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WIMBLEDON PREVIEW

Grass greener for foes

Slipping Serena sharing spotlight

LONDON -- There was a time, not all that long ago, when Serena Williams was the clear-cut favorite at every tournament she entered, no matter the surface, no matter the field, and no matter, frankly, how devoted she was to tennis.

She owned the No. 1 ranking, strung together a so-called Serena Slam, and had everyone's full attention -- her talent, attitude, and original outfits demanded it. A long stretch of dominance appeared inevitable.

Heading into Wimbledon, though, women's tennis is in a serious state of parity. Suddenly, Williams must share the spotlight.

Maria Sharapova, not Williams, is the grass-court Grand Slam's defending champion, and the Russian teen's image dominates the main drag of Wimbledon Village from on high, adorning a two-story advertisement.

Sharapova has eclipsed Williams in the rankings and in earning power. The 18-year-old Russian has referred to herself as ''a global brand," one set to pull in more than $20 million this year from endorsements, appearance fees, prize money, and other sources.

Lindsay Davenport, not Williams, tops the rankings. It's Davenport, raised fist and wide smile, who graces the cover of the WTA Tour's media guide.

Justine Henin-Hardenne, not Williams, comes to England with the circuit's longest winning streak, 24 matches, and the most recent Grand Slam title, at the French Open.

While the list of contenders for the men's championship at the All England Club doesn't extend much beyond Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, several women could make a run at the title when the fortnight begins tomorrow. Other women's contenders are US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, Amelie Mauresmo, Kim Clijsters, and, if she can regain the desire that's seemed to be lacking lately, Williams's older sister, Venus.

Just don't mention any of that to Serena, who's now ranked fourth but still considers herself the favorite to add to her two Wimbledon trophies.

''It's something I see myself doing -- and getting more than three," she said. ''I definitely have the game for it, and I have the talent. I believe in me, and I know a lot of people believe in me, too. That's kind of cool. I feel like I'm destined."

A confluence of events and career-affecting choices have contributed to her slide: the shooting death of her half-sister; left knee surgery and other injuries, including a sprained left ankle that sidelined her for the French Open; time away from the court for all sorts of new experiences, including acting gigs, clothing design, red-carpet appearances, a reality TV show with Venus that wrapped last week; and the decision to stick with her parents as coaches.

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