Enter the princess and the showgirl
By Sue Mott
"None of us are introverts," said Serena Williams, unnecessarily. We had kind of gathered that. Something about her winning six Grand Slam titles
in between working as an actress and setting up her own fashion house (at the age of 22) helped us come to that conclusion.
Meanwhile, her sister Venus is also pretty big in the tennis world; her father Richard rivals Donald Trump for being the least shy man in America and her mother Oracene, who intrigues Wimbledon every year with a new hairdo, is currently sporting a pink caste on her wrist after a roller-skating accident.
Follower of fashion: Serena Williams out on the town
This is not your normal family, which goes a long way to explaining its baby scion, Serena.
She is conducting this conversation from beneath the brim of a bright turquoise cap on the terracotta terrace of a gorgeous hotel near the Piazza del Popolo in Rome and she is musing on the question of whether - like Muhammad Ali - she has the right to say of herself: "I am The Greatest".
"I can't say I do," she murmured after a short internal wrestle. "I mean, I love Muhammad Ali. He's an icon. I met him once, years and years ago. I wish I could meet him again. The only reason I wouldn't say 'I am The Greatest' right now in my career is that my accomplishments compared to Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King aren't any greater.
"I am striving to become The Greatest. Tennis-wise I want to win tons more Grand Slams. If I do I definitely do think I'll be The Greatest. I guess you have to say it the way it is. I see myself becoming that."
Modesty forbids Serena nothing. She is possibly the most lavishly confident young woman the sports world has produced. To the English ear, attuned to gentle burblings of humility from the lips of Jonny Wilkinson, she seems almost supernaturally over-endowed with self-regard. Then you look at her record, her work ethic, her millions, her earrings and remind yourself: the dear girl is only telling the truth.
Serena is simply uninhibited. Whether striking a tennis ball with pulverising robustness or scouring the Via de Corso in pursuit of new handbags, she brooks no denial. Take Miami in March. It was her first tournament, and a major one, since surgery on her left knee the previous August. She ought to have been ring rusty, if nothing else. Instead, she won, beating - dismissing - Elena Dementieva of Russia 6-1, 6-1 in 50 minutes.
"I wasn't match fit so it was kind of crazy. Incredible. I didn't think I'd win. I underestimated myself, as a player, as a professional. I'll never do that again."
And then take the press conference after her first match in Rome. A local journalist inquired whether she would be going out to dinner that night. "Do you want to take me out?" she responded immediately and to mass hilarity, growled at him like a seriously interested tigress.
"It wasn't necessarily flirting," she offered as a disclaimer the next day. She has learnt to strike up conversations herself because so many acquaintances are too frozen with terror by her fame and reputation to say anything. "People do get intimidated, especially in those type of situations. I'm really, maybe overly, friendly. I'm nice. But I don't get taken advantage of I'm not that nice.
"I do make mistakes though. With men, I definitely have," she giggled evasively. "Met the wrong guy. Well, a couple of 'em. I can't even make those mistakes any more. I've really become so cold-hearted now." More laughter. "Sometimes I just laugh. You have to. Oh God. You can't really have a private life in America. Oh, what am I talking about? America? London's even worse.
"Oh, you wouldn't believe the people I've dated that I don't even know I've dated. I've never even met them. I went to a Laker game once with a friend and I was like, 'Oh my God, that's a guy I dated. Now I know what he looks like'. I was cracked up. It was so funny. I never even met the guy but I was allegedly dating him. I can't even remember his name.
"And then it was rumoured I was dating a couple of married men, I didn't like that at all. It was outrageous." The men in question were both hulking gridiron stars, La Var Arrington and Keyshawn Johnson, and clearly a veil has been thrown over their existence. Serena, a Jehovah's Witness, is trying to adhere to the teachings of her church.
"We don't believe in dating unless you're ready to get married. I've never dated anybody. It's good to get experience under your belt but you should never get wild or go crazy. That's how I look at it. If I can't see myself with this person for life - I can't be bothered. I can't waste my time.
"I have some really good men friends but I believe in no sex before marriage. No fornicating. Stuff like that. I really believe in that. I mean, I'm not perfect. It's hard to live by Bible standards but I'm really comfortable with me. There's so much peer pressure. So much pressure, period. I've just removed myself from it. I don't know if I'll fall in love again."
This is accompanied by the sigh of an actress in full-blown Greta Garbo rehearsal. But bonhomie keeps breaking through, like the spring Roman sun overhead. However hard she tries, Serena is not a convincing depressive.
"I do have my moments. I sometimes feel insecure if I go up for audition and don't do well. I think, 'Gosh, Darn it!' Then I have to quickly snap myself out of it. Get back to reality. Because I figure I'm going to be the best at everything I put my mind to.
"Everyone says I'm a natural actress but I need to be more expressive with my eyes. You have to use every facial thing you can muster up in emotional roles. Crying: it's difficult. I can though."
The last time we saw her in real tears was the French Open last year when she lost in the semi-final to Justine Henin-Hardenne, who deployed questionable gamesmanship en route to victory, amid storms of anti-Williams jeering. "I was real upset," said Serena, with a rueful laugh. "People can be unruly and kind. Not French people in particular, people in general. But it was my own double fault because I should have been stronger to deal with it.
