'J.Lo with a backhand'
Serena Williams reveling in tennis top diva role
By Dana Pennett O'Neil
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Philadelphia -- As her requisite froufrou dog barked in the background, Serena Williams pondered the question.
What exactly is your occupation?
It sounds simple enough. She is the grand dame of women's tennis, the player who loses only when she makes a mistake, not when someone else beats her.
And yet, much to the consternation of the other women -- sister Venus included -- slogging through her wake on the WTA Tour, trying to grab a morsel of victory from the player who rarely even drops a crumb, Serena Williams doesn't really consider herself a tennis player. Or at least not just a tennis player.
"I'm an entertainer," she said.
Once the overwhelmed little sister unable to top her idolized sibling, Serena is sitting atop the tennis standings, waving like a queen to the subjects who hardly can reach her.
Along the way to a No. 1 ranking, Williams -- who will spend the next fortnight trying to add another trophy to her crowded case as her Wimbledon title defense begins Tuesday -- has brought back personality to sports. Rather than running from the spotlight and the trappings of success, she has run pell-mell into them, embracing her stardom with a look-at-me-world smile.
The world is not her oyster. It is her opportunity.
She is J.Lo with a backhand
"That's about it. She wants to be J.Lo," said NBC tennis analyst Mary Carillo. "Serena is larger than life. She loves being No. 1, loves the pressure, the responsibilities, and the limelight. She thrives on it. She's got incredible personal power and she's not afraid to use it."
In an age when sports stars have become paper-doll flat, afraid of offending their sponsors with even a spark of individuality, where insights culled directly from the script of "Bull Durham" are the norm, Williams is refreshingly candid, unapologetically proud.
She has strut into Tiger's boring Woods with dyed blond hair waving in the breeze, catsuit clinging to her curves, proudly displaying her other J.Lo comparison.
Sports Illustrated recently rated Williams the third-most influential minority in sports, behind new NBA franchise owner Robert Johnson and Woods. According to Steve Levitt, president of Marketing Evaluations/TVQ, which produces "Q" ratings for athletes, Williams' appeal ranks among the top 25 in the world, both retired and active, and she is easily the top-rated tennis player, male or female.
Oh. She's only 21.
Shushing her dog while she spoke during a recent teleconference, Williams waxed Hollywood diva recently, talking about the scripts she was perusing, her modeling career, her forays into fashion designing and that little yellow ball she clobbers at people.
"If you get too one-dimensional, you might get too fatigued, tired of the same thing every day," Williams said. "I don't want to eat Cheerios every day. I need my Wheaties every now and again. I've been playing tennis since I was 4. I don't want to get tired of it."
A one-woman conglomerate
Raised to believe there would be life after tennis, the Williams sisters always have talked about their sport as if it is just a passing fancy.
Why yes, (smashing forehand smoking down the line), I plan to play for a long time but no, (whizzing ace burning the hair off your eyebrows), I don't intend it to be my only endeavor.
When Venus' star began to rise, she took fashion-design classes and catered her tennis schedule around school. But just as she has done on the court, Serena has taken her big sister's extracurricular approach and obliterated it. She is a one-woman conglomerate, a slash that Kordell Stewart would envy.
"I'm a tennis player, fashion designer, model, makeup artist and one more thing ...oh, yeah, an actress," Serena said.
A regular on the pages of People magazine, Williams starred in a fashion spread for Vogue and appeared this year in Sports Illustrated ... the swimsuit issue. Rapper Jay-Z featured her in a video, and she made her television debut as a kindergarten teacher on "My Wife and Kids."
Along with her IMG tennis agent, Williams has a William Morris agent for her entertainment enterprises and is actively pursuing a movie role. She recently nixed a chance to appear opposite Kirsten Dunst in a movie about Wimbledon because she "didn't want to be typecast."
Her taste for haute couture and daring 'dos as well as her presence on the court have allowed Williams to go outside the usual tennis circle for sponsorship. Along with Wilson and Puma, who take care of her tennis uniform, she has partnered with Wrigley's Doublemint gum, which featured her in a full-page ad on the back of a recent magazine, McDonald's and Close-Up toothpaste.
An Avon spokeswoman since 2000, Williams this year took her role with the cosmetics company a step further, designing her own line of jewelry. Avon execs promise more projects down the road.
In all, Williams' off-court take is $7.8 million per year, a figure that is sure to go up soon as her deal with Puma, negotiated when she was an unknown 99th in the world, comes to a close. Insiders predict Williams could trump big sister with a deal in the $10 million annual category, topping Venus' record 5-year, $40 million deal with Reebok.
