Serena searches for the perfect year

PLAYING Serena Williams, or so one must presume, is akin to undergoing an interrogation. She is brutal, relentless and believes mercy should be left to the sisters of charity. It is not by coincidence that her racket is a Wilson Hammer.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

Serena Williams has a 17-0 record in tennis matches this year, but is still unhappy with her game!-Pic. AFP

PLAYING Serena Williams, or so one must presume, is akin to undergoing an interrogation. She is brutal, relentless and believes mercy should be left to the sisters of charity. It is not by coincidence that her racket is a Wilson Hammer.

Two weeks ago, in Miami, she dismantled Jennifer Capriati in the final, and then said she was unhappy with her game. That she was not hitting the ball fluently. That she was going home to practice. And this from a woman who hasn't lost this year in 17 matches!!!

Of course, maybe this self-critical approach, this never-satisfied attitude is why she hasn't lost in 17 matches. Greatness is built on many things, but as Sachin Tendulkar might tell you, the primary ingredient is sweat.

There is something fascinating about athletes who will arise as the world sleeps, who lift iron as we lift our toothbrushes, who swim more kilometres a day than we drive to office, who vomit out of exertion while we sip our first cup of tea and shuffle papers. Not by chance are the best athletes the most disciplined ones.

I remember India's Cuban boxing coach once showing a useful aptitude for the vernacular, when he said his boxers trained only when he gave them a little "bamboo". That he needed to push them, told half the story of their limited success.

Contrast that with Ian Thorpe, an athlete who has little to prove to the world, whose own expectations are more powerful than any external pressure. Last month, during preparation for the recently concluded Australian national championships he was knocked down by a virus that left him so fatigued that he got up in the morning feeling tired.

So did he say "forget training, let's take a few days off", did he say, "Hey, I'm the world's greatest swimmer, so what's the big deal in taking part in the Australian championships"? On the contrary, he kept his mouth shut, did not even mention his condition to his coach Tracey Menzies, and swam on.

Said Menzies later: "Ian's very unique in the way he trains. A lot of things he does mask. One thing I noticed he wasn't as happy within himself. He was tired during training. When we found out how sick he actually was, it was very amazing he'd actually still kept his training up at that level."

Champions cannot afford to indulge themselves. Hard work has ensured greatness; and only harder work will ensure they stay there. It's why Michael Schumacher apparently watches television occasionally with his helmet on to strengthen his neck muscles. Or take the case of a young golfer creeping into a hotel gym just before 6 a.m. thinking he would be the first one up, only to find Tiger Woods already there working out.

Great athletes also set goals or targets, but mostly they don't articulate them. Perhaps because we'll scorn them should they fall short; perhaps also because these goals are so dazzlingly lofty that we'd think them arrogant. Batsmen, for instance, arriving at a tournament in Sharjah might settle for a century, or a handful of fifties. Yet Tendulkar, after some persistent questioning, once admitted his goal one year in Sharjah was to win the entire tournament for India.

Similarly, Serena's target in 2003 is an undefeated year. It is a declaration so bold it boggles the mind. In short, she is making no allowance for days when she may wake up with a headache, when her opponents might be inspired, when her forehand is not working, when the wind is playing havoc with her serve, when the surface is not to her liking. She is searching for a seemingly impossible perfection.

It has not been done either. In 1983, Martina Navratilova came closest, ending the year with a 86-1 win-loss record. In 1989, Graf finished 86-2, in 1984 Navratilova was 78-2, and in 1987 Graf again finished 75-2.

That Serena has rolled to 17-0 this year is itself a triumph for she is hardly surrounded by lesser players as Graf occasionally was pre- and post-Seles. Venus is lurking, Capriati has the muscle, Clijsters is making a charge, Henin has a sharp elegance and this is not even counting the second rank of players like Megan Shaughnessy, Jelena Dokic, Chanda Rubin, Amelie Mauresmo and Daniela Hantuchova.

The perfect year (which would therefore include the traditional Grand Slam, not done by a woman since Graf in 1988) will possibly elude Serena for it requires luck as much as it does resoluteness. She has control over the latter but not of the former. Still, at least women's tennis stirs the senses and challenges the imagination; men's tennis has gone three years, still waiting for a generation to impose itself.

We have been promised a post-Agassi, post-Sampras wave and we are still waiting. Only Lleyton Hewitt has picked up the gauntlet, but one player scarcely makes for a generation. Paradorn Srichaphan's game has hit a gentle plateau (to win he must play at full bore yet not make an error), Andy Roddick is tinkering with his game. James Blake lacks the edge of greatness, Marat Safin has reached one quarter-final in six events, and a fellow named Rainer Schuettler is lying second in the ATP Champions Race. Hey Pete, come back.

Having run out of adjectives for Agassi (fit, committed, reborn, powerful), the tour is reduced to squabbling about petty politics. South African Wayne Ferreira has proposed a breakaway International Men's Tennis Association (IMTA) to rival the existing ATP Tour, and although top players like Hewitt have apparently issued quiet support, it has as much chance of succeeding as the admirable Schuettler has of being recognised on any street outside his hometown. Clearly, if equal effort was put into performances on court, spectators would be more quickly seduced.

There is a suggestion that the women's tour and men's tour be joined at the hip, and that most, if not all, tournaments include both fields. It is an idea as captivating as it is overdue. Clearly though the men will be required to do the lobbying for they have most to gain. The women no doubt will be gracious enough to let them tag along. Once equal prize money is guaranteed, of course.