Super Serena saves the world, drops in to win the oddest titles

WHEN Serena Williams wins the Australian Open it is always an odd year. Decide for yourself why. Is it because Williams has won in 2003, 2005 and 2007? Or just because she is a bit odd?

Whatever the reason, the least that can be said of the little sister is that the tournament is never dull when she is around. Which, until her opponent Victoria Azarenka became rather graphically ill in the second set of their fourth-round match yesterday, inevitably having to retire while leading 6-3, 2-4, did not seem like it would be very long.

The harsh critic might suggest this was not the first time Williams had made someone sick. Particularly anyone who has endured the press conference pantomime in which she makes a game of talking herself up. (Yesterday's act included her talent with a six-string guitar, her incredible ability to tape her own ankles and an encore performance of her personal version of the fishing story - The Day I Beat Andy Roddick.)

Understandably, not much about her tennis, though, given Williams had for a set and a bit been at the mercy of a woman who, in her own words, was "throwing up all morning".

Although - no surprises here - Williams had not even entertained the notion she might be in trouble. "I mean, first set, if I lose it, automatic three sets," she said. "There's nothing else. I'm thinking, 'OK, this is what I'm going to do in the third.' I automatically try to assume I'm going to win the second."

Which is the sort of statement that can prompt you to either marvel at Williams's boundless self-confidence or tap Azarenka on the shoulder and ask if she has finished with the bucket. However, with Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Venus Williams eliminated and Maria Sharapova a no-show, Williams's survival can only be considered a good thing for those with expensive quarter-finals tickets, who were briefly threatened by the prospect of an Azarenka-Svetlana Kuznetsova showdown.

Azarenka's withdrawal enhanced the perception the only highly rated women showing any staying power on Rod Laver Arena are Jelena Dokic and Pink, who will soon break John Farnham's record for the most sold-out concerts at the venue. The way Williams started yesterday, she would have struggled to break Farnham's serve.

As for records, Williams did threaten one unofficial mark after losing the first set when she screamed what was almost certainly the most audible obscenity in tournament history, her frustrated cry of "F---ing first serve!" heard by pensioners in row ZZ with their hearing aids turned down.

At first blush, Azarenka had looked like one of the eponymous blonde, tall, pig-tailed, giraffe-legged Tennis Barbies who are so common in the corridors of Melbourne Park. However, as she briefly put Williams on the endangered list yesterday, two things were obvious: she can give the ball a whack and has the vocal register of a top-notch soprano. Which meant when Williams also tried to scream her way out of trouble, things got loud.

Usually on Australia Day there are complaints from tennis fans about the intrusive music from nearby rock concerts. During the Williams-Azarenka match, you half expected an irate concert promoter to storm into Rod Laver Arena and tell the players to shut up because they were drowning out his death-metal revival gig.

As Azarenka succumbed to illness, Williams finished the match with her ankles heavily strapped but - not surprisingly - with her self-regard still healthy despite her spluttering serve.

This is, after all, a woman who would have seen the Roulettes fly overhead earlier in the day and genuinely believed she could have flown in a much tighter formation.

"I can do it all," she said. "I cook, I clean, I write, I make jokes, I tape [my own ankles]. You know, I just pretty much do everything."

If stomachs turned, on the tennis court the statistics tend to agree. This will be the 30th time in 38 attempts Williams has made a grand slam quarter-final. That is a phenomenal achievement for a woman who divides her time between peacekeeping missions in the Middle East, medical research and winning Australian Opens in very odd years.

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