Serena returns on a mission to exorcise the French demons

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The Independent Online

Serena Williams upset some people recently when she said that she was going to move the Wimbledon trophy from its pride of place to make room for another she now prized most of all - the image award presented her by Denzel Washington at America's National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.

It showed that there is a lot more to the Wimbledon champion than either Wimbledon or tennis. Nevertheless, after her mortifying experiences in Paris a couple of weeks ago she should consider moving the 137-year-old trophy back nearer to the centre of the cabinet again.

Williams lost more than just an important title when she was beaten by Justine Henin-Hardenne in the semi-finals. And she lost more than her hopes of completing a calendar year Grand Slam. It deepened an already sinking feeling that the declining Venus, the elder sister upon whom she once depended so much, may not be there much longer when the going gets tough.

And Roland Garros was the toughest. First service faults cheered, mother taunted, a continual cacophony of intimidation - even for someone whose steel was forged in the heat of a hostile Palm Springs crowd it was not an assault to forget. "I could hear people yelling at my mum - I can't imagine how she must have felt," Serena said. She left France with a dispiriting sense that wherever she goes in the world, not much changes.

Wimbledon is not perfect either, but a successful title defence now offers an opportunity to purge those French setbacks all in one go. Modern Ms Muscles could find the ancient Rosewater dish assuming a new significance for her. Williams has been hurt. She has also been annoyed. If, as she reckons, she has also been enlightened - that in the past year or so she has learnt who she really is and how best to be that person - we can expect a uniquely dangerous response. She has already hinted this might happen. "I am on a mission," she said.

Doing it, though, will be her biggest test of character on a tennis court. If there can be a good time to be facing something like that, this is probably it. Her revelation of self-understanding, she says, occurred around her 20th birthday, and it was a turning point in her life. It dawned on Serena that she was growing up. Previously she had thought she had needed to do the same things as Venus; now she realises she had often actually wanted to be her sister. This was not helpful. "I needed to move on a little and be myself," she said.

Younger Serena had been scared of the commitment necessary to be a champion. Liberated Serena believes she is not. She is surprisingly different from Venus, she has discovered - more extrovert, and, right now at least, more ambitious too.

Serena went home to Florida to recover. "I was with my dad and we worked together, and we worked every day," she said. "I have been working really hard. I am really determined to be better than I was. I don't want anyone to stop me. I am tough on myself. Too tough I think."

It was not hard to identify what needed working on. There were moments, astonishing for those who have witnessed the four Grand Slam triumphs, when Henin-Hardenne had laid into the Williams second serve. And the first serve just had not landed in enough.

"I think I didn't know that I couldn't get it right," she said, expressing a convoluted surprise at the impotence of the once-thumping delivery. "I just had to work on my toss. I kept trying, and trying too hard [during the match] and I couldn't relax."

This mental task is the Wimbledon priority. "It will probably make me a better player. I can't be any hungrier," she asserts. "I am going to do my best and if I'm not playing my best on a given day I may not win, but I am going to keep positive. It's not going to break me. I am young. I have a lot left on my career. I am going to go there with a positive attitude."

If Serena has a fault in her mental approach, it may be in a tendency to underestimate the opposition's potential. That is the dangerous flip-side of her confidence, and of her belief that if she delivers what she does best, she cannot be beaten.

In fact, Henin-Hardenne is not the fragile creature she was when reaching the Wimbledon final two years ago. Her physique is significantly sturdier, and she is faster, happier and more confident. So is Kim Clijsters.

Moreover, Henin-Hardenne's outstanding one-handed backhand has developed into the most superbly versatile stroke, with the facility to slip her hand under the stroke and manufacture a treacherous slice, or roll the wrist over the ball and whip unexpected angles, and to do either with a late sleight of hand which is difficult to read.

Serena affects not to know it. "I don't know what she did with her game," she claims. "But I've got Roland Garros out of my system. I thought I played well, but looking back on it I can see I didn't. I am not surprised about losing because of my serve. But it's like whenever I lose, I can say I beat myself."

That is a risky way of viewing it. True, Serena has so much power that when she keeps her error ratio down it has been like trying to stop a train with a signalman's flag, but for all her force she does not have Henin-Hardenne's fluidity. Nor, apparently, does she have her rival's capacity at reading an opponent.

Twice this year Henin-Hardenne has found ways of side-tracking the American express.

Serena must also beware the feeling that Henin-Hardenne's cause is not a deserving one. "Players are struggling, fighting, and sometimes even cheating," the American said. It sounded like a reference to the moment when the Belgian raised her hand as Serena served, but omitted to tell the umpire this when he incorrectly called a fault.

Revenge, however, is not on the menu, which is wise. Would she like to play Henin in the Wimbledon final? "No, I prefer to play Venus, and hopefully that will happen," said Serena. "Venus shouldn't have played at the French Open - it was really hard for her [because she wasn't fit]. But she always makes Wimbledon. Venus will definitely play Wimbledon. But I don't think Venus wants to play doubles and I don't want to put her through that."

Serena has left it late coming to Britain. Too late, according to Virginia Wade, the former Wimbledon champion, who believes the titleholder may not be taking the task seriously enough. Serena arrived on Tuesday - leaving only five full days to acclimatize. "She will be jet-lagged," claimed Wade.

But the first week draw looks unthreatening, and the Wimbledon atmosphere has a way of making Serena feel at home quite quickly. "I have such happy memories of the place," she says. "I like the British fans a lot. They are really into the tennis. When I'm practising the crowds are huge. And everyone in England is very polite. There is a kind of attitude about them," she said, pausing before adding her final thought: "It's not like France."