March 26, 2008

Key Biscayne has Serena's full attention

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — A conversation with Serena Williams can cover a wide range of topics, from screenplays (she wants to write one) to electric cars (she wants to buy one) to her love life.

"Right now," she said, laughing, "I'm dating my tennis racket."

Yes, amid her many interests, Williams still finds time for tennis. She's seeking her fifth Key Biscayne title at the Sony Ericsson Open, which began Wednesday with matches involving unseeded players.

Williams is seeded eighth but perhaps the woman to beat, given her 23-1 record in the event since 2002. While she sometimes seems more excited about acting and fashion design than tennis, Key Biscayne usually earns her undivided attention. Maybe it's because she lives 90 minutes up Interstate 95 in Palm Beach Gardens and always has lots of friends and family at her matches.

"I love having people come out," she says. "It's pressure on me to keep winning."

The tournament is only her third this year. She lost in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open to Jelena Jankovic, then won in Bangalore, India in early March, beating sister Venus in the semifinals and Patty Schnyder in the final. Williams says she has since been practising more than usual, and she shrugs off persistent talk she's insufficiently devoted to her career.

"Tennis is No. 1 in my life," she says. "I really enjoy the game. I love nothing more than walking on the court. To me that's just the best feeling." Plus, she says: "It's a great job. It pays well."

Slowed by injuries in 2006, Williams mounted a career comeback last year. She won the Australian Open for her eighth major title, the most among active women. She also won Key Biscayne, making it seven titles at the event for the Williams sisters since 1998. "We've got seven of the last 10?" three-time champion Venus said. "That's nice. It's exciting. We love this tournament."

Both sisters returned to the top 10 in 2007. Serena's ranking rose to seventh from 95th at the start of last year. The sisters first cracked the top 10 in the late 1990s, and they're now the lone American women in the top 30. Only one American younger than 26 - Ashley Harkleroad - is in the top 100, and Serena blames the U.S. woes on a lack of tournaments.

"There are only a handful in the United States," she says. "When I was younger there were so many - Chicago, Houston, D.C., everywhere. I got to see a lot of tennis. That's how my dad got us into tennis. "If you have every tournament in Europe or Asia, you're going to get more European or Asian players, as opposed to American players. I think that's the root of the problem."

At 26, nearly nine years removed from her first Grand Slam title, Williams sees the benefits of being older and wiser when it comes to her sport. "The older you get, the more appreciation you have for the game," she says. "When you're younger, maybe you don't have to work as hard. When you get older, you have to do a lot more to keep your body right and your game tight."

She says she's "really healthy" at the moment, and plenty of challenges await in 2008. It has been nearly five years since Williams won a non-Australian major title, and she's eager to play in the Beijing Olympics, even though she's concerned about the pollution in Beijing. "I'm an environmentalist," she says. "I try to recycle, and I don't have a Prius, but I'm going to get an electric car soon."

She's also excited about a new TV commercial she did with Rafael Nadal, and she still wants to pursue work in Hollywood - in front of the camera, and behind the scenes as well. "I've gotten into writing a lot. I think I want to write a couple of screenplays," she says. "I write a lot of love stories and funny stories."
How about an autobiography? "Not anytime soon," she said, laughing. "I don't know who would write an autobiography at 26." Williams still has a few tennis chapters to go.

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