<
>

Nasdaq-100 just fourth tourney this year for Serena

MIAMI -- Serena Williams is on the phone discussing her
favorite subject -- herself -- and so the conversation is lively.

She talks about winning the Australian Open in January, and
about bidding for a fourth consecutive Key Biscayne title beginning
this week at the Nasdaq-100 Open. She mentions her acting career,
her fashion business and her latest tennis outfits.

But when the topic switches to Maria Sharapova, the discussion
stalls. Williams claims she only vaguely remembers the first time
she played Sharapova -- at Key Biscayne last year.

"I don't think you realize," Williams says. "I have a fashion
company. I'm working on a really intense line for the fall. I'm an
actress. I'm working on an animation series, on different reality
series. I'm working on so much stuff."

With a giggle she adds, "I don't really think about other
people, because I have to focus on me. I don't think about
Sharapova or anyone else on the tour. I don't have time."

Williams' self-absorption has never been questioned, but there
have been doubts about her devotion to tennis. She claims it's her
No. 1 priority in 2005, and tennis fans can be grateful she wants
to wedge a few matches at the Nasdaq-100 Open into her busy
schedule.

Potential obstacles for Williams will include a bevy of
Russians, among them Wimbledon champion Sharapova, and two Belgians
-- Kim Clijsters, who won at Indian Wells last week, and Justine
Henin-Hardenne, who has recovered from viral and knee ailments and
is scheduled to play in her first tournament since the U.S. Open.
Amelie Mauresmo is seeded No. 1.

The men's field includes top-ranked Roger Federer and defending
champion Andy Roddick. The only top players absent in either draw
are No. 1-ranked Lindsay Davenport, curtailing her schedule due to
her history of knee trouble, and No. 2 Lleyton Hewitt, sidelined
with sore toes.

The Nasdaq-100 Open will be just the fourth tournament this year
for Williams, but an 18-match winning streak at Key Biscayne makes
her the favorite. She won last year in a triumphant return from an
eight-month layoff that followed knee surgery.

"I've never, ever been shocked about a win, but I was shocked I
won the tournament," she says. "I didn't practice before, and my
knee was killing me in some of the matches."

The ailing knee contributed to an 18-month Grand Slam drought
for Williams that ended in January at the Australian Open, where
she won her seventh major title. In the final she came from behind
and swept the last nine games to beat Davenport.

"At the end I just became a real focused demon. No one was
going to win that match but me," Williams says. "That's how I
felt at the end, and that's how it was."

Williams then played at Paris but withdrew before her
quarterfinals match because of stomach flu. Her only other
tournament this year was three weeks ago at Dubai, where she
retired from a semifinal match against Jelena Jankovic with a
strained tendon in her right shoulder.

Williams says the shoulder is fine, and she's ready for a run in
an event just 90 minutes down Interstate 95 from her Palm Beach
Gardens home.

"I'm very eager to get back out there and start playing
matches, especially because it's Miami, because it's my hometown
and I get to show my stuff," she says.

Federer will be far from his native Switzerland but also eager
to show his stuff in a tournament he has yet to win. He has won 42
of his past 43 matches, including a victory Sunday over Hewitt in
the Indian Wells final, and he rivals Williams when it comes to
confidence.

"I dig much deeper than I used to," Federer says. "Being a
set down doesn't bother me anymore. Before I would get frustrated
and totally change my game, and everything would be kind of in a
panic mode. That doesn't happen anymore."

Play begins Wednesday in the 12-day, $6.56 million tournament,
which has a field of 96 men and 96 women. The 32 seeded players in
each draw receive a first-round bye.