Fashionable for Serena to block California return

Serena Williams skips California event to spend time designing clothes and fine-tuning her acting.

Considering she was resting between engagements yesterday, Serena Williams seemed to be fretting rather a lot as she fussed over designing her latest outfit and planning her next foray into acting.

Considering she was resting between engagements yesterday, Serena Williams seemed to be fretting rather a lot as she fussed over designing her latest outfit and planning her next foray into acting.

As for the tennis, Serena, fit and well, was in Florida while most other leading players were competing in Indian Wells, California, although she did have a hit on the practice court in preparation to defend her women's singles title at the Nasdaq-100 Open in Key Biscayne, which starts next week.

But why, after declaring tennis to be her priority this year, was the former world No 1 stuck working in her studio? Because Serena and her older sister, Venus, have boycotted the Indian Wells tournament for the fourth year in a row.

It was there, in 2001, that Serena won the women's singles title for a second time and vowed not to return. Her victory in the final against Kim Clijsters, of Belgium, was accompanied by constant booing and jeering.

Serena took the brunt of the crowd's displeasure after Venus withdrew injured from an all-Williams semi-final only 10 minutes before the match was due to start. Their father, Richard, said he and Venus were subjected to racist taunts as they watched the final.

"I've never felt like that before and I hope never to feel like that again," Serena said during a conference call yesterday. "It would be really hard to walk back on that court."

Ray Moore, president of the Indian Wells tournament, said: "We've done everything possible to sit down with them and discuss it and say 'How can we make it right?' We actually even set up an official meeting [in Los Angeles in 2002]. They cancelled it. I mean, refused to meet to even talk. It is their decision."

Charlie Pasarell, the Indian Wells tournament director, said: "We try to put on an event. We try to treat everybody fairly. By the way, it's not the only time that a tennis player has been booed. How about Martina Hingis at the French Open?" (Hingis was booed in the 1999 final against Steffi Graf in Paris when she broke down in tears and stormed off court at the end of the match).

Pasarell might have added that Serena Williams also experienced the crowd's hostility at the French Open during her semi-final against Justin Henin-Hardenne, of Belgium, in the semi-finals in 2003.

Serena was in tears in the interview room in Paris, whereas in Indian Wells in 2001 she tried to put on a brave face and smiled and waved to the jeering crowd. Deep down, however, Serena was hurt badly, particularly as the hostility was directed at her family, not only herself, and California had been their home.

"If anyone could be in my shoes, to be 19 years old and have a whole crowd jeer - I can't explain that feeling," Serena said yesterday. "That was one place where apparently a lot of people didn't want to see me play."

Having won the Australian Open in January, Serena, currently ranked No 4 in the world, seems handily placed to start overhauling the players above her - Lindsay Davenport, Amélie Mauresmo and Maria Sharapova.

Mere mention of Sharapova, however, puts Serena on the defensive. They have each won two of the four matches they have played against each other, including Sharapova's success in last year's Wimbledon final, and Williams' win in the semi-final in Australia. Asked if they had established a rivalry, Serena said: "I don't know. You should ask her. I can't answer that question.

"I think everyone is a rival. I mean, you don't understand, but when people play me, they play 200 per cent and no kidding. I can see these players play a different player, and it's not the same tennis."

As for that Wimbledon final: "I was a little depressed after that loss because for some reason, I was so nervous going in to that match. I didn't do anything right. I couldn't get any of my shots in. I just played horrendously and gave it away. I've never been nervous like that in my career."

While denying she was irritated by questions concerning Sharapova, Serena became increasingly testy.

"You guys don't realise, but I have a fashion company. I just walked into my office right now. I'm working on a new intense line for the Fall. I'm an actress. I'm working on an animation series, a different reality series.

"I'm working on so much stuff but I don't really think about other people because I really have to focus on me. I don't have any problems with [Sharapova]. She doesn't have any problems with me. I don't think about her or anyone else on the Tour. If I did, I would go nuts. I don't have time to sit down and think about Lindsay, or even Venus."

Serena was also asked how many times she had been drug tested in the last 12 months?

"I get tested every week for some reason. I wouldn't do any type of performance-enhancing drugs. I get tested all the time and they even come to my house. I guess it's good to have them because it brings a lot of integrity to tennis."

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