"But now, I'm really, really mature. I may only be 22 but every year I mature about five years. I'm so much more mature this year than last year, it's amazing. I'm like a sponge. I don't make the same mistakes twice."
She smiled with a cat-like contentment. "I've learnt to look out for me. Because the next person's not going to. They'll run over you and back up and run over you, and back up and run over you. I just can't have that right now. Like tennis, it's dog eat dog. But I get along with everyone on the women's tour. We travel around like a big family."
Even Henin-Hardenne? "Ah well, I don't really talk to her. She's not around much so I can't tell you what her personality's like. If I see her, I'm real cordial but we never really see each other that much."
Serena lapsed into silence, gazing unseeingly at a lemon tree. Possibly she was contemplating the fact that Henin-Hardenne is officially the world No 1 woman tennis player, an almost incomputable notion in Williams-world. "I wanna get back to being No 1. I like being on top. It's something I like waking up to in the morning."
It must be an irritation that she is not. "I can't even tell you what I'm ranked. Let's just put it like that. If I'm not No 1, I don't know what I am. But, you know, it's funny. Everybody still thinks I'm No 1. Anywhere I go they say, 'Oh my God, you're No 1, aren't you?' and I say, 'Yes I am!' If I try to explain to the regular public in America who is No 1, they've never heard of her. So I just say, 'It's me! It's me!' Why not?"
"Serena," said her mother, wandering up, "is a nut." She smiled indulgently at her daughter who put an arm around her mother's shoulder and kissed her ear affectionately. This family has been through the stress of divorce and the terrible tragedy of an elder sister, Yetunde, being shot dead at her home in Los Angeles last year.
Oracene goes to court in August to fight for custody of her three grandchildren, two boys and a girl, who she is currently looking after. This surrogate parenthood explains the roller-skating accident.
Serena cannot talk much about Yetunda's death. "I haven't really coped yet. I'm trying to figure out how to cope with it. But not a day goes by when I don't think of it and I try to make sure I talk to all my sisters every day."
This sisterhood has been undoubtedly crucial in her life. In the mock battle of professional sport, undiluted support is a formidable weapon. "My sister Isha put it best. She said something like, 'You're a queen so you should have the best. You're a princess so you should get everything you want.' I thought, 'You know what. You're right'."
Venus, however, is a little tougher to crack. As far as we know their on-court rivalry, now utterly dominated by the youngest sister, never extends to a family fallout. But in the wardrobe wars, Serena has been known to take a loss.
"I'm always raiding her wardrobe. I like her furs. She has these unbelievable chinchillas. I hustle 'em for a few weeks but she always gets 'em back. I have better shoes and bags though." This is clearly not quite true. Serena is obliged to correct herself. "Well, shoes for sure. We're about even with bags."
Serena has her own fashion line - Aneres. "My name spelt backwards," she explained. "My goal in a couple of years is to try and build a successful fashion house like Armani or Versace. I want that more than anything." More than being an actress? She thought for a split second. "I want 'em all."
Plus that elusive boyfriend. "I'm into someone who has high morals, loves his mum, gives me respect and treats me like a princess." What can you say? That this is not quite the template into which Neanderthal man has evolved. "Oh I know," she sighed with resignation, than chuckled. "I like to look at Mariah Carey, Sandra Bullock. Beautiful women. Talented women. We're all in the same situation. It's hard to find a good man."
A few bad ones, she has already encountered. She is security conscious and uses bodyguards from time to time. "Yes, I have to. With stalkers and crazy people," she said glumly. "I don't like it when people touch my arm. But I've never, ever, ever in my life been in a fight. Ever." Delighted pause. "I'm waiting. Like, can I punch somebody please, before my life is over?"
Well, it's an ambition. No doubt, some clear-eyed promoter will suggest Serena v Muhammad Ali's daughter in the ring at Madison Square Garden. And you cannot be sure that Serena would not give it serious, even thrilled, consideration.
But first, there is a tennis career to re-rail. Her left knee may not have fully recuperated (she lost in Amelia Island last month to a Russian, seeded ninth, who enjoys fishing) and Henin-Hardenne has the mental toughness of a prize fighter if not the punch. Wimbledon could be interesting.
"I loo-oove Wimbledon," she said. "I love Wimbledon so much. Everybody in their lifetime should go to Wimbledon. It's like seeing one of the seven wonders of the world. I feel so honoured to be part of Wimbledon's history for the rest of my life.
"The atmosphere, the tradition, the crowd, the village, everyone wearing white, the grass - so clean and crisp. And that announcer! I'm telling ya, I go really insane when I hear him say, 'Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the fifth day of the Wimbledon Championships'." Serena performs the line in a hugely sedate English accent then convulses with laughter.
"And I love it when he says, 'Thirteenth day!' because that's women's final day and I'm there!"
If this sounds presumptious, it could also be dead right. And if it happens, we won't miss her easily. "Last year my underwear was white, I think. I was pretty modest but this year I like the idea of gold." It sounds like a James Bond remake: Serena Williams in Gold Knickers. We await her with interest.