The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Williams magic is fading

Instead of two Americans — and sisters at that — two Belgians will contest Saturday’s women's singles final of the French Open. The success of Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin in Paris over the last ten days is less surprising than the absence of both Serena and Venus Williams from the final of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time since last year’s Australian Open final.

Even in this year’s well-contested Australian Open final, when Serena beat Venus for a fourth consecutive time on such a significant occasion, there were the first indications that the appetite among both girls was beginning to fade.

There was almost a mood of resignation from Venus after her defeat in Melbourne. No longer was she moving with the gazelle-like smoothness which marked the way she won Wimbledon in 2000 and 2001 and although there were niggling injuries which also limited her practice and tournament play in 2001, she could have been forgiven for asking herself if the effort was still worthwhile.

For so long she was either No. 1 or two in the world rankings but after her defeat by 18 year-old Russian Vera Zvonareva in the fourth round here — her earliest exit from a Grand Slam since 1999 — she will slip to fourth when the next ranking list is published.

Serena, meanwhile, had become much more than just a world champion tennis player. The combination of her powerfully athletic figure, and her penchant for spectacular outfits, such as the Cameroon World Cup football colours in Paris last year and then the revealing catsuit at the US Open, has helped to turn her into a world superstar.

Much in demand for TV chat shows, her interests have steadily expanded way beyond the demands of tennis matches or work on the practice courts. She has been taken acting lesson, she designs some of her own clothes — though not the figure hugging gowns that had the photographers snapping madly when she arrived to be awarded with the Laureus Award in Monte Carlo last month and this week’s dinner here to honour her and Lleyton Hewitt as world tennis champions.

She vehemently denies that all these extra-curricular activities are to blame for letting her focus slip. “No, no not at all, tennis is definitely my number one thing,” she insists. “There are just some (tennis) things I need to work on to keep my game at the top.”

There was no doubt from the erratic nature of her tennis from the very first round here that this was not the style, strength or quality of tennis one had come to expect from the Wimbledon and world champion.

Even her 6-0, 6-0 third round defeat of Barbara Schett was a smokescreen, for although Schett was credited with nearly 20 points, all but one of them came from unforced Serena errors.

Her defeat Thursday by Justine Henin-Hardenne was an upset waiting to happen. Henin had beaten her a few weeks ago in Rome and knew that the Williams game was no longer one that needed to be feared — even in a Grand Slam.

Despite her protestations, Serena has not been working with the same level of dedication at a stage in her career where she really has nothing to play for except pride and more titles in the record books. Perhaps what happened in Roland Garros will be the wake-up call that she needs and that the real Serena will be back, proving that still deserves to be the world champion, at Wimbledon.

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