Sun, Jan 18, 2015 - Page 19 News List

Serena issues Open challenge

BIG CALL:The top seed said she wanted the Australian Open title more than any other player, while Rafael Nadal played down his title chances in his comeback from injury

AFP, MELBOURNE, Australia

Spain’s Rafael Nadal, bottom center, signs autographs after a practice session in Melbourne, Australia, yesterday.

Photo: Reuters

World No. 1 Serena Williams yesterday declared that none of her rivals could match her desire to win the Australian Open and if they wanted the title, they would have to fight her for it.

The 18-time Grand Slam champion won the last of her five Australian crowns in 2010 and expressed frustration that a sixth had eluded her for so long.

With an ignominious round-four exit at last year’s tournament clearly still rankling, Williams said her determination to claim a “special” win was stronger than any other player in the 128-strong field.

“I’ve been going for number six for a number of years now — it would be really special for me, I’d be really happy,” said Williams, who is the short-priced bookmakers’ favorite to win the tournament. “I want it, I think, more than anyone else here. That doesn’t mean I’m going to get it, so I’ll have to fight hard to get it.”

The American held on to the top ranking for the entire season last year, ending the year with a flourish, taking the US Open and the WTA Tour Championship.

Another Australian title would take her to clear second on the all-time Grand Slam winners list behind Steffi Graf’s 22, having joined Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on 18 with her win at Flushing Meadows.

Williams, 33, said it was exciting, but also daunting to contemplate reaching the German great’s benchmark.

“Twenty-two is so far away from 18 — when you’re 18 years old you look at someone that’s 21 and you think they’re old,” she said. “So it’s a really big distance to get to 22. I can’t think that far ahead. I just have to think about 2015 at the Australian Open in particular.”

Williams displayed some erratic form in the Hopman Cup this month and admitted feeling “a little off” heading into the opening Grand Slam of the season.

However, she said that was not a bad thing considering she went into last year’s event convinced she was in amazing form, only to crash out early to Ana Ivanovic.

“Last year I felt really good, was playing well. I was feeling amazing on the court,” she said. “This year I feel a little off. But I feel off in every Grand Slam, except for last year. That didn’t work out for me, so maybe this is different.”

“I still want to improve some things,” she added. “I feel like I should be doing some things better, but every day I can see something coming through, so there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Williams plays Alison Van Uytvanck of Belgium in the opening round and faces a potential rematch of her US Open final against Caroline Wozniacki in the quarters.

Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal says he’s working “big-time” to get back to his best after an injury-blighted season, but admits to being a long shot at the Australian Open.

The 14-time Grand Slam winner, seeded three at Melbourne Park, missed the end of last year due to appendicitis and has also struggled with ongoing back and wrist injuries.

He faces a tough first-up opponent in Russian Mikhail Youzhny and is not confident of going the distance at the opening Grand Slam of the year.

“I don’t consider myself one of the favorites here,” he said. “Last year, yes. This year is a different story. I would be lying if I say I feel that I am ready to win today. I don’t feel myself ready to win the tournament here today.”

Nadal’s biggest problem, apart from needing to recover physically and mentally after an appendectomy, is that he has had very few matches since Wimbledon last year.

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