THE size of Serena Williams's butt got people talking last summer, but now it's the triceps and biceps of her competitors that's causing a buzz. As Williams crushed her opposition at the Australian Open, including the-then lithe Maria Sharapova, all the talk was about her powerful and voluptuous physique.
These days the game is all about having power, and now, more than ever before, female tennis players are recruiting trainers to ensure they have the strength. Even Sharapova, usually the focus of attention for an evocative dress or an off-court appearance, strong-armed the headlines at the French Open this month with a bulkier frame taking her to the semi-finals.
Two years earlier, then 18, Sharapova predicted she'd be tougher to beat with "grown-up" muscles. "You wait until I get some big, grown-up muscles," she said in 2005.
Power is one of the keys to success on the tour, says top trainer Giselle Martin. Martin (nee Tirado), who has worked with Martina Navratilova, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and now Samantha Stosur, says most of the top 15 players have a full-time trainer with them on tour.
She believes Stosur is one of the fittest on tour along with world No.1 Justine Henin and world No.3 Jelena Jankovic.
"I'd hope Sam is one of the fittest," Martin said. "I told her I'd put my house on it. I hope she wouldn't let me down. I've done sandhills with her down in Cronulla - I've seen her go all day on those sandhills.
"I'd have to say, along with Sam, Jelena Jankovic is very fit, as is Israel's Shahar Peer [No.16]. Venus and Serena have got natural fitness. Serena, she's such a powerful person. I think she's just genetically like that. She's just naturally talented. Justine Henin and Amelie Mauresmo are also in the top tier. You can just tell by the points who are sucking in the big ones and who's not."
Martin believes that Jankovic has made the biggest advancement with her fitness in recent times, helping her rocket up the rankings. "Jankovic looks like she's really got stuck into her fitness because she's playing those longer matches," Martin said. "She's going a lot better because of her fitness."
This week Jankovic became the fastest woman since Chris Evert in 1974 to win 50 matches in a single season.
Martin, on the WTA tour for seven years, believe the Spanish players took up the personal trainer mantra after Navratilova had become the first to preach it.
"When I worked with Arantxa, the Spanish, they really believed in the trainers," Martin said. "Before them it was Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf who really worked on their fitness."
She also noted Mauresmo and Mary Pierce as two of the first players to concentrate on strength. Mauresmo's physique was particularly controversial when Martina Hingis dubbed her "half a man" in 1999. Lindsay Davenport fuelled the fire by adding that playing Mauresmo "was playing a guy - the shoulders looked huge to me". Today Mauresmo is not as muscular as she once was.
When Stosur first came to Martin, in November 2004, she was keen to improve her fitness to take her tennis to another level. In the time she has spent with Martin, Stosur has leapt from No.65 to No.28.
"I wouldn't say she was overweight when I first saw her but she toned up a lot more," Martin said. "She's more conscious of her physical being, she had to work a little bit harder at her physical fitness at that stage rather than her tennis. She realised how important it was to her tennis to have that physical strength."
"She works really hard for it."
Genetics may have blessed Serena Williams with a powerful body and game, but it also means the world No.7 has to contend with the criticism that comes with her size. After Williams won the Australian Open last January, she had the last laugh. She found the criticism "outrageous".
"I have a large arse and it always just looks like I'm bigger than the rest of the girls, but I have been the same weight for I don't know how long," Williams said. "If I lost 20 pounds, I'm still going to have these knockers, forgive me, and I'm still going to have this arse."