A new era in the Serena saga
By CHARLES ELMORE
Cox News Service
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A head-snapping comeback from No. 140 in the world last July to win the Australian Open in January has, well, rekindled communications between Serena Williams and corporate America.
Advertisers had not exactly gone away, but neither were they rushing money to her as fast as they were to rivals such as Maria Sharapova. A two-year drought of tournament victories will do that. Forbes magazine estimated that Williams made $10 million in endorsement and prize money last year compared to Sharapova's $19 million.
Talks are ongoing between Williams and a half-dozen companies that sell automobiles, timepieces, technology and fragrances. In a few weeks, Camp Serena is expected to announce a deal for a skin-care product.
Williams, who takes the court for the first time this week since Australia at the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, is no stranger to a business meeting, certainly, but this is a new era in the Serena saga.
At 25, her image is no longer that of the cat-suited superheroine who dominated her sport with the "Serena Slam" of four straight majors four years ago.
This is a woman frequently criticized for her weight, chided for her socializing and fledgling careers in entertainment and fashion and questioned for her commitment to tennis. She was politely but firmly called out in an open letter by one of the legends of her sport, Chris Evert, to get in shape and make the most of her abilities.
She is now a different kind of heroine in the eyes of Robyn McGee, the Los Angeles-based author of "Hungry for More: A Keeping-it-Real Guide for Black Women on Weight and Body Image."
"She's a huge role model for not just African-American women but all people who have been told you don't have the right dimensions," McGee said Tuesday. "She's not 15 anymore. She has a lot in common with a broad cross-section of America. Six out of 10 Americans are considered overweight.
"She's still marketed as her own brand of sex symbol, not as full-figured clothing spokeswoman. She's not Queen Latifah, but she's one of a kind."
Williams is doing it her way. Her efforts to get back in condition after a 2003 knee surgery haven't produced any dramatic skinny-Oprah moment as she emerges from the player's tunnel. When she's on, her serve and her forehand do the talking.
"I know I am larger than some women players," Williams said in Melbourne's afterglow. But the size of her will seems to matter most. She admitted she was stung by a loss to Sybille Bammer in a warm-up event, her only loss in 10 matches this year: "I was really angry. I just felt like I should have won."
The world is starting to see Serena through a new lens, her agent Jill Smoller says.
"She is somebody who has struggles in her life that people can go through," Smoller said. "She's approachable in a different way now. She has become a real person to many fans in a way they may not feel with other tennis players."
It was not that Williams bought into tabloid headlines that called her "overweight" and "overpaid" and openly asked whether her tennis career was finished.
She acknowledged the thought has crossed her mind, in quiet moments at the family's home in Palm Beach Gardens, that maybe she was not going to win a major tournament again.
"There's always times out there where you think, you know, 'Am I ever going to be looking at another trophy?' " Serena said. "Especially since I hadn't won a tournament — let alone a Grand Slam — I hadn't won a tournament in a long time. You know, you're thinking about, 'Wow, will there be another time?' "
Her family picked her up, she said.
"Since Day One, my parents, my mom and my dad, have always been so positive," Serena said. "They never stopped believing in me. That helps me believe in me. Venus, as well. I live with her, so I'm with her every day. We always, like, believe in ourselves. You know, it works."
What haunts her are the comparisons to her earlier self. Dominating women's tennis for as long as Roger Federer has ruled the men's game would be "the ultimate experience," Williams said this year, prodded by a question. "He's definitely like a role model to me."
Williams did hold the sport in a Federer-like vise for 57 weeks at No. 1, through Aug. 11, 2003. That's about one-third of the record 164 weeks Federer has held the men's top spot.
Could it happen again? Probably not, said Mary Joe Fernandez, who will analyze the Sony Ericsson Open for ESPN2.
"I don't think we're ever going to see her play a ton of tournaments, mainly because of her knee," Fernandez said. "That might be tough for her fans to accept, but she's going to pick and choose. But to me, when she's on her game, she's the best one out there."
Serena has pulled out of or skipped every event since Australia, citing a sudden flu in one instance. Her ranking has slipped slightly since February to 18th in the world. That is high enough to place her among seeded players, but in Key Biscayne she will not be able to coast to the quarterfinals. She could meet the winner of a match between top seed Sharapova and sister Venus in the fourth round.
Regardless of her ranking, people tend to watch, said Leif Shiras, commentator for the Tennis Channel, which will carry 64 hours of coverage from Key Biscayne.
"No doubt when Serena is playing, you have more viewers," Shiras said. "The fact she's built and made the way she is, I think people can relate to her in a way — perhaps more so than someone like Maria Sharapova. Serena brings to the table a remarkable dimension."
That dimension has never been more evident since Australia.
"I think what happened in Australia was her saying you don't know until you walk in someone's shoes," Smoller said. "She was saying, in effect, 'Here's how I am built. Deal with it. I'm not going to weigh 110 pounds. I'm comfortable with it.' It's how most of the world is. I think people related to her and identified with her."
Charles Elmore writes for the Palm Beach Post.