-ranked Tatiana Panova on Tuesday. Of equal concern is her 0-5 record against Serena in 2002.

Fourth-ranked Kim Clijsters beat both Williams sisters en route to winning the WTA Championships in November and might have a legitimate shot at pushing Serena and Venus in 2003. The 19-year-old Belgian has never won a Grand Slam event and has played in only one slam final.

Former No.1 Lindsay Davenport, who has three major titles, is another player to watch. The 2000 Australian Open champion missed the first three majors last year with a serious knee injury but returned in July and reached the semifinals at the U.S. Open, giving Serena Williams all she could handle. Davenport's power and competitiveness make her a threat.

The men's division is equally compelling.

Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi, Nos. 1 and 2 in the world, are the players to beat.

Hewitt has Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles, but has never advanced beyond the fourth round in Melbourne. Last year, while recovering from chicken pox, he lost his first match. He will try to become the first Australian to win the Open since 1976.

Agassi missed last year's Australian Open with a wrist injury but won the event in 1995, 2000 and 2001. Should he win, he'll become the first in the Open era to claim four Australian titles. The 32-year-old is oldest among seeded men.

Pete Sampras, who won his 14th major by beating Agassi at the 2002 U.S. Open, is one of several big-name men not playing. Sampras is skipping the event for personal reasons but said he will rejoin the ATP Tour this spring. No.9 Tim Henman, No.11 Tommy Haas and No.15 Thomas Johansson, last year's Australian champion, are injured.

With Sampras fading and Agassi not getting any younger, the hopes of American tennis lie with players like Andy Roddick, James Blake, Jan-Michael Gambill, Taylor Dent, Mardy Fish and Jeff Morrison.

Big things are expected of 10th-ranked Roddick and No.28 Blake, who lives in Tampa Palms. Gambill, Dent, Fish and Morrison are sleepers. Fish, who rooms with Morrison in Tampa Palms and trains with Blake and Morrison at Saddlebrook, beat fifth-ranked Carlos Moya last week, prompting Sports Illustrated to call Fish a player to watch in Australia.

"I'm playing the best tennis of my life and it's always good to be playing your best going into one of the biggest tournaments of the year," Fish said.

-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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