- The Washington Times - Monday, June 21, 2004

WIMBLEDON, England — So much has changed for Serena and Venus Williams since they were last at the All England Club.

A year ago, Serena beat her older sister to win a second straight Wimbledon, the fifth time in six majors they met for the championship. They owned 10 Grand Slam titles, had swapped the No.1 ranking and carried a serious intimidation factor.

These days, the siblings are working to get their games in gear, their bodies healthy and their minds at peace. They lost in the French Open quarterfinals, the first time both exited a tournament on the same day.

“We both basically tried to commit suicide there,” Serena said yesterday, apparently referring to how poorly they played in Paris. “But we had to get over it quickly, because there was Wimbledon around the corner, and we don’t want to bring the bad karma to Wimbledon. We can just start fresh.”

Take away all-in-the-family matches, and the sisters are 46-1 at Wimbledon since 2000. That factored into Serena’s No.1 seeding, nine spots above her ranking, and Venus’ No.3 seeding, a five-place jump.

Venus reached four straight finals here, winning in 2000-01, while Serena can become only the third woman in the last 35 years (joining Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova) to win three consecutive Wimbledons.

But it’s been a tough 12 months. They’ve been forced to try to deal with the death of a sister, injuries (Serena had knee surgery Aug.1; Venus was out with a torn abdominal muscle, then a twisted ankle), uneven play (neither has been to a Grand Slam semifinal), and how to reconcile the demands of tennis with other interests (acting for Serena, interior decorating for Venus, clothes designing for both).

Serena offered an insight into their mind-sets when a Belgian reporter wondered what advice she’d give top-ranked Justine Henin-Hardenne and No.2 Kim Clijsters, who are sidelined.

“Enjoy the time off,” she answered. “Take as long as you want. Go out, live a little.”

Serena has only played 19 matches since Wimbledon in 2003, fewer than anyone else ranked in the top 15 has this season alone. Since winning her first tournament after an eight-month layoff, Serena is 10-3, making merely one semifinal.

“A lot of people expect me to win 100 percent of the time, and I expect myself to win 200 percent of the time,” she said. “No matter how good you are, no matter how much you try, you’re not going to win everything.”

Still, the Williams mystique is fading.

Consider what Jennifer Capriati said 15 months ago: “They definitely intimidate people a lot. They’ve come close to losing, but people can’t believe that they have a chance of beating them.”

Now consider what French Open champion Anastasia Myskina said yesterday: “They were not at their best lately. More players believe at least they can fight with them.”

About 24 hours before the tournament’s start, Serena wasn’t aware who her first foe is. Perhaps that’s a sign of confidence — or an indication her thoughts are elsewhere.

Asked how she prepared for playing on grass, Serena said: “I’ve been doing a lot of off-court work mentally,” but she wouldn’t go into specifics.

For the record, Serena opens tomorrow against Zheng Jie of China. Venus plays Marie-Gayanay Mikaelian of Switzerland today.

The honor of opening Centre Court goes to the defending men’s champion, Roger Federer. He didn’t know much about his opponent, so he asked players and coaches for tips on Alex Bogdanovic, a British wild card ranked 307th.

Federer is wary of an upset, having lost in the first round in 1999, 2000 and 2002.

That’s part of why he arrived at Wimbledon in 2003 bearing the tag of someone who couldn’t win the big ones. His triumph here began an ascendancy that includes a second Slam at the Australian Open, the No.1 ranking, and a 39-4 record with five titles.

It’s a “different kind of pressure I feel, because last year it was more about trying to make that first breakthrough in a Grand Slam. And this year, it’s trying to defend the title,” said Federer, whose practice session yesterday was cut short by rain.

“All the focus is on me. Also, from my own side, I put a lot of pressure on myself. When I step on court [today], it’s going to be strange feelings.”

Serena and Venus might experience something similar as they walk the grounds at the All England Club.

In 2003, they were accompanied by their divorced parents and sisters Yetunde, Lyndrea and Isha. When Venus struggled with the pain of her abdominal injury during her semifinal against Clijsters, Yetunde delivered a pep talk during a rain delay.

That was the last time the whole family was together. Yetunde, 31, was shot to death 2 months later.

“I thought about it once. But we’re here and I’m really trying to focus on the tennis aspect of it,” Serena said. “I displace a lot of my energy, put it all towards the ball, towards the racket. I put it all towards my game. Especially now, for this fortnight, I want to really, really do well.”

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