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Friday, May 8, 2009
Serena having trouble backing up boasts

Just a few days ago in Rome, Serena Williams told us that she's the best player in the world. We all know who the real No. 1 is, Williams said, before playing just her second match on clay this year. Quite frankly, she said, I'm the best in the world.

The only trouble with making statements like that is that you have to back them up, and Serena wasn't up to the job. A few days later, she lost her first-round encounter with Patty Schnyder in the Italian Open. We all know that Schnyder is a talented ball striker, but she also has had serious issues keeping leads and closing out matches.

Serena needs to be a little more careful when she makes her claims, because the tennis world keeps moving and there's a real chance that it is passing her by. She's now winless in two tournaments on the European clay-court circuit leading up to Roland Garros. In each of those three-set matches, she failed to compete with her customary ferocity and efficacy, winning just one game in the final set of each.

No matter how much it sticks in her craw (or anyone else's) that Dinara Safina supplanted Serena as the No. 1-ranked player a few weeks ago, the cold truth is that what you did two or three years ago and what you're capable of doing don't count in the rankings. It's beginning to look like Serena took the wrong message away from the Australian Open, where she once again demonstrated that when everything is right, she can more or less mail it in.

You'll remember that in Melbourne, Serena roughed up Safina in a final that was painful to watch (Serena won 0-and-3) but served as a pretty convincing statement of Serena's superiority. On that day, she certainly was the best player in the world. But since then, she hasn't won a tournament and she has turned in some really puzzling losses.

There has been a lot of talk about Serena's weight, some of it confused by philosophical arguments over what an ideal athlete (or woman) ought to look like. It now appears that those who believe Serena has let herself go and is carrying too much weight -- much of it in the wrong places -- may have made the right call. It's going to be interesting to see what, if anything, she does on the clay this spring. After all, the red dirt is the surface that demands the highest level of fitness, because it's the one on which players do the most running.

If you think back to that Australian Open, you'll remember that a fit, eager Victoria Azarenka had Serena in plenty of trouble in the quarterfinals before illness forced Azarenka to quit while leading 6-3, 2-4. Serena dodged that one, but Azarenka caught up with her again in Miami and really punished her in the final, winning 6-3, 6-1.

You're all familiar with that great fable and cautionary tale "The Emperors New Clothes," right? Well, Serena is starting to look a lot like that emperor. When you talk the talk, you have to walk the walk, and right now it looks like she has a long, long walk ahead.