"She goes beyond tennis but what really interests us is she is a wonderful contemporary role model for young women," said Janice Spector, Avon's vice president for advertising, who added that the company has more in the works for both Serena and Venus. "She's achieved something wonderful. She's smart and she's her own person. And I think her recent successes have only enhanced her confidence."
Williams is even big enough to warrant attention in the romance field, where a rumored high-profiled pairing has kept gossip columnists busy alongside sports writers. Rampant rumors have paired Williams, who previously dated Penn State star LaVar Arrington, with Tampa Bay receiver and fellow limelight lover Keyshawn Johnson.
Does anyone know -- or care -- that Lindsay Davenport married this year?
And in the true sign that you have arrived as a pop icon, Williams was cartooned in an episode of "The Simpsons."
Diva with substance
The irony is, the more hyperexposed Williams has grown, the more liked she has become. That isn't the way it usually works. Success generally breeds contempt. But boorish behavior by fans at the French Open aside, Williams has blossomed not only in the public sector, but in the catty locker rooms that are the WTA Tour. Always respected for her abilities and talents, albeit reluctantly, Williams has discovered tennis etiquette, deftly giving credit to opponents and accepting her wealth of accomplishment with grace. Her peers, in turn, have given Williams her due.
Equally important, she has pushed her father, Richard, into the shadows. For years, Richard would speak and Venus and Serena would find themselves embroiled in his accusation du jour.
But Richard and Oracene Williams' divorce, as well as the women's maturation, has taken the microphone away from daddy. As Carillo pointed out, had the hissing French Open crowds that drove Williams to tears earlier this month when she lost to Justine Henin-Hardenne, greeted her a few years ago, Richard Williams would have turned it into a dog-and-pony show, injecting racism allegations and citing petty jealousy as the culprit.
Serena, though, deftly answered questions immediately after the loss, and when asked recently about the brouhaha she calmly said, "That's water under the bridge."
"She's risen above all of that," said Levitt, who has watched Williams' "Q" rating for years. "Her scores have increased steadily as more people have gotten to know her and her successes have improved."
Like her or not, tennis can't afford to bite its dinner bowl. As the men's tour eases away from doting daddies Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras to establish the next crop of talent, and the women's tour waves goodbye to Martina Hingis and soon Monica Seles and watches the draw of Anna Kournikova finally begin to wane amid a career 0-for, the tennis vehicle is clearly being steered by Serena Williams.
She might be a diva, but she is a diva with substance.
Not since Seles rushed onto the scene as a 17-year-old No. 1, resplendent with blond hair then black hair, Madonna rubber-band bracelets and a fashionista's approach to news conferences, has tennis found someone who totes the mantle with such aplomb.
Seles, of course, was robbed of her carefree spirit and tennis of its ingenue 10 years ago, when Gunther Parche plunged a knife between her shoulder blades.
"Monica dug it. Until she got stabbed, she was digging it with a clam shovel," Carillo said of Seles. "Serena likes (the No. 1 status) the way Monica did."
Beyond big sister
Chi Chi Rodriguez once called Jack Nicklaus a legend in his spare time.
That now is the risk for Williams -- that tennis becomes her afterthought as the bright lights beckon.
She is good enough to play halfheartedly and win often, and her talent is also deep enough that she could become a woman for the record books.
"If she can pull it off, and so far she has, it's great," Carillo said.
The problem for Williams is the only person who can really push Serena is Serena. No one across the net stands to do it. There is no Navratilova to her Evert. She has won 11 titles since January 2002, including that Serena Slam (from French Open 2002 to Australian Open 2003).
Even her own sister has proven to be no match. Since losing an emotional match to Venus in the 2001 U.S. Open finals, Serena has dispatched of big sister as if she were a hitting partner. Up until the French Open, the pair had met in four consecutive Grand Slam finals. Kid sister took home all of the trophies.
Though Henin-Hardenne has topped Serena twice this year -- at Roland Garros and earlier, at Charleston, S.C. -- any talk of a Serena Slump is inane. Williams has lost all of eight matches in the last 18 months.
And much to the dismay of the other women with rackets at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, she heads to London hungry after the distressing and disappointing loss at the French.
Her career, as incandescent as it has been, is just beginning.
"I can't even see the finish line right now," Williams said. "It's so far ahead of me. I'd like to go as long as I can, as long as I'm healthy and enjoying it."
Here's hoping, for tennis and for sports, the party continues.
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