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Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Semis taste sweet to Serena

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The biggest story thus far at the Australian Open has been Serena Williams and, yes, I do know that you could take that any number of ways. There's no doubt that the WTA's diva supreme is overweight, and in a way that makes it impossible to imagine that she has done anything that even remotely resembles routine fitness training and self-policing when it comes to her diet. At the same time, when you can bring game of the kind Serena's trotted out under the hard Melbourne sun, you can suck down a bag of Doritos, top it off with a couple of Ho Ho's and who's going to get all mouthy about it?

Certainly not Serena's coach/mother, Oracene. Not the girls she's either crushed, outblasted or outlasted. Not the fans, who have been lapping up Serena's performances and dramatic flourishes. Let me see … that leaves the press, and who cares what they think? If they can't get their minds around the idea that you can be seemingly unfit to compete, yet still rain horror on women ranked 50, 60 places above you (Exhibit A: Nadia Petrova, the tournament's No. 5 seed, whom Serena clubbed out in Round 3), they'll get used to it. Reality bites. All that old dogs can do is refuse to learn new tricks.

Today, Serena came up against a quality opponent, a tough little Israeli named Shahar Peer. Peer might be under the casual tennis fan's radar, but she's tough and disciplined, ready for prime time despite never having advanced beyond the fourth round in any of the meager seven Grand Slams she's played. She brought her A-game today, stretching Serena beyond what the pundits thought was her breaking point: the late stages of a hard-fought, three-set match. Serena won, 8-6, in the third.

Peer's serve doesn't bear comparison with Serena's, yet she posted a better first-serve percentage (60 percent to Serena's 58), but hit no aces, while Serena busted loose with 11. Serena made roughly one-third more unforced errors (49 to Peer's 34). But Serena converted on 5 of 6 break points (83 percent), while Peer made just 3 of 13 (23 percent); the swing there is enormous, and tells the story of the match: When Serena needed to dig deep and pull out a big shot under pressure, she invariably came through. It wasn't exactly poetry out there, but when Serena was asked, "Who writes your scripts?" she didn't miss a beat, answering: "I'm a good writer, so I usually do all the writing."

That's a writerly way of saying: It's all down to me.

So it's about time that critics stopped whining about the quality of the competition, or the way the other women shatter like dropped crockery the minute Serena fixates on them with that disconcerting, hard stare. This isn't about the shortcomings of WTA pros. It's about the strength and will of Serena Williams. This clearly is a woman with a big appetite that isn't satisfied by mere food.

Have a question for Peter Bodo? Join Bodo's next chat on Jan. 31 at 1 p.m. ET.