Serener Serena soaks up the pressure
By Sue Mott
No Star Wars in Paris then. Serena Williams has pulled out of the French Open next week with the recurrence of an ankle injury, so the hotly-anticipated sequel to the Australian Open - Serena v Maria - cannot happen. Williams has flown back to America and may not reappear before Wimbledon. Her sojourn in Europe was brief. Nothing to do with leaving her make-up bag behind in Los Angles. Everything to do with dumb shame of injury.
She arrived, she lost, she left. A whirlwind in an orange tracksuit but stable just about long enough one afternoon to offer an intimate portrait of her state of mind.
Causing a racquet: Serena Williams on her way to winning in Melbourne
For a start: there was a sub-plot, as bizarre as they come, to that victory four months ago at the Australian Open. We thought we were watching Serena Williams, guns blazing, avenge her loss at Wimbledon and reinstate herself as the most formidable female tennis player on earth. She beat her Wimbledon nemesis, Sharapova, in the semi-final and top-seed Lindsay Davenport in the final, having trailed by a set in both matches before unleashing the predatory ruthlessness that had won her six Grand Slam titles beforehand.
Sheer guts. Ambition. Muscle fibre. The victory was related to all of the above. But in truth - it was love.
William's mother, Oracene, has always called her youngest daughter "a nut". Now here she was proving it. Believe it or not, the whole Australian fight-back scenario sprang from her passion for an American band. How nutty is that? "Oh Green Day!" she cried, her head swivelling to see the screen in a players' lounge that sported the band of her dreams crashing away at their guitars.
"They're my favourite favourite. Actually, I have an unhealthy obsession with them. I cried when I met them. I'm not even allowed to listen to their music any more because it's gotten so bad. But, you know, I don't even want to talk about it because they weren't very nice to me. Well, they were nice to me the first time but when I saw them again, they were like, 'OK, here's this crazy, obsessed fan again'!" She looked crestfallen.
"It's not like I'm trying to be obsessed. I still think they should have been honoured. I'd have been honoured. Anyway, it's a very bitter subject."
For the youngest Williams sibling, one of the most famous women in America, to be lamenting the indifference of celebrities towards their loyal supporters was a curious juxtaposition. She decided to take affirmative action. She vowed to gain their attention.
"You see, I met them in the November and they told me they were going to be going to Australia in March to play at the same arena as the Australian Open. Every day when I was playing there, I'd pass this wall that had the pictures of the champions along it. I'd see my face because I won it in 2003. So I kept thinking I've got to get my face back on that wall. So they can see me. Green Day is not going to see anybody else on that wall but me!
"This is the truth. Honestly, that was my motivation. 'I gotta be on that wall'. I thought they'd think about me if they saw me twice as opposed to once. Like I said, I have a real unhealthy obsession." She chortled with laughter, which went some way to relieving the impression that the girl is really suffering with her passion. Even she, however, admits it has gone a little too far.
"I have all their 10 albums. I know all their songs, back to front. Each word. It's more or less a case of a neurotic, psychotic stalker," she giggled helplessly. "I really believe that's what ruined me. But that's OK. I'm trying to understand what happened and I never want to meet them again. It's too painful."
While having every sympathy with Mrs Williams and her nutcase diagnosis, you feel that her endearingly candid daughter needs a little more amateur psychology than that. Could it not be that, separated from the world by her own fame and restrained from regular boy-girl relationships by her lifestyle and being a Jehovah's Witness, she had turned to a surrogate love life? She did not dismiss this out of hand. "Maybe it is," she mused carefully. "Maybe I'm living vicariously through Green Day." A vast grin lit up her face. Her teeth flashed neon. You realise that beneath her clear talent to terrify all terrestrial human life lurks a quaintly amiable young woman.
"I don't have a man. I'm just on my own. It's hard, you know, especially being a young female. I don't know what to suggest. It does get a bit lonely but I've just learnt to turn to the Bible. I know it sounds really crazy-spiritual but it's not really. It's just the fact that you can find a lot of solace in the scriptures.
"You have to rely on yourself. If you have an aura about you that's positive and full of aplomb, people will pick that up. People like positive vibes. People fall in love with that. But if you're - like - negative, down, people will pick up on that, too. They'll use you as a trash can and then leave." She heard the "trash can" line on Oprah Winfrey's show when she and sister, Venus, were guests to plug their new book: Serving From The Hip: 10 Rules for Living, Loving and Winning.
Certainly, two of the three are proving tricky. This time two years ago, she ruled the female tennis roost to the virtual expunging of all opposition. She held all the major Grand Slam titles concurrently, christened the Serena Slam. She was 21, an actress, a clothes designer, a princess in all but coat of arms. The land she surveyed had no horizon. But as fellow American star, Jennifer Capriati once noticed: "Stuff happens." It did to Serena.
