Even as she played in an exhibition event here in Melbourne yesterday Serena Williams could not escape her recent controversial past. With all the players wired up to microphones, Andy Roddick responded to a foot-fault by joking: "Did you really call a foot-fault on me in a charity match? You realise Serena's over there, right?"
Within hours of her arrival at Melbourne Park the previous day, Williams had been asked at a press conference how her anger management was coming along following her foul-mouthed tirade at last year's US Open against a line judge who had foot-faulted her. "Was it anger management, do you think? How is your writing coming along?" a feisty Williams asked. "Just fine, thank you," the reporter replied. "Great," Williams responded. "Ditto, kiddo."
The Australian Open, which begins here today, is the first Grand Slam tournament since the US Open, where Williams (right) was handed a maximum on-site fine of $10,000 (about £6,200) in the wake of her outburst at the end of her semi-final against Kim Clijsters. The Grand Slam Committee, representing Wimbledon and the US, French and Australian Opens, subsequently fined her $82,500 (about £51,000), which will be doubled if she is found guilty of another "Grand Slam Major Offence" in the next two years.
Shino Tsurubuchi, the Japanese line judge abused by Williams, is reported to be working here, though it would be surprising if she was asked to be on duty at any of the world No 1's matches. Tsurubuchi officiated at last week's tournament in Sydney but was not on court when Williams played.
While the Australian Open's defending champion looked in good shape for most of the Sydney tournament, she was soundly beaten by Elena Dementieva in the final and was hampered by an injury to her left knee. "I feel like it's very comforting to know that I wasn't at my best in that particular match, although I never want to make excuses," she said.
Despite cancelling her first practice session here, Williams does not expect the knee to be a problem over the next fortnight and will play in both singles and doubles. "I had a lot of practice by getting that far in Sydney," she said. "I don't want to push it, to go too far. I definitely want to do the best I can, obviously, but I also want to pace myself. Hopefully I can play seven singles rounds and six doubles rounds."
It took Williams five attempts to win her first Australian Open, but it has since become her most successful Grand Slam tournament. She has lifted the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup four times, although the sequence suggests she might not do so again this year, having won the title in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009. Despite winning 11 Grand Slam crowns, she has made a successful defence only once, retaining her Wimbledon title in 2003.
"I really like it here," Williams said. "It's like the United States but in Australia. I feel really at home and feel really comfortable. I feel like when I walk out there, people really want to see me do well. I think that helps a lot. I have a lot of Aussie mates."
She added: "I definitely enjoy playing in the heat. Maybe that's one of the reasons why I do so well. The past couple of times I won it was extremely hot, so I expect the same temperatures again. I definitely like to keep going when the going is tough. More than anything, I enjoy it. I don't really enjoy practising, but the moment I step on the court it's like, this is what I was born to do."
Williams does not appear to have a difficult draw. Her first major test could come in the quarter-finals against Victoria Azarenka, who had her in trouble here last year before having to retire with illness and heat exhaustion, and went on to beat Williams in the Miami final. Williams' potential semi-final opponents include her sister Venus, Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska.
Radwanska's younger sister, Urszula, will be the American's first opponent tomorrow. "I've played her before, at Wimbledon," Williams said. "She's a tough cookie. She's a tough player and she's definitely no push-over. She's a younger sister and younger sisters always want to play really hard and really tough. I know that for a fact."