Serena's body language declares serious intent

Younger Williams sister will attempt to become the first woman to secure five consecutive Grand Slam singles titles since Graf

If you want to know how much desire a player has going into a major championship, it is sometimes better to watch them practise rather than ask them about their game. At 9am yesterday, on a far-flung court at chilly Roland Garros, Serena and Venus Williams went about the serious business of fine-tuning their preparation for the French Open. They were hitting the ball well.

In case it has slipped your notice, the Williams sisters have contested the last four Grand Slam women's singles finals, starting here last June, with Serena, the younger sibling, the winner each time. Serena, 21, will now attempt to become the first woman to secure five consecutive Grand Slam singles titles since Steffi Graf, who completed her run at the 1989 Australian Open.

Since this year's Australian Open in January, the sisters, Serena in particular, seem to have appeared on magazine covers as often as on the court, giving rise to speculation that outside distractions are beginning to erode their dedication to tennis. Venus, 22, who has been supplanted as the world No 2 by Belgium's Kim Clijsters, is even being spoken of as an afterthought.

With Justine Henin-Hardenne, also from Belgium, fourth in the rankings, a reporter from the land of Jean-Claude Van Damme muscled in yesterday with the suggestion that the games of Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne are more complete than those of the Williams sisters, and asked Serena if she agreed.

"Sure, they're more complete," the defending champion replied, with the thinnest of smiles.

There is no doubt that the Williams sisters can be beaten on clay, the sport's slowest surface. In the last three years, Serena has lost five of her 31 matches on the surface, to Jennifer Capriati, Patty Schnyder, Henin-Hardenne (twice) and Amélie Mauresmo. During the same period, Venus has lost five out of 27 matches on clay, to Henin-Hardenne, Barbara Schett, Clijsters, Serena and Mauresmo.

"It's not difficult for me to play on clay at all," said Serena, who is due to open the tournament today on Philippe Chatrier Court against Barbara Rittner, of Germany, whom she defeated, 6-4, 6-0, in their only previous meeting, in the second round at Wimbledon in 2001.

"I love the clay," Serena added. "I actually can be lazier. I don't have to work as hard. I can be out of the point and get back in the point. I don't remember it being all that tough [here last year]. I just remember winning my matches.

"It feels great to be back. I feel this is where it all started for me, having an opportunity to win my first Grand Slam [title] for three years. After that I gained a lot of confidence."

After winning the Nasdaq-100 Open on a rubberised concrete court at Key Biscayne in March, Serena admitted that she had not been practising hard enough. "I've been hanging out, relaxing, not working," she said.

But yesterday she almost leaped out of her chair and performed callisthenics when asked if she had been working harder. "My fitness is unbelievable right now," she said. "I don't get tired."

The questioning then turned, predictably enough, to a review of Annika Sorenstam's golf exploits in the men's tour event in Fort Worth Texas. "I think she did really well," Serena said, "proved a lot of points. I think it's cool she was able to that."

The Williams sisters once accepted Karsten Braasch's offer to play a set against each of them, and the German journeyman beat them back-to-back. But Serena said yesterday: "I'm here to play female tennis. I've never been involved in men's tennis. I wouldn't even be tempted."

Amid the talk about potential winners here, Britain's two representatives, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, are among the lower-key competitors, simply relieved to be fit enough to participate, having missed the first Grand Slam of the year in Australia.

Rusedski will tomorrow play his first match since losing to Pete Sampras in the third round of the United States Open on 2 September last year. His opponent is Nikolay Davydenko, a 21-year-old Russian who reached the second round in his two previous visits to Roland Garros.

Rusedski, who has only once progressed as far as the fourth round in seven previous visits, played a one-set warm-up yesterday against Vince Spadea, an American who, it may be remembered, ended a 21-match losing streak by beating Rusedski in the first round at Wimbledon in 2000.

