Tennis: Serena rebuts injury doubts but isn't convincing

Serena Williams about to hit a ball thrown by a member of her training team as coach Patrick Mouratoglou looks on during practice at Melbourne Park. She is gunning for a clean sweep of Grand Slam titles which would help her beat Margaret Court's tota
Serena Williams about to hit a ball thrown by a member of her training team as coach Patrick Mouratoglou looks on during practice at Melbourne Park. She is gunning for a clean sweep of Grand Slam titles which would help her beat Margaret Court's total of 24.PHOTO: REUTERS

MELBOURNE • Getting a straight answer out of Serena Williams can often be like having a conversation with a talking clock.

Metronomically, she will recycle her practised responses to difficult questions and the one that holds this Australian Open transfixed on the eve of the opening exchanges is a familiar one: is the best women's player in the world properly fit?

Asked yesterday to comment on photographs that seemed to show the injuries that cut short her participation in the recent Hopman Cup had not healed, she feigned indifference to pending doom.

"No, I'm a little tired today," she said. "I've been working so hard and doing so much work, so maybe I had a bad attitude out there."

Or maybe she had yet to quell the pain of inflammation that restricted her movement in her losing semi-final against Roberta Vinci at Flushing Meadows in September (her last Tour appearance) and struck again in Perth this month.

We will know soon enough. Certainly, her opponent in the first round tomorrow, the talented but erratic Italian Camila Giorgi, will ask her as many on-court questions as it takes to determine the truth.

Meanwhile, Williams relied on sarcasm to fend off further inquiries.

Was she able to train at 100 per cent? "No, I'm at 120, 130 per cent right now. This week (there) has been a lot of work.

"I actually wanted to have an easy day today. But to me, in my mind, 'easy' is just two hours of really intense working out. (The knee) actually is really fine. I don't have any inflammation any more. It's just that I just needed some time to get over that little hump."

She insisted: "I've had a really good preparation. I didn't have the match play that I've wanted to have but, after playing for so many years on the Tour, I should be able to, you know, focus on that."

The number of people in the room who accepted that were probably in single digits.

As for the task facing her in the first week, the world No. 1 said: "I always seem to have a tough draw, so it's fine. Doesn't matter who I play. At some point you have to play everyone. That's how it always works out."

Certainly that is true. To win seven matches over a fortnight, sooner or later the winner is going to run into some quality flak. But Williams resorted to the delusional again when asked what she thought of Giorgi. "I don't really ever look at the draw," she said, "so I would appreciate it if you didn't mention it. Thank you."

This was not a press conference, it was an audience, and the queen was becoming increasingly impatient with her subjects.

Now she is back in the city where she has already won six times. If she successfully defends her title, she will draw alongside Steffi Graf with 22 Slam titles to lead the field in the Open era. But even history does not seem to have calmed her mood.

"I feel fine, honestly," she said when asked if all of this was weighing on her mind. "I don't have anything to prove. I have nothing to lose. I can only gain."

Then came her final denial: the calendar Grand Slam she came so tantalisingly close to sealing last year was not remotely in her thoughts. Nor would it obsess her this year.

"I don't think about it. I never thought about it, really. It was in front of me last year. But it still wasn't there, so I just think about each tournament as it comes, each player. Everyone here wants to win the tournament, I do probably more than anyone else, so we'll see."

And with that she was gone, grumbling and dangerous. Injured or not, it will take some excellent tennis to deny her a seventh Australian title.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 17, 2016, with the headline 'Serena rebuts injury doubts but isn't convincing'. Print Edition | Subscribe