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Serena defers engagement joy to focus on Melbourne effort

Serena Williams drive to reach the overall record for grand slam titles was never more evident at Melbourne Park on Saturday when she revealed that her engagement to fiancee Alexis Ohanian was being forced to take a back seat.

The world number two announced her commitment to the social media entrepreneur shortly before the New Year and while it was “great”, she was pushing it to the back of her mind, at least until after Melbourne Park.

“I’ve said from the beginning, I just didn’t want to think about it until after Australia because… grand slams mean a lot to me,” she told reporters ahead of next week’s first round clash with Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic.

“I was, ‘well, I’m not going to think about it’.

“It’s almost a little unreal right now because I haven’t taken it in. I won’t allow it to sink in because I’m so focused… (on) training, cardio, all kinds of stuff.”

Williams equalled Steffi Graf’s Open era record of 22 grand slam titles last year when she clinched her seventh Wimbledon crown and sits just two away from the all-time record held by Australia’s Margaret Court.

Following her London victory, she played in just two more tournaments, losing to Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina in the third round at the Rio Olympics before being upset by Karolina Pliskova in the U.S. Open semi-finals.

Williams then promptly shut down her season to have treatment on a troublesome shoulder injury.

The 35-year-old Williams returned to the court in Auckland last week but was upset by fellow American Madison Brengle in the second round, then created a minor controversy when she said she could not get to Melbourne fast enough.

Her quest for her seventh Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup begins on Tuesday when temperatures are expected to top 38 degrees Celsius against Bencic, who could be her most dangerous first round opponent in years.

Bencic was ranked as high as world number seven last February but struggled with injury and poor form over the remainder of 2016, leading her to drop down to 48th ahead of the season’s opening grand slam.

The 19-year-old, however, made the fourth round at Melbourne Park last year and beat the American the last time they met, in the Toronto semi-finals in 2015.

“She’s done well here before. She’s had a good win over me. It’s never easy for me,” Williams said.

“So I always go out there, and all I can do is do my best. I didn’t come here to lose in the first round, or the second round, or at all.

“If I can play the way I’ve been practising, it will be fine.”

(Writing by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by John O’Brien)

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