- Sandra Harwitt
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MELBOURNE, Australia -- One of the charming things about Serena Williams is she has made a career out of not just being a tennis player.
Some purists indict the 27-year-old Williams for not being singularly focused, for choosing to see herself as more than just a multimillionaire athlete. These critics feel Williams could've achieved far more in the game, a point she noted herself this week in saying she probably should've won at least a 10th Grand Slam trophy by now.
But the bottom line is that scoring nine Grand Slam titles with the possibility of more to come is not chicken liver. So what's the harm of moonlighting as a Hollywood actress and a fashion designer?
During the recent offseason, Williams made another career choice, appearing as a celebrity contestant on the game show "Million Dollar Password." When asked about the appearance, Williams laughed, somewhat embarrassedly, thinking back to the nightmarish experience. It was clear from the outset of the show that her celebrity counterpart, talk-show host Craig Ferguson, was far more talented in the game of word association.
"Oh my, it didn't go so well," Williams said, laughing heartily, after moving into the fourth round with a 6-1, 6-4 victory over Peng Shuai of China. "I couldn't give the right clues. I was excited I lost [in the early round] because I was thinking I didn't want to bring another person down with me, 'cause I wasn't doing that great. It was definitely a lot harder than I thought."
After seeing continuous commercials promoting her appearance on the show, Williams said she hit the phones to tell people not to watch.
And she winced when her least impressive moment on the show was mentioned -- she offered her "John Q Public" partner the clue "bunch," in an attempt to elicit the response "Brady Bunch." The only problem was the word she was trying to have her partner guess was "brandy," as in the drink, and not Brady.
"Yeah, that was my one blonde moment," Williams said, still giggling. "Sometimes I think I'm dyslexic."
After Saturday's news conference was over, Williams had one final quip on the moment: "I should've had a drink beforehand because I was so nervous."
The good news about Williams is that after boredom drives her to one of these outside-interest dalliances, she has her fun and comes back home: "Tennis is definitely more my thing."
Playing in her 37th Grand Slam tournament, Williams has a record of sorts to keep going this year: She has reigned over Melbourne Park in every odd year since 2003. It seems to many that her destiny should be securing a fourth Australian Open title this year. She certainly arrived here looking fitter and trimmer than she has in a while, a signal she believes the title is in her grasp.
The superstitious Williams, who insists upon showering in the same stall in the locker room whenever she is at the Australian Open, calls her odd-year success just a coincidence.
Safely into the second week of competition, Williams appeared grateful to play a better brand of tennis against Peng than she did in struggling against Gisela Dulko of Argentina in a shaky 6-3, 7-5 second-round win. Williams was so perturbed about her performance against Dulko on Thursday that she immediately set about fixing the problem.
"After her match the other day she went straight from the match to the practice court," noted former Grand Slam champion Fred Stolle, a dual Australian and American citizen who provided analysis for the match on Australian television. "She must have felt she needed to do some extra work. I think when she gets into the second week and is playing well she'll be tough to beat. It's all on Serena's racket, isn't it? When she comes down here and she's very fit she does very well. And I think she wants this title."
Williams dominated the first set against Peng, winning it in 32 minutes, but then she headed toward the danger zone in the second. Williams lost her serve in the first game when she blasted a backhand long. That started a rocky road for Williams, who fell behind 3-1 before rectifying the situation.
"It was definitely a lot better than my second round," Williams said in assessing her match against Peng. "I'm still trying to work on some things and hoping they'll come together."
Williams' game can go awry when balls land at her feet. Both Serena and her sister, Venus, were initially taught the game by their father, Richard, who deserves credit for developing two exceptional, world-class athletes. But the nuances of the game sometimes get lost on the self-taught coach -- subtleties such as proper footwork, which has always been an issue with the sisters. Nevertheless, their amazing athletic ability has more often than not enabled them to compensate for inadequate footwork.
It was that lack of mobility that challenged Williams in the second set Saturday, although it should be mentioned that Peng caught a few breaks during the set.
"I started making errors [14 in the second set] and then lost my serve a couple of times," Williams said of the second set. "Then I think I put too much pressure on myself. Then, next thing I know, I was down."
Newly minted U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez, in Melbourne as an ESPN TV analyst, was encouraged to see the improvement in Williams' game compared to how she looked against Dulko. But Fernandez didn't hesitate to point out Williams still is not in champion form.
"She still needs to improve because she's having too many dips in play," Fernandez said. "For her, it's important to establish herself early in a match and continue to press. Whenever she's running around too much, defending too much, it's not a good sign, and she got stuck a little bit today in the second set.
"She controls her destiny out there. I always tout her because I feel Serena is the one to beat. Serena at her best is just simply better than everyone else."
The next player standing in Serena's way is No. 13 Victoria Azarenka, who took care of 2006 Australian Open champion Amelie Mauresmo in straight sets. Williams' first big-name test is likely to be reigning Olympic gold medalist Elena Dementieva, who knocked Williams out of the Sydney semifinals last week.
There's no secret that Williams' biggest challenge is usually from within, which makes watching her progression through a tournament like watching a game-show contestant salivating for the grand prize.
Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
1dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne