Williams Has a Point of Order

Times Staff Writer

The alliteration is there and that's half the battle, isn't it?

The Serena Slam.

Fits in a headline. Easy to understand. Even easier to say.

So plan on hearing it over and over, like a recording, because the pursuit of a fourth consecutive Grand Slam singles championship by top-ranked Serena Williams will be the focal point of the Australian Open, the first major tennis tournament of 2003, beginning today.

Williams won the last three Grand Slam events of 2002 -- the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open -- in emphatic fashion, beating her older sister Venus in straight sets in all three finals. What prevented her from possibly taking the Grand Slam in the same calendar year was an ankle injury in Sydney during a tuneup event, forcing her to withdraw from the Australian on its opening day.

Steffi Graf was the last player to win the Slam in a calendar year, in 1988. Graf, now retired, won three of the four Slam events in 1995 and 1996. Three-time Australian Open champion Martina Hingis of Switzerland missed it by one match in 1997, losing in the French final.

For now, the topic is a non-calendar Grand Slam. Graf started one in 1993, and finished off the quartet in Australia in 1994. A decade earlier, Martina Navratilova completed the non-calendar Slam, setting off a fierce debate among the purists, the same sort of dialogue heard about golf's Tiger Woods during his "Tiger Slam" in 2000-01.

If 2002 was Serena Williams' breakthrough year, then this year could be the consolidation phase, going beyond one-year wonder.

"That would be an honor for me, to be compared to the Navratilova or Steffi Graf era," Williams said. "To be like the Serena era, now that's scary."

The sequel isn't always as easy. Hingis was 75-5 in 1997 and won her first 37 matches. The next year, she won one Grand Slam tournament and was the runner-up in two others but went without a title for six months. Now, at 22, her future is in serious doubt.

"It's always been tough for someone to have that great a year two years in a row," said former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, who has won three Grand Slam singles titles. "Who knows? Serena may have the game for it and she mentally may be able to continue. More often than not, it becomes a mental challenge for that player, or mental fatigue, just by always winning or always being expected to win.

"It really depends on Serena -- if she's still fired up as much as she was last year. It depends on the player to see if they're still as motivated the next time around."

Williams always has a light lead-in schedule to the Australian.

She won all of her singles matches this month in Perth, Australia, at the Hopman Cup, one step above an exhibition and one below a regular tour event.

"My goal is just not to lose," she said of her 2003 objectives. "Just pick very few tournaments and win all the ones I play."

The Australian Open is the only Slam event that has eluded the Williams family. Venus, who has not played a match since the season-ending WTA championships in Los Angeles, has reached one semifinal and three quarterfinals here. Serena's best showing was in 2001, when she made it to the quarterfinals, then lost to Hingis.

In the first round, Serena will play Emilie Loit of France, and Venus will open against a talented Russian teenager, Svetlana Kuznetsova, who won a doubles title with Navratilova at Gold Coast, Australia, this month.

The sisters are in opposite halves of the draw. Serena could face four-time Aussie champion Monica Seles in the quarterfinals and possibly Kim Clijsters of Belgium or Chanda Rubin in the semifinals. Clijsters and Rubin are the last two players to have beaten Serena.

The most difficult quarter of the draw appears to be in the lower half, with Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium, Alexandra Stevenson, Davenport (the winner in 2000) and two-time defending champion Jennifer Capriati. Davenport could face Alicia Molik of Australia in the second round. Molik, who won a WTA event at Hobart on Saturday, has lost only once in nine matches this year, to Serena Williams.

On the men's side, the most prominent story line will be top-ranked Lleyton Hewitt's pursuit of his first Australian Open title. He is trying to become the first Australian man to win here since Mark Edmondson in 1976. Hewitt, who opens against a qualifier, Magnus Larsson of Sweden, could face Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil in the third round, but Kuerten has never gone past the second round in six trips to Melbourne.

The biggest concerns for Hewitt in his portion of the draw are Alex Corretja of Spain, Andy Roddick of the United States and Jiri Novak of the Czech Republic. Hewitt, who was slowed by chickenpox last year and lost in the first round, will be relieved that a recent nemesis, Carlos Moya of Spain, is in the other half of the draw with two other highly ranked Spaniards, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Albert Costa.

Also in Moya's half of the draw is three-time champion Andre Agassi. Agassi, who withdrew because of a wrist injury on the opening day last year, has to be considered one of the favorites, in part because of his history in Melbourne and his intense off-season training regimen.

Several familiar faces will be missing from Melbourne Park, among them 2002 champion Thomas Johansson of Sweden. Johansson, out because of a sore knee, beat Marat Safin of Russia in last year's final. Tim Henman of Britain is sidelined by a bad shoulder. He and Johansson had each played seven straight times here.

Tommy Haas of Germany, a semifinalist in 2002, will miss the Australian for the first time since 1997 because of a shoulder injury. Also absent are Greg Rusedski of Britain, recovering from right foot surgery, and U.S. Open champion Pete Sampras, a two-time champion here in the '90s, who is skipping the trip. He will play his first event since the U.S. Open at San Jose in February.

Michael Chang, an Australian Open finalist in 1996, did not receive a wild-card spot in the main draw after missing the cutoff. The 30-year-old Chang had appeared in 31 of the last 32 Grand Slam tournaments -- he missed Wimbledon in 1999 -- and had appeared in 10 of the last 11 Australian Opens.

The cast of missing players is not nearly as long in the women's draw. Out are Hingis, who had appeared in six straight finals here; Amelie Mauresmo of France and Jelena Dokic of Yugoslavia. Mauresmo is recovering from a serious knee injury, and Dokic is simply staying away. She has been vocal in complaining about media pressures in Australia and skipped last year's tournament as well.

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