Spadea, who has played well on clay in Monte Carlo and Rome this season, won the set, 9-3, as part of the French Open's charity day. The bonus for Rusedski was that he came through the exercise without feeling as much as a twinge in his feet, knees or neck. "I feel pretty healthy, but we could do with some sun here," Rusedski said. "We'll see how it goes on Tuesday."

Henman, seeded No 25, has lost four of his 11 matches this year after recovering from a shoulder operation. His first-round opponent, Vladimir Voltchkov, of Belarus, was a Wimbledon semi-finalist in 2000, but has not progressed beyond the first round at Roland Garros.

Henman practised with Xavier Malisse, of Belgium, on Court No 4 yesterday and all went well apart from one shot that caused Henman to graze a knuckle on his right hand. The British No 1 arrived here without his coach, the American Larry Stefanki. "Larry's due in London next Monday," Henman said. "If I'm still in the tournament, he'll join me here. Otherwise we'll start working on the grass courts. We do our most useful work on the practice court preparing for tournaments."

With the Spanish local and regional elections under way yesterday, a straw poll among visitors to Roland Garros pulled in a lot of votes for Juan Carlos Ferrero, Carlos Moya, Albert Costa, the defending champion, and Felix Mantilla to win the men's singles title. The Argentinians Guilermo Coria, Gaston Gaudio, Agustin Calleri and David Nalbandian, were also among the favourites.

Lleyton Hewitt, the Wimbledon champion, has the fighting spirit to conquer the clay, and Andre Agassi, the 33-year-old Australian Open champion, is expected to lead the American challenge, along with Andy Roddick, winner of the clay court event in St Polten, Austria. Roger Federer, of Switzerland, undoubtedly has all the shots but regular observers wonder whether he is ready for a major breakthrough.

FRENCH OPEN SEEDS

MEN'S SINGLES
1 L Hewitt (Aus)
2 A Agassi (US)
3 J C Ferrero (Sp)
4 C Moya (Sp)
5 R Federer (Swit)
6 A Roddick (US)
7 G Coria (Arg)
8 D Nalbandian (Arg)
9 A Costa (Sp)
10 P Srichaphan (Thai)
11 R Schüttler (Ger)
12 S Schalken (Neth)
13 J Novak (Cz Rep)
14 S Grosjean (Fr)
15 G Kuerten (Br)
16 A Corretja (Sp)
17 Y Kafelnikov (Rus)
18 A Calleri (Arg)
19 F Gonzalez (Chile)
20 F Mantilla (Sp)
21 G Gaudio (Arg)
22 W Ferreira (SA)
23 Y El Aynaoui (Mor)
24 J Blake (US)
25 T Henman (GB)
26 X Malisse (Bel)
27 M Youzhny (Rus)
28 T Robredo (Sp)
29 V Spadea (US)
30 J Nieminen (Fin)
31 J I Chela (Arg)
32 A Clement (Fr)

WOMEN'S SINGLES
1 S Williams (US)
2 K Clijsters (Bel)
3 V Williams (US)
4 J Henin-Hardenne (Bel)
5 A Mauresmo (Fr)
6 L Davenport (US)
7 J Capriati (US)
8 C Rubin (US)
9 D Hantuchova (Slovak)
10 J Dokic (Serb-M)
11 A Myskina (Rus)
12 M Seles (US)
13 E Dementieva (Rus)
14 E Daniilidou (Gr)
15 M Maleeva (Bul)
16 A Sugiyama (Japan)
17 A Coetzer (SA)
18 M Shaughnessy (US)
19 P Schnyder (Swit)
20 E Bovina (Rus)
21 L Raymond (US)
22 V Zvonareva (Rus)
23 A Pistolesi (Isr)
24 C Martinez (Sp)
25 N Dechy (Fr)
26 S Farina Elia (It)
27 A Stevenson (US)
28 C Fernandez (Arg)
29 E Likhovtseva (Rus)
30 P Suarez (Arg)
31 L Granville (US)
32 F Schiavone (It)

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