Weekly Slice: Will the 'real Serena' please step up?

Last week on tour was a pretty standard one for Serena Williams. She dominated the headlines, was the player everyone wanted to see, spoke of her excitement about the upcoming U.S. Open ... and failed to win again, this time falling to Elena Dementieva in the Rogers Cup semifinals.

Winning the Rogers Cup in Toronto was never going to be at the top of Williams' 2009 priority list, but her increasing struggles in events outside of the Grand Slams has become ever more noticeable.

Despite lifting the Australian Open and Wimbledon trophies, the world No. 2 has not won any other event all year and has a match record of 6-6 in her most recent non-Slam events.

Williams makes little pretense at caring greatly for tournaments apart from the "big four" each year. She often looks listless and unmotivated, and rarely seems bothered by such defeats.

Serena gives every impression of treating smaller tournaments as little more than an inconvenience, a nod to WTA rules which impose minimum-appearance demands upon leading players.

"I'd win zero tournaments in order to win the Open again," Williams said last week. "I can't say I was especially feeling the fire [in the Rogers Cup], but obviously I wanted to do well."

Williams and her sister, Venus, measure their careers in terms of majors - Serena has 11 and Venus seven. However, there is a fear within the sport that their ambivalence toward events for which the public pays good money is turning the tour into a bit of a sham.

"I have to stay focused and consistent and, most importantly, hungry," Serena said. "If I crashed out at the Open for no reason, I'd have to win everything else the rest of the year."

By comparison, the leading lights of the men's game rarely take their foot off the gas. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray rarely lose to players outside the elite level, although Federer was on the receiving end of some upsets while suffering from mononucleosis last year.

The ongoing battles between the top three (plus players on the fringe such as Andy Roddick, Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro) help to build intrigue and set the scene for majors.

Not so on the women's side, where the form guides for Grand Slams and regular tournaments are vastly different.

Serena's backers will support her right to ease off in smaller events and save everything for the Slams. That Serena and Venus have diversified into other fields such as fashion and sports ownership is to be commended, and they are young women with many more talents than just their tennis brilliance.

In Toronto, much of the attention was on the sisters' proposed purchase of a stake in the Miami Dolphins NFL franchise, a storyline that created a small storm of media intrigue.

However, it was a shame to see such positive publicity for women's tennis and the Williamses accompanied by poor performances - Serena losing to Dementieva in the Rogers' Cup semi after Venus was upset early.

The lack of full effort shows a dearth of respect for the game that has made Serena millions and turned her into an international icon.

One argument suggests Serena is so much more effective in Grand Slams because those tournaments offer rest days between most matches - unlike regular tour events which normally involve up to six matches in seven days. Or maybe it is just that when it's Slam time, Serena tries.

There can be no doubt that Serena is a legend and will go down in tennis history. And yet she is not even ranked No. 1 in the midst of her own era. Dinara Safina, who has never won a Slam, tops the rankings courtesy of a flawed system that does not offer appropriately heavy weighting to the biggest tournaments.

But it would have only taken decent, not spectacular, performances by Serena during her various global pit stops to ascend to pole position.

The fans who turn up around the world expecting to see the "real Serena" are being shortchanged. While you can't argue with an operating system that has delivered 11 Grand Slam titles, Serena owes it to tennis to display a little more pride and interest each and every time she steps on court.

Serena is a true champion, no mistake about it. It is just a shame that more people don't get to see it more often.

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