- The Washington Times - Monday, May 24, 2004

PARIS — En route to the French Open, Serena Williams paid a visit to the Cannes Film Festival. She enjoyed the glamour of it all, saw some movies and even chatted with Tom Hanks about acting.

Heady stuff for a woman with a nascent screen career. Now, though, it’s time to get back to her day job, playing her first Grand Slam tournament in 10 months.

“Tennis is my first love,” Williams said yesterday, 24 hours before the start of the year’s second major championship. “I like nothing more than walking out there and just having the crowd clap and clap and clap. It’s just an unbelievable feeling for me.”

Not so a year ago at the French Open, which finished with tears for Williams after a semifinal loss to eventual champion Justine Henin-Hardenne.

It was an all-around rough day: Large segments of the crowd cheered Williams’ faults and other errors, and she charged Henin-Hardenne with “lying and fabricating” about a disputed call for time. Plus, Williams had to absorb the end of her 33-match winning streak at majors, including a self-styled Serena Slam of four straight titles that began at the 2002 French Open.

When asked — last summer or this week — about that match, Williams says she doesn’t remember anything. A bit of acting? Perhaps. But also necessary.

“I had to or else I wouldn’t have been able to come back and win Wimbledon. I would still be stuck in that moment,” she said yesterday. “You can’t stay in that moment. You’ve got to be able to move forward.”

Henin-Hardenne, for her part, hasn’t erased the memory. Nor should she be expected to, given that it was the prelude to her first major title.

“It’s part of my career, part of the story of tennis. There’s nothing special about it,” said the Belgian, who subsequently added U.S. Open and Australian Open championships to her resume, along with the top ranking.

Williams dropped from No.1 to No.7, but because that’s largely a result of a long injury absence, she’s seeded second in Paris. She had surgery on her left knee a few weeks after winning the Wimbledon final in July, and she has played just 14 matches since, none at a major. She returned to the tour in March, winning the Nasdaq-100 Open in her first event, then later missed about another month.

She’s hardly the only star who’s been sidelined, giving the French Open somewhat of an anyone-could-win feel when play starts today with Henin-Hardenne against Sandrine Testud. Also in action: Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, Guillermo Coria, Lindsay Davenport and Amelie Mauresmo. Williams faces 51st-ranked Iveta Benesova tomorrow.

“It could be a little bit dangerous, maybe, in the earlier rounds, if no one’s really sharp yet,” said 2001 champion Jennifer Capriati, who missed the Australian Open with a bad back but looked good in a semifinal win over Williams at the Italian Open.

Henin-Hardenne hasn’t competed in 1 months because of a virus, Venus Williams twisted her left ankle two weeks ago and 2001 and 2003 runner-up Kim Clijsters withdrew with a wrist injury.

It wasn’t until last week that Henin-Hardenne determined she’s healthy enough to try to defend her title, saying yesterday: “I can’t tell you I’m 100 percent, because we’ll have to see the matches. But I’m feeling much better than I was a few weeks ago.”

The other reigning champion, Juan Carlos Ferrero, won’t make up his mind until today whether bruised right ribs will force him to skip the tournament. He said there’s a 60 percent chance he will pull out.

“It’s a tough decision for me because I want to play,” said Ferrero, slated to face Tommy Haas tomorrow. “But I’m still having problems.”

Serena, who said she’s “pretty close” to being completely healthy, doesn’t listen to what others think about her chances over the next two weeks. The only pressure she heeds, she said, is “intense, Serena-be-perfect-type pressure.”

“That inner voice, the fact that I’m insatiable, really seems to be a driving force that enabled me to do so well, so young. Even when I was 17, I told myself, ‘I’m not losing,’” said Williams, who’s 22. “That’s how it is, getting back into the swing of things again this year. I feel that drive.”

That goes for off the court, too. She finds time to act (her credits include “Law & Order”) and to design clothes — for her own line, Aneres, and for Nike as part of a sponsorship deal that could be worth nearly $40million over five years.

At Cannes, she was thrilled to meet two-time Oscar winner Hanks.

“I saw that movie ‘Turner & Hooch’ at least 50 times. It took all my guts to go up to him,” Williams recounted. “I was like, ‘Can I have a picture?’ He said, ‘Are you kidding? I have my camera, too.’ It was cool. It was like, ‘Wow!’”

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