Paris burns in memory of the avenger

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The Independent Online

As someone occasionally criticised for lack of focus, Serena Williams has zeroed in on one special day at the Wimbledon Championships. Not the final, and her prospects of retaining the title, but a week on Thursday, 3 July. That's the day of the semi-finals. The day, if the seedings work out, when Serena plays Justine Henin-Hardenne. The day she burns to take revenge for defeat by the Belgian in the French Open earlier this month.

After that defeat, Serena wept in the media conference while at the same time vowing to keep smiling. She claimed not to have been surprised by the loss because she was playing poorly, but was heated in her avowal that "I abhor losing". And, having been by no means the first to suffer the abuse of a Roland Garros crowd who had adopted her opponent as their favourite, she promised: "It's not going to break me."

Few people would have imagined that such a solid performer with such a glittering track record was malleable, never mind fragile. Until she arrived in London towards the end of last week, the younger Williams sister had been hard at work at home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, honing mind and body, as well as serve and volley.

It was, she freely acknowledged, the serve which let her down against Henin-Hardenne that day, the day when she led 4-2 and 30-love in the decisive set. And that serve has been rocketing down in the right places at practice. As for the volley deemed vital to grass-court prospects, Serena giggled: "I have been working on my volleys, but I have been working on my volleys for years."

Most of the work was undertaken on the hard court at her home. In our trans-atlantic conversation, Serena was hazy about the amount of time she had spent on the few grass courts available in the area, saying: "I've heard there are some close to where I live, but I haven't looked into it." Nor does she feel that pre-Wimbledon grass events in England are much use to her preparations, because they offer a different bounce to the turf at the All England Club. So, to that extent, she will be winging it, and possibly laying herself open to a repeat of the accusations that she and sister Venus do not play frequently enough or prepare in a fully professional manner for the Grand Slams. But, such is the power of their game, both Williamses have got away with that before now.

As for that crowd hostility in Paris, Serena said: "You can't forget things like that, of course not." But she promised that that day and that match were now "water on [sic] the bridge".

She considered the French Open setback might even have been good for her. "If I had to lose one, hopefully it would be there." To the comment that others might at last be closing the gap on the Williams sisters, Serena offered this comment: "It is encouraging to know players are struggling and fighting and sometimes even cheating."

In the aftermath of the Paris defeat, she had accused Henin-Hardenne of "lying and fabricating" over a disputed service call, but of the Belgian challenge from Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, she said: "They are playing really well and I am happy for them, I really am." Asked if she expected to be less vulnerable on grass than she had been on clay, Serena said simply: "No."

Notwithstanding, she is looking forward to Wimbledon. She loves Kipling's poem If - "I always read that when I go there and it is always inspiring". She also finds it inspiring, she said, "when I see my name on the list of champions". The wearing of what Wimbledon insists should be "predominantly white" apparel also meets with the approval of someone whose on-court dresses occasionally spill over into the garish. "At first, when I was younger, I thought it was weird, but I like the tradition."

In saying she was looking forward to the defence of her title because "you never know what happens next year, I might not be able to play Wimbledon", Serena was possibly just teasing, because she also dismissed rumours of diverting into other interests such as acting. "I can't even see the finish line at all, it's so far ahead of me. And hopefully I can keep it that way for another seven, eight years. As long as I'm healthy and as long as I'm enjoying it, I'll keep playing."

Serena has already rejected the offer of a part in the film called Wimbledon which is currently shooting, though she asserted: "I'm a good actress and I have a lot of skill and would like to challenge myself. But playing a part in a tennis movie is not going to challenge me at all." The challenge which does concern her begins tomorrow, with boiling point scheduled for a week on Thursday.

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