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FROM THIS EPISODE

Serena the Underachiever
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

When the Williams sisters arrived on the world stage of tennis some seven years ago, they were an undeniable force. The champions of 1998, such as the deft and gritty Swiss player Martina Hingis, faced these two teenagers as if there were intimidating giants across the net. The serves of the Williams sisters came in at over 120mph, equal to the top men. There was every reason to imagine that these two, Venus the slender older one, and Serena, the muscular younger one, would dominate the upper echelon of tennis for the decade to come.

And their story was as compelling as their talent. They were kids from a rough area of Los Angeles, called Compton. Far from a life of country clubs and private hitting coaches, Venus and Serena had a father, Richard, who took them out onto the public courts of Compton and drilled them for hour after hour. Richard had a precise game plan, part of which was to never let them play in tournaments until they were ready to turn pro. Buzz got around that these phenoms were hitting the heck out of the ball down in Compton. John McEnroe went down to hit with Venus when she was only eleven. He came away to warn the women pros that they were in for a rude awakening.

And, in perfect fairy tale fashion, the story tumbled forth. Once Venus and Serena burst onto the scene in 1998, there was immediately a new standard and the players in the top ten realized they would have to rise to that standard to even give these two a challenge. Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, all the big titles were at the Williams command.

Come up to 2002 and the Cinderella story unravels. Venus has a string of injuries and it does seem now that her best tennis is a couple of years behind her. Serena, the sister father Richard predicted would be the unbeatable one, slipped into Diva status. She got very busy on the celebrity circuit. Acting appearances, A-list parties, her fashion design company. Serena-s skills on the court took a plunge. Then her half sister was murdered in the fall of 2003. She also had knee surgery that year. And for all these reasons, the other top women on tour didn-t fear mighty Serena so much any more. The mystique was gone. Ask 17-year-old Maria Sharapova (I-m going to pronounce it the correct Russian way -Shar-A-Pova- instead of the way it is mispronounced throughout the sports world -Sharap-Ova-)---anyway, SharAPova stepped onto the grass for the Wimbledon title last summer against Serena and won with relative ease.

We can find compassion for some of the hardships Serena-s faced. But there is also a definite sense that this enormous talent has headed toward gross underachievement. Serena seemed to have lost perspective of what the focus of these young years should be.

Flash forward to yesterday. The Australian Open, the first Grand Slam tennis tournament of the year. The match of the women-s draw was set. SharAPova again takes the court across from her arch rival, the now-veteran Serena Williams. Serena doesn-t play well the first set. Many unforced forehand errors. Several weak and ill-placed forehand volleys. Her serve is under par. Announcers make the point that she doesn-t practice like she used to. Her inconsistencies are glaring.

But she-s far from complacent. She berates herself, bears down, and comes back to win the second set. The third set they exhale war cries on every hit. They sprint to the edges of the lines. They both take chances and go for winners. Serena wins and earns her spot in the final, to be played against Lindsay Davenport on Saturday. And we get the impression that Serena is suddenly awake to the fact that she doesn-t want to miss out on carving her place as the greatest champion in the history of the women-s game, that she intends to get back to the practice habits she knew so well as a kid. A realization just in time for her...and lucky for us.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that-s The Score.

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