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Pro Extraordinaire

Ms. Mojo rising

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At 31, the oldest woman player to be ranked No 1, Serena Williams is her own person. As the tennis world gets younger and fitter, the outspoken American remains the one puzzle the pretenders just cannot solve

Serena Williams was asked about the British boy-band One Direction at a press conference at the Qatar Total Open last week. The 15-time Grand Slam champion, honey-brown curls standing out like a halo, said, "I'm too old for One Direction. I go as far as Justin Bieber. I love Justin Bieber. " 

The media pressed: "You're not too old for Bieber?" 

Serena declared: "Nobody's too old for Justin Bieber. " 

The American was gently reminded that they were roughly the same age. 

"Phew!, " Serena said, running her fingers over her brow, "That's such a relief!" 

Serena Williams is many things, including tennis pro extraordinaire as her results will testify, but first and foremost she's the queen. She picks and chooses the weeks she plays on the Tour, showing up where she deigns to. She says exactly what she wants to, then contradicts it and waves it away. She has an outrageous sense of style that finds a match in her athletic, high-powered game that's known to swamp opponents. You get her or you don't. It's fine with her either way. 

All week in Doha last week, where she reclaimed the No. 1 ranking for the sixth-time in her career, making her the oldest No. 1 in the women's game, she 'hmmed' and nodded, rolled her eyes and cocked her eyebrows in dramatic gestures that said little, but conveyed plenty. It was as if someone had forced her to get on the court and compete when she would rather have been someplace else, ballroom dancing perhaps. 

She wasn't serving at her best, triggering talk that she wasn't entirely over the back injury that put her out of the Australian Open in January. She was sniffing and blowing her nose into tissues at every opportunity, but typically she refused to complain. "I'm fine", "getting better", she said, punctuating her replies with a shrug. 

However, after beating Czech Petra Kvitova to make the semifinals that secured her the No. 1 ranking, Serena said she didn't want to put pressure on herself by talking about reclaiming the No. 1 ranking. It explained that aloof quality, the distance she had sought to maintain at previous media affairs where questions revolved around the magic figure, numero uno. 

The American's coach of the last eight months, Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou, backed Serena, saying she was motivated to be No. 1. "I always compare her to Roger (Federer) on the men's side because it's the same with him, " Mouratoglou said. "They are very different (from the rest of the field) because they are hugely motivated. They don't just want to win, they want to keep winning. They want to make history. Serena wants to improve, she wants to learn new things and is always competitive. It shows how much she loves tennis. Coaching her is very easy. " 

Mouratoglou said the American's No. 1 goal was to win Grand Slams. The 43-year-old, who has been linked romantically to the Florida-based pro, stressed that Serena, the owner of 15 Grand Slam singles titles, can add significantly to her collection if she manages to stay healthy. "Why only 18 (equalling Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova)?" he asked, "She's already very close to that figure. She can go more than that. " Serena has been heavily touted to challenge Steffi Graf's Open era haul of 22 Grand Slam singles titles (the German's count being second only to Margaret Court's 24). American legend John McEnroe has been one of Serena's most vocal supporters, marking her among the game's greatest, backing her to get to Graf's figure. Mouratoglou said though 22 Grand Slam titles was still quite a distance away, it couldn't be ruled out. 

The lady begs to differ. Serena said: "I don't think I can reach that (Graf's 22). That's a lot. Maybe earlier I could have, but I don't think it's possible now, I don't know. That's a lot of tournaments I have to win. " The glamorous ace, who has tried her hand at acting and modelling, however, stopped short of drawing a finish line. "I never thought I would be playing at 31, although I don't feel 31, " she said, "I feel 22. I don't know where the time went. I never, never, never thought I would still be out here, but I have nothing else to do and I'm pretty good at tennis still, so why not? I'd just rather I didn't sit at home all day. This is kinda fun. " 

At her best Serena is unstoppable. The serve is her biggest strength, but it not her only weapon. However, it is the shot which is constantly pushing 200 kmph that makes her unplayable for most players in the women's game. For the likes of the world No. 2, the Belarusian Victoria Azarenka and to a lesser extent the powerful Czech Petra Kvitova, who are either looking to push and piece their way past Serena or simply power past her as the Czech attempted to do in Doha last week, Serena is the puzzle they're attempting to solve. 

It is Azarenka, the Australian Open champion, however, who trails the American 11-2 in head-tohead clashes, who raises the prospect of a rivetting rivalry in 2013. "This whole week (in Doha) I just don't think I played my best tennis. I was fighting every match. Then I was really excited to make the final with the game I was playing all week, " Serena said after only her second loss to Azarenka, this one in the final in Doha, the previous setback coming in 2009 in Miami. "I can't play that (low) quality game against a top player like Victoria. I have to be able to pick up my game, and I wasn't able to do that in the final. " 

It is the competitor in Serena that recognises a kindered spirit in Azarenka, that quality that pushes the Belarusian to go the extra mile and find a way against a ruthlessly dominant champion who will slam the door shut even when she can simply close it. 'Vika', as the 23-year-old likes to be called, doesn't do it with power, she does it with punishing precision and persistence. Serena said: "I always respect Victoria. She's a really good player, a solid player. It's nice to always play someone who if you lose against you go home and are able to say, 'I didn't do great, but let me work harder'. She inspires a lot of people to work harder and I'm one of them. " 

That's the promise of a rivalry. It begins with an almighty tussle for the No. 1 ranking this season - Serena and Azarenka with the possibility of the Russian beauty Maria Sharapova and Kvitova providing the scares. It is isn't getting any easier for Serena though, no matter what she says about feeling like a 22-year-old, the physical hurdles of 30-plus cannot be ignored. It's an uphill climb for the body and mind. Serena maybe a Bieber fan, but she may perhaps find her anthem in One Direction's Forever Young. "It's hard to get old without a cause/I don't want to perish like a fading horse/Youth is like diamonds in the sun/And diamonds are forever. " 


WILLIAMS BACK AT THE TOP


Williams first became world No 1 on 8 July, 2002, at the age of 20 It is the sixth time in her career that she has earned the top ranking Williams missed almost a year due to injury and a life-threatening pulmonary embolism in 2011, slipping as low as 175th in the rankings She won Wimbledon, Olympic gold, the US Open and the WTA Championships when she returned in 2012 Williams has won 60 of her last 63 matches

SERENA AT NO 1: THROUGH THE YEARS


JULY 8, 2002 -

20 years 57 weeks

SEPTEMBER 8, 2008 -


26 yrs 4 weeks

FEBRUARY 2, 2009 -


27yrs 11 weeks

OCTOBER 12, 2009 -


28yrs 2 weeks

NOVEMBER 2, 2009 -


28 yrs 49 weeks

FEBRUARY 18, 2013 -


31 years

OLDEST WTA WORLD NO 1s


SERENA WILLIAMS -

31 years, 4 months, 24 days

CHRIS EVERT -


30 years, 11 months, 3 days (Nov 24, 1985)

MARTINA NAVRATILOVA -


30 years, 9 months, 29 days (Aug 16, 1987)

LINDSAY DAVENPORT -


29 years, 7 months, 8 days (Jan 29, 2006)

SERENA WILLIAMS -


29 years, 0 months, 14 days (Oct 10, 2010)

STEFFI GRAF -


27 years, 9 months, 16 days (Mar 30, 1997)

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