MELBOURNE, January 14 – Defending champion Serena Williams goes in search of her 12th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open next week to put herself alongside Billie Jean King as one of the all-time greats.The four-time winner at Melbourne Park is clear favourite to lift the trophy again after a stellar 2009 but faces a tougher task this time round with many top players making significant improvements over the past year.
But Williams — the winner here in 2003, 2005, 2007. 2009 — has the motivation, knowing one more victory will draw her level with the legendary Billie Jean King with 12 Grand Slam titles.
Only a few select women, including Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, have won more major championships although Williams still has some way to go to be in the same league as Margaret Court, who collected 24.
Williams, entering her 14th year as a professional and with more career prizemoney than any other female athlete, has been there and done that but still craves the big events.
She added two more major titles last year to her collection – Australia and Wimbledon, as well as clinching the season-ending World Championships in Doha.
But with Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin back in the mix and Svetlana Kuznetsova, Caroline Wozniacki and Elena Dementieva all improving, Williams knows she needs to work harder to dominate again.
"For me, it’s all about doing the best that I can. Obviously, I love playing well in all the Grand Slams and I hate to lose, regardless of where it is," she said at her warm-up tournament in Sydney this week.
"My main goals are always to stay healthy and that’s a huge goal for any athlete.
While Williams was the dominant player last year, ending as world number one, there was a major blot on her copybook when she launched a foul-mouthed tirade at a lineswoman during her US Open semi-final loss to Clijsters.
She has since apologised and refused to discuss the issue this week, insisting she had moved on
"It’s all about now," she said. "I feel it’s over. It was what it was. I think I’ve spoken enough about it."
It nearly cost the Florida-based player a chance to defend her title here and she knows she must be on her best behaviour or risk the consequences.
While she escaped with a 10,500 US dollar fine, the International Tennis Federation has made clear she is on probation.
It means that if she commits a major conduct violation at any Grand Slam event in 2010 or 2011 she could be suspended from the US Open and her fine could also increase to 175,000 dollars.
Williams won here last year by beating Russian heavyweights Kuznetsova, Dementieva and then trouncing Dinara Safina in the final on her way to the title.
Many people didn’t rate her chances but one thing that Williams has in her favour is self-belief, which has never wavered despite her weight and fitness being the butt of jokes over the years.
She remains a keen fashion designer and has her own clothing line, with her on-court attire as closely scrutinised as how she demolishes her opponents.
Williams is also expected to again partner sister Venus to defend their doubles title.