Overburdened Serena starts to lighten up a little

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The Independent Online

The three women with perhaps the best chance of separating Maria Sharapova from her Wimbledon title were talking about their hopes at the All England Club yesterday, and it was Serena Williams, beaten by the Russian teenager in the final 12 months ago, who was making the most aggressive noises.

The world No 1, Lindsay Davenport, feels she can repeat her victory of 1999, while the French Open champion, Justine Henin-Hardenne, was sounding happy just to be here and feeling fit.

Serena conceded that in last year's final she was overly concerned with bettering the feat of her two-time Wimbledon champion sister, Venus, and collecting three straight title victories. "It was just too much for me, I couldn't sleep," she admitted. "I wanted it so bad. I've never done that before. But I freaked out. I didn't perform, I gave it away, I beat myself.

"Sharapova played a great match, that was the best she played in her career, that's a fact. But I definitely feel more confident because of that. I will be more calm, more relaxed. I will just take my time, go a bit slower. Just do better."

Serena's immediate concern is lack of match toughness. She has not played since injuring an ankle in Rome early last month and only started to hit again last week. "I took a really bad fall and I am definitely not 100 per cent yet," she said. "But I have been playing since I was four, and if I'm not ready [for Wimbledon] now I'll never be ready."

One mistake she promises not to repeat is to put too much pressure on herself. "It took me two weeks to get over it last year, but it was a good learning experience, never to put so much pressure on myself again. I love tennis, but when I was out with my injury I didn't miss it. It is when I watch it on TV that I begin to miss tennis, so I didn't watch too much of the French Open. I kinda did my own thing and tried to work out my issues."

One issue which concerns Serena is the wretched draw which threatens to pit her against Venus as early as the fourth round. "I'm very disappointed about that," she said, but was not pessimistic about the probable outcome, nominating herself as one of the people who can win: "Lindsay, Justine, Sharapova, me. I guess Kim [Clijsters] too. The field has gotten a lot tougher nowadays."

That was an opinion shared by Daven-port. "It is different this year," she said. "We haven't seen Serena play all that much, Venus hasn't played up to her potential for the last year, so Kim, myself, Justine and Maria are perhaps the favourites. I would be surprised if anybody outside the top seven won it."

Clijsters is clearly included despite being ranked 17th in the world, on her way back from a long injury absence. "Now everyone is back, close to their best, and healthy," added Davenport.

Davenport praised Sharapova for the way she has handled being Wimbledon champion and, despite being No 1 in the world, expressed envy for the teenager. "How could you not be excited when you come back to your greatest memory 12 months later?" she said.

Henin-Hardenne's greatest concern is her fitness, particularly the leg problem caused by a back injury. "Am I fit for Wimbledon? I'll have the answer in a few days for sure," said the Roland Garros winner. "After the French I took a little rest, five or six days. I needed it. Physically and mentally it was a pretty hard tournament. We'll see if I've got good feelings after my first match."

Though she has not undergone any tests for the viral problem which caused her to miss so much of last year, Henin- Hardenne said she had been advised that her leg would need extended rest after Wimbledon. "I am feeling good but I have had to be careful with my calendar. Missing Eastbourne meant it hasn't been the best preparation for me, but it was the right decision."

Henin-Hardenne, runner-up to Venus Williams in 2001, claims she has learned and improved since then. "I was far from winning on that day, but that's a long time ago. It will be a great achievement if I can win this time, but I still have to improve my game on grass.

"I am serving much better than I did four years ago but I will have to play much more aggressive tennis. I will also need to be very strong if I want to win this tournament. I am not the favourite, a lot of other players are bigger favourites than I am. The first round will be hard enough for me. If I get through that, we will see."