Now That She's Back, Williams Figures U.S. Chances Better At Wimbledon

Sunday, June 24th 2007, 2:25 pm
By: News On 6

WIMBLEDON, England (AP) _ Not one to doubt herself, or pay any heed to those who do, Serena Williams likes her chances as she returns to the All England Club.

``Like I always say, when I'm playing well, it's hard for anyone to beat me. It's just a fact. I think a lot of people understand that,'' said Williams, who won Wimbledon in 2002 and 2003 but missed last year's tournament with a left knee injury.

``I don't think anyone that has to play me goes home and shouts with joy.''

Well, Lourdes Dominguez Lino, a Spaniard ranked 57th, was not invited to deliver a pre-tournament news conference, so her reaction to facing Williams will have to wait until Monday, when they're scheduled to meet on Day 1 of the grass-court Grand Slam.

It's been a tough stretch for the United States at tennis' top level of late, with zero American men's major champions since Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open, a stretch of 14 tournaments. Things really hit bottom at the last Grand Slam, the French Open, where Roddick and the rest of the U.S. men were a combined 0-9.

The American women haven't fared that much better, with only one finalist at the past seven Grand Slams: Williams, who won January's Australian Open. Only one U.S. woman is seeded in the top 20 here: No. 7 Williams.

At last year's Wimbledon, all nine U.S. men were gone before the fourth round, only the second time since 1922 that's happened. And only one American woman, Shenay Perry, reached the fourth round.

Asked about that, Williams pointed out, ``I wasn't here. ... That's the answer. That's why. So now that I'm here, it should be different.''

Unlike most players, neither she nor her older sister Venus enters any warmup events on grass, meaning Monday's match will be Serena's first since losing in the French Open quarterfinals to the eventual champion, No. 1 Justine Henin.

They could meet at the same stage at Wimbledon and join three-time champion Venus Williams, defending champion Amelie Mauresmo, 2004 champion Maria Sharapova, and rising Serb stars Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic as candidates for strong showings.

``We are probably, I don't know, four or five (who are) able to get the trophy this year,'' Mauresmo said Sunday. ``Yeah, I do consider myself part of these four or five.''

The men's draw features only two Wimbledon winners: 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer, who is bidding for a fifth consecutive title, something last accomplished by Bjorn Borg in 1976-80.

As the reigning men's champion, Federer gets the honor of appearing first on Centre Court, where he plays Teimuraz Gabashvili, a Russian ranked 85th. Other men slated to play Monday, weather permitting _ the forecast (surprise!) calls for rain _ include two-time runner-up Roddick and No. 9 James Blake of the United States.

``It is a very dangerous surface. You can be upset by almost anybody, any round,'' said Federer, who said he gets nervous before each match, even if he has won a record 48 in a row on grass.

He, Roddick (up first on Court 1) and their opponents _ Roddick meets Justin Gimelstob of the United States _ will get first crack at using the ``Hawk-Eye'' call-challenge system, which is making its Wimbledon debut on the two main courts.

There's other change afoot at this most traditional of sporting events, including a different look for Centre Court, where the overhang ringing the arena has been removed as part of work to install a retractable roof by 2009, and equal prize money for women and men for the first time.

``It's a step forward for women in society in general,'' Mauresmo said.

The Frenchwoman is seeded fourth, a reflection of the inconsistent 12 months she's had. Sidelined after having her appendix removed, then hampered by injuries, Mauresmo has won only one title since Wimbledon.

``It was disappointing,'' she said. ``But I'm definitely looking forward to (finding) some confidence, some rhythm again.''

Serena Williams, another former No. 1, fell even further in the rankings, all the way out of the top 100, when she missed large chunks of time because of assorted injuries. But in Australia, she showed what she still is capable of doing by claiming her eighth major title, most among active women.

Williams said she hasn't figured out why she played ``so horrendous, outrageously absurd'' in a straight-set loss to Henin in Paris.

``It's not going to happen again. I'm not going to go out without a fight,'' Williams said. ``If I do go out, it's going to be with a punch, with a bang.''

Her first-round foe at Wimbledon owns a grand total of one Grand Slam match victory _ Dominguez Lino is 1-5 for her career at the sport's top events.

Not that it matters, as far as Williams is concerned. All that really matters is how she performs.

``I believe I'm definitely the best player if I'm playing well. It's hard for anyone to beat me,'' she said. ``It's not even a belief. It's more of a fact.''

She'll team with Venus in doubles, the first time they've partnered anywhere since Wimbledon in 2003. That could give them a little extra practice on the grass, the fastest tennis surface, where balls tend to skid more than bounce, putting a premium on good serving _ something at which both sisters excel.

That's why, even though Venus hasn't been beyond the quarterfinals at any major since winning Wimbledon in 2005, she shouldn't be dismissed as a contender.

As her little sister put it: ``She's the best grass-court player in the draw. I think with her serve, her return, her volleys, she's always one to watch.''