`Slam' has nice ring to Serena

Australian title would be 4th straight major win for top-ranked player

Tennis

January 12, 2003|By Lisa Dillman | Lisa Dillman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MELBOURNE, Australia -The alliteration is there and that's half the battle, isn't it? The Serena Slam.

Fits in a headline. It's easy to understand and even easier to say.

So plan on hearing it over and over, like a recording, because the pursuit of a fourth consecutive Grand Slam singles championship by top-ranked Serena Williams will be the focal point of the Australian Open, the first major tennis tournament of 2003, beginning tomorrow.

Williams won the last three Grand Slam events of 2002 - the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open - in emphatic fashion, beating her older sister, Venus, in straight sets in all three finals. What prevented her from possibly taking the Grand Slam in the same calendar year was an ankle injury in Sydney during a tuneup event, forcing her to withdraw from the Australian Open on its opening day.

Steffi Graf was the last player to win the Slam in a calendar year, in 1988. Graf, now retired, also won three of the four Slam events in 1995 and 1996. Three-time Australian Open champion Martina Hingis of Switzerland missed it by one match in 1997, losing in the French Open final and winning the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S Open.

For now, the topic is a non-calendar Grand Slam. Graf started one in 1993 and finished it off in Australia in 1994. A decade earlier, Martina Navratilova completed the non-calendar Slam, setting off a fierce debate among the purists, the same sort of dialogue heard about golf's Tiger Woods during his "Tiger Slam" in 2000-01.

If 2002 was Serena Williams' breakthrough year, then this year could be the consolidation phase, going beyond one-year wonder.

"That would be an honor for me, to be compared to the Navratilova or Steffi Graf era," Williams said. "To be like the Serena era, now that's scary."

The sequel isn't always as easy. Hingis was 75-5 in 1997 and won her first 37 matches. The next year, she won one Slam tournament and was the runner-up in two others, but went without a title for six months. Now, at 22, her future is in serious doubt.

"It's always been tough for someone to have that great a year two years in a row," said former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, who has won three Grand Slam singles titles. "Who knows? Serena may have the game for it and she mentally may be able to continue. More often than not, it becomes a mental challenge for that player, or mental fatigue, just by always winning or always being expected to win.

"It really depends on Serena - if she's still fired up as much as she was last year. It depends on the player to see if they're still as motivated the next time around."

Williams always has a light lead-in schedule to the Australian Open. She won all of her singles matches earlier this month in Perth, Australia, in the Hopman Cup, one step above an exhibition and one below a regular tour event.

"My goal is just not to lose," she said of her 2003 goals. "Just pick very few tournaments and win all the ones I play."

The Australian Open is the only Slam event that has eluded the Williams family. Venus, who has not played a match since the season-ending WTA championships in Los Angeles, has reached one semifinal and three quarterfinals here. Serena's best showing was in 2001, when she made it to the quarterfinals, then lost to Hingis.

In this year's first round, Serena will play Emilie Loit of France and Venus will open against a talented Russian teen-ager, Svetlana Kuznetsova, who won a doubles title with Navratilova in Gold Coast, Australia, earlier this month.

The sisters are in opposite halves of the draw. Serena could face four-time Aussie champion Monica Seles in the quarterfinals and possibly Kim Clijsters of Belgium or Chanda Rubin in the semifinals. Clijsters and Rubin are the last two players to have beaten Serena.

On the men's side, the most prominent story line will be top-ranked Lleyton Hewitt's pursuit of his first Australian Open title. He is trying to become the first Australian man to win here since Mark Edmondson in 1976. Hewitt, who opens against a qualifier, could face Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil in the third round, but Kuerten has never gone past the second round in six trips to Melbourne.

The biggest concerns for Hewitt in his portion of the draw are Alex Corretja of Spain, Andy Roddick of the United States and Jiri Novak of the Czech Republic.

Hewitt, who was slowed by chicken pox last year and lost in the first round, certainly will be relieved that a recent nemesis, Carlos Moya of Spain, is in the other half of the draw with two other highly ranked Spaniards, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Albert Costa.

Also in Moya's half of the draw is three-time champion Andre Agassi. Agassi, who withdrew because of a wrist injury on opening day last year, has to be considered one of the favorites, in part because of his history here and his intense offseason training regimen.

Several familiar faces will be missing from Melbourne Park for the first time in years, among them defending champion Thomas Johansson of Sweden. Johansson, out with an injured knee, beat Marat Safin of Russia in last year's final, Tim Henman of Great Britain is sidelined by a bad shoulder. He and Johansson each had played seven straight times here.

Tommy Haas of Germany, a semifinalist in 2002, will miss his first Australian Open since 1997 because of a shoulder injury. Also absent are Greg Rusedski of Great Britain, recovering from right-foot surgery, and U.S. Open champion Pete Sampras, a two-time champion in Melbourne in the 1990s who is skipping the trip.

Lisa Dillman is a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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