Sports

Focus vital for Serena

She is the favourite to defend her Paris crown, but there are signs she could be vulnerable

At 32, Serena Williams may be well into the veteran ranks as she prepares to defend her French Open crown, but she believes that like a good wine, she is getting better with age.

Last year's domination of the women's game - when she won her second title in Paris and her 17th Grand Slam crown in New York - has been followed by a patchy 2014.

Titles in Brisbane and Miami have been offset by an early exit at the Australian Open; a succession of injuries and a loss of form have left her short of match practice heading into this year's French Major, which begins today.

But she blasted her way to the title last week in Rome, losing just one set along the way.

Williams is still the best women's tennis player. Her serve, considered by many as the best ever, is still lethal.

Her quickness and top-end speed, when she is healthy, remain crackling. In recent years, her fitness and tennis acumen have actually improved.

But there are times out on that court when she's not fully engaged.

Heading into the French Open, this is the prevailing question on the women's side: Will the defending champion step onto the Court Philippe Chatrier fully present in both body and mind?

Williams is the favourite to win her 18th Grand Slam title, which would put her level with legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on the all-time Open-era singles list and just four shy of Steffi Graf's top mark of 22.

For her part, the American is comfortable with her status as favourite.

"I like being seeded No. 1," she said. "The favourite part definitely means more pressure. But, as Billie Jean King tells me, pressure is a privilege."

NEAR IMPOSSIBLE

On the face of it, Maria Sharapova, the only woman in world sport who earns more than Williams, is facing a near-impossible task.

She has a long losing record against the American, including a 6-4, 6-4 pounding in last year's final when she was the defending champion.

Asked what were her favourite things to do in Paris ahead of the French Open, the Russian replied: "I eat some macarons. Beside La Duree, there are a couple of others I like to go to. But, yeah, just eat. Eat some more."

Li Na - the 2011 French Open winner and reigning Australian Open champion - said that her coach Carlos Rodriguez, who master-minded Justine Henin's four French Open triumphs, was her sounding board.

"I think he's pretty smart," said the Chinese icon, who at 32, is the same age as Williams. "He always like to change.

"Of course you cannot do exactly the same like 2011. Every year is different."

Alize Cornet, the French No. 1, said that playing on home turf was "very special, very different".

"It's tough to handle the pressure because you know that if you do bad you know they (the French crowd) are going to be tough with you; but on the other hand, you need to charm them because they are pretty tough to charm.

"But when you have them in your pocket they are just behind you 100 per cent and they can give you wings.

"That's my goal. Trying to have wings with them on the court and fly over my matches. That would be the best scenario possible."

One thing is clear, if Williams hits top gear, then even a Cornet with wings will not be able to stop the world No. 1.

- AFP


I like being seeded No. 1. The favourite part definitely means more pressure. But, as Billie Jean King tells me, pressure is a privilege.

- Serena Williams

If you do bad you know they (the French crowd) are going to be tough with you... but when you have them in your pocket... they can give you wings.

- French No. 1 Alize Cornet