Weighty issue for Serena

MELBOURNE: Serena Williams has hit back at critics who say she is out of shape as she prepares to defend her Australian Open title, starting here tomorrow. 

Williams, who beat world number one Lindsay Davenport in last year's final, said opponents who underestimated her fitness would do so at their peril. 

Her ranking has slipped to 13, as knee and ankle injuries disrupted the last half of her 2005 season and some observers say her shape and conditioning have slipped away as a result. 

But two days out from the year's first Grand Slam tournament Williams pronounced herself “absolutely” fit and said she was happy for other players to doubt her fitness. 

“I like that, it would be like 'oh, she's not fit,' that's cool with me,” Williams told a press conference Saturday. 

“That's fine, because then people will be like 'okay, well she won't be able to run,' that's a great position to be in.” 

Williams was positive about her chances of successfully defending her Australian crown. 

“If I didn't like my chances of winning, I wouldn't be here,” she said. 

Williams said she saw recent photographs of herself, including one recent unflattering shot taken from behind while she was jogging. 

“I saw one of me running. I was like 'wow, my hamstring muscle is that big?' I had no idea my muscle was like that, but that's about it,” she said. 

Sister Venus Williams also declared herself fully fit, after also having had the last half of her 2005 season wrecked by injury and illness, leaving her at 10 in the world. 

“I just feel pretty confident that I'll improve on that number, for sure,” she said. 

World number one Davenport said the depth of talent in this year’s field excited her, with all of the top-20 women players here making for a large number of genuine contenders. 

“This is a great first step to really getting women's tennis back, getting everybody playing is the first step to really getting it back to a premier sport,” she said. 

“We've had a tough last couple years (with injuries), hopefully everyone can stay healthy now for all four Slams.” – AFP  

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