Easy Day Turns Testy for Serena

Times Staff Writer

Serena Williams, like any good actress, can make adjustments in mid-match, in mid-point and, on occasion, even in the middle of an answer.

Her ad-libbing on the court was kept to a minimum in a 65-minute quarterfinal today against Meghann Shaughnessy. The top-seeded Williams lost only two points on her serve in the first set and faced only one break point overall, defeating Shaughnessy, 6-2, 6-2, hitting eight aces and double-faulting once to reach the semifinals for the first time here.

In the semifinals, she will meet No. 4 Kim Clijsters of Belgium, who is the last player to beat Williams, having done so in the final of the season-ending WTA Championships at Staples Center in November. Clijsters, who has yet to drop a set, was efficient in beating No. 8 Anastasia Myskina of Russia, 6-2, 6-4, in 61 minutes. In the other semifinal, No. 2 Venus Williams faces No. 5 Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium, creating a sort of Fed Cup match between the U.S. and Belgium.

On the men's side, German Rainer Schuettler reached a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time with a 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-0 victory over Wimbledon runner-up and No. 10-seeded David Nalbandian of Argentina.

Meanwhile, extra importance seems to have been placed on Serena's most recent loss for a couple of reasons. The Williams' defeats occur so rarely, and Clijsters, the girlfriend of No. 1-ranked Lleyton Hewitt, is about as close to an Australian as she can be without actually holding a passport.

"Aussie Kim" appears to be loved by all, and even on the often-factional WTA tour, she seems to have no dissenters. Clijsters doesn't snipe at her opponents or make excuses when she loses, and a former tour employee said that Serena appreciated Clijsters' class on that controversial day at Indian Wells when Serena was booed by the crowd in their final in 2001.

What Williams didn't appreciate today were all the same questions about Clijsters, and the similar line of inquiry about whether the gap had narrowed between herself and the field. She definitely minded talk about the gap, but not at first. Her mood ring flickered and changed to cranky about midway through her answer.

"Yeah, the gap is definitely getting narrower," she said. "Everyone is improving year in and year out. I'm just trying to keep up with everyone else. Most of all, I'm just trying to have fun out here and enjoy myself because I think once I stop having fun, then it's going to get a little boring.

"Sure, the gap is closing. Quite frankly, I'm tired of answering these questions. Every day, the same question: 'What does it take to beat the Williams sisters?' You know, I don't know."

In Los Angeles, Serena had pulled off a difficult semifinal against Jennifer Capriati, winning in three sets, while Clijsters played five games against Venus, who retired because of an injury. After losing to Clijsters, Serena spoke about her exhaustion, saying she felt as though she was 98 years old: "I'm an old lady in a young woman's body."

Clijsters had something to say about that in the season-opening event, the Hopman Cup in Perth earlier this month. There, Williams beat Clijsters in the final.

"I think I was dead after my 25 tournaments," Clijsters said, laughing. "It really doesn't worry me. I thought I played a great match and thought I played good enough to beat her. Of course, it's always easy to say afterward that she was tired. But I think she had about four weeks off before L.A."

Williams, two matches away from completing a "Serena Slam," four consecutive Grand Slam titles, was asked what Clijsters did so effectively in Los Angeles. Clijsters won, 7-5, 6-3, at Staples Center.

"You know, I don't like to live in the past," she said. "You can feel free to look up the last transcripts and see why I lost the match."

Myskina was influenced by the outcome in Los Angeles, saying she thinks the Belgian teenager is the best player in the world.

"Kim beat her last time in Championships," said Myskina. "I think she have a good chance to win the whole Australian Open because I think she feels like she plays [at] home here. The crowd really support her. She much better -- not much better -- but I think she better than Serena and Venus right now. More confidence right now, I think than Serena and Venus."

Now, with the "Serena Slam" in range, was it time for revenge against Clijsters in the semifinals today?

"Vengeance belongs to God," Williams said. "I'm just here to play tennis."

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