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Serena narrows gap with men

London: Five years ago, Serena Williams and elder sister Venus walked into the ATP office at the Australian Open and challenged the menís Tour to a one-set showdown.

Karsten Braasch, a German ranked 203 in the world, was in the office at the time and took up the challenge. A few days later he beat Serena 6-1 and Venus 6-2.

Following golfer Annika Sorenstamís creditable performance last month in a menís PGA event, the question arises ó how would world No. 1 Serena fare against a man now'

She is by a country mile the best player in womenís tennis and also the Tourís finest athlete. But unlike Sorenstam, she would have to test her physical prowess much more directly against a man and that would leave her at a huge disadvantage.

Serenaís game is built on power, but you do not win four consecutive Grand Slam titles through strength alone.

The 21-year-oldís shot placement and construction of points has developed markedly over the past 18 months and her on-court concentration has also improved.

Indeed, the Americanís 6-1, 6-2 destruction of Amelie Mauresmo at the French Open on Tuesday may well have set a new benchmark in womenís tennis.

Against one of the hardest hitters on the tour, Serena was simply irresistible. Ignoring the patriotic French crowd with a look of almost murderous intent, she blew Mauresmo away.

If she were to play a man, the slow clay of Paris would probably offer Serena her best hope. Not a natural volleyer, she could sit on the baseline and work for her points.

But she would still have experienced nothing like the relentless ferocity of the rallies in the menís game.

While very few women can give Serena a full-blooded rally, such exchanges are bread and butter on the ATP tour. Male professionals also move faster and can hit harder on the run than any woman.

Serena, then 16, noticed the disparity against Braasch.

ďI didnít know it would be that hard,Ē she said. ďI hit shots that would have been winners on the WTA Tour and he got to them easily.Ē

In 1998, Braasch said he had served at only 50 per cent of his potential against the Williams sisters and this is one area where Serena has undoubtedly narrowed the gap with the men.

On Tuesday her fastest serve was 185 kph compared with Guillermo Coriaís 188, while the average speed of her first serve was 163 kph compared with Coriaís 152.

But it would be the menís return of serve that would shake Serena ó in menís tennis it is much more of a weapon than in the womenís game.

Psychologically she would also be at a disadvantage. Menís matches are rarely played at anything less than full throttle and the pressure of having to concentrate on every shot is not often experienced by Serena.

She has not lost a set at the French Open and has rarely conceded more than one or two games a set so far.

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