Her parents divorced, her half-sister, Yetunda, was murdered in Los Angeles in September 2003 and - though this cannot be related to life and death - she won no Grand Slam titles in 2004. This career dearth included Wimbledon, where 17-year-old Sharapova ascended the SW19 throne with all the poise and certainly the body of a newly-crowned Miss World.
Even Serena's personal life came under scrutiny. Despite possessing the same publicist as Michael Jackson, she was powerless to halt allegations of relationships with at least two gridiron footballers appearing on the pages of the sort of newspapers that you would hesitate to put under your hamster.
She called the year she had just been through "nice", in that vague, dreamy way she summons up when stating the flat-out unbelievable. We've seen it in her press conferences. "Oh, it was nice," she will say, eyes gazing off to the middle distance in order to clang shut a line of questioning.
But when she is ready, she opens again. It is at moments like these, you can ask her about Sharapova who, being tall, blonde and Russian, is an obvious foil to Williams's black American heft. They are opposites except in divine ambition. But Williams got there first and she would barely be human if she did not thoroughly (in a professional sense) hate the intrusion of the teenage Wimbledon champion on her patch of South London lawn.
"The word 'hate' isn't in my … well, yes it is in my vocabulary," she said with disarming honesty. She tried for a more realistic sentence. "To be honest with you, I don't think about her like a lot of people say. I think about her when I play her, but she doesn't permeate my thoughts. Yeah, it's nice to watch when we play each other" - here comes the vagueness again - "but I've been on one side of so many rivalries. Me and my sister Venus. Me and Henin. Me and Hingis. Now it's me and this one."
But surely, this is The One. The one who challenges her more fiercely than all who have gone before? They have played each other four times. The score is two-all. "Um, at Wimbledon last year I just couldn't play because I put too much pressure on myself. At the year-end Championships, when I lost to her again, I pulled a stomach muscle. I couldn't move. I was pretty upset about that."
As a result of that injury, she barely practised before the Australian Open. "How would I be if I practised?" she asked, wide-eyed in estimation of just how good she could have been. No tennising Williams sister suffered from lack of self-esteem, not ostensibly any way. But there is no doubt that talk has exceeded walk sometimes, if only because the two bright girls are intelligent enough to be thoroughly distracted. For a while it seemed that the lure of acting, designing, dressing and shopping would supercede the repetitious demands of tennis.
But at this moment, despite the flaring ankle, Williams claims she has rediscovered her single-mindedness. "I'm motivated. It feels as if I definitely want to come back and dominate again. It's just putting my mind to it. Things happen and you realise what you want to do in life. I want to play tennis. It's got me this far. It's the base of my career.
"Tennis is what I want to do. Just watching some of the players practise makes me think, 'Oh, I could take her. Right now'. I'm so confident. If my game's on. I'm pretty much unstoppable."
Not in Italy she wasn't. Losing in the second round to Francesca Schiavone, perhaps due to her injury and not really helped by the film crew following devotedly in her wake. She and Venus are shooting their own reality TV show. "A lot of reality shows don't deal in reality. You noticed that? But Venus and I live real lives. We work really hard, on and off the court, so we decided to make the film.
"People will be surprised. First of all, by how sweet we are. How, like, we're real crazy. We laugh a lot. We're big jokers. People are used to seeing us all serious on court."
So does this mean we're going to see her just out of bed with straggly hair and no make up? She fixed me with a don't-be-stupid look and said: "It's not that real."
Later she was asked by a journalist with a staggering lack of concern for his own safety whether "there was any sex in it?" "Any what?" she squeaked. "Sex," he repeated, still bent on self-annihilation. "Absolutely not," she boomed. "This is for a family network not the Playboy Channel." But she was smiling. This is not to suggest she has relaxed her prohibition on sex before marriage, as she insisted last year. She just seems a little older and wiser. At 23, she is maturing into a young woman who sees more light and shade.
"I think you have to love yourself before you fall in love," she said. "I'm still learning to love myself." She laughed to undermine the seriousness of her words but it could be that her monumental confidence is a partial bluff, even to herself.
But she is fighter. The opportunity to win the French Open for the second time is now gone but she has unfinished business at Wimbledon. The French crowds have never warmed to her but Wimbledon crowd will be kinder. Whether they go as far as the Australians and roar her on as the underdog remains to be seen. Either way, she only knows one way to play it. "I like to believe I'll just go there and win the tournament. I love Wimbledon. I love the grass. I've got a really cute dress. I loved my dress last year too but, obviously, you can't wear the same one twice.
"That's my problem with fashion. I'm photographed too often. And now there's the reality show. I can only ever wear a dress once." I wondered if this applied to every single item of apparel she possessed. It could get hideously expensive, even for a woman who has won $15 million in prize-money.
"No, not knickers," she conceded. "I get to re-wear those. No one's seeing my knickers."