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May 6th, 2007, 08:30 AM
Serena Holds Court
Tennis: She was down and seemingly out, now Serena Williams is racing back to the summit of tennis, here she discusses race, religion, sex and dinosaurs with Gaby Wood.
We had agreed to meet at her home in Florida the day before Easter. Serena Williams, one of the decade's cultural icons, was in the middle of the most astonishing stage of her career. The so-called ghetto Cinderella had just pulled off a comeback of proportions neither Perrault nor Grimm would have considered: unseeded, and ranked at 81 in the world, she had won the Australian Open in January having scarcely played for 16 months. Yet the circumstances of our interview were so relaxed, so idyllic, I thought, it was bound to go wrong. And for a moment it seemed I was right.

At the barrier to the lush and vast gated compound where Serena lives north of Palm Beach, I stop while the guard rings a number. He informs me that the house phone is out of service. I insist that I am expected. He makes a call to a mobile and returns. This time he is emphatic - even a little threatening. 'I spoke to Ms Williams,' he says. 'She told me she doesn't know anything about an interview and asks that you respect her privacy.'

It turns out that Serena's plane from Los Angeles is late. When she comes breezing in from the airport in her white SUV, oversized sunglasses masking half her face, small dogs jumping and yapping at the open window (she's sorry, her luggage took so long to arrive), and picks me up at the gate, it becomes clear that the guard has spoken to the wrong Ms Williams. 'Must've been Venus,' Serena explains as she drives me to her home. 'I didn't tell her you were coming and whenever anyone asks for an interview,' she says, taking the keys out of the ignition and grabbing one of the dogs from my lap, 'naturally, we always refuse.'

As they have for the past 25 years - and long after the story of their professional rivalry has dimmed - the Williams sisters live together. (And their father lives 15 minutes away.) Of course the place is far from small - the arched front door is flanked by colonnades, the floor-to-ceiling windows at the back surround a swimming pool and, when the house was built for them seven years ago, they asked for a wing each (Serena wanted two storeys, Venus wanted one; Venus, inevitably, is now kicking herself).

'If I'd known about the place across the road I would have joined that one,' Serena says of another luxury community, as we unload her belongings - handbags, shoulder bags, a huge rib-rack of tennis rackets (courteously, she gives me the pink one with the wheels as she lifts the heftier things with no visible effort). 'Everyone's a member there - Tiger [Woods] is a member there, that guy who's married to Catherine Zeta-Jones is a member ... but I didn't know about it when we bought this.' The dogs, Jackie and Lorelei, follow at her heels as she opens the front door. 'Hmm,' she says, looking a little perplexed.

The main room - or should I say atrium? - contains a Venetian chandelier so large you can barely imagine it fitting inside Venice, some pink-and-white striped satin Louis XV furniture and a few extra pink upholstered chairs piled up next to them. There are double-height midnight blue curtains embroidered with gold giraffes, and pseudo-Impressionist paintings lean against a wall. A hasty Post-it note reads: 'Please do not walk on the office floor. We will be back tomorrow.'

As it turns out, there's little point in attempting a through-the-keyhole analysis of the house, because Serena hardly recognises the place herself. The only traces of the sisters are the photographs of them, taken for Elle magazine years ago, on the walls. 'You know, Venus has an interior-design company now,' Serena offers by way of explanation. Every time Serena goes away, it seems, Venus takes the opportunity to experiment. Only a few weeks ago, the house was pink. 'When I came back it was all white - my sister decided we needed "a more sophisticated look",' Serena says, her head wobbling with irony as she pauses to admire some brand new Nike trainers that have landed in her hallway.

The 22-year-old who had won Wimbledon two years running and four grand-slam titles on the trot - a feat she dubbed the 'Serena Slam' - lost the 2004 Wimbledon final to the teenage Maria Sharapova. Asked later how, as a 'tennis superstar', she felt about the defeat, Williams replied: 'A tennis superstar? I'm not a tennis superstar. I'm a superstar. Period. Like Britney Spears.'

And with that, it seemed, she moved on. Serena concentrated more on her clothing line, Aneres (Serena spelled backwards), on her acting career and on her red-carpet appearances. Aneres, which specialises in strapless satin minidresses and lime green snakeskin prints, was inaugurated with a fuchsia Lycra-and-lace number that even Serena, who dubs the look 'Slut-rena', has described as 'probably the most hideous thing I've ever made in my life'. As for her performances, she appeared on ER, lent her voice to The Simpsons and other animations, and is still in discussions with writers and directors about various projects. In 2005, she and Venus made a worryingly watchable reality TV series called Venus and Serena: For Real, in which they were seen having dinner with their family, doing yoga and playing the guitar. On the show, at a red-carpet event, they rushed girlishly to embrace James Avery, who played the father on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Serena declared herself to be an aspiring actress, whereupon an entertainment reporter asked, large microphone in hand, whether she had a monologue prepared. She didn't. What was her favourite play? Serena looked blank. Afterwards, she whispered to Venus that she should have thought of doing that soliloquy she knew: 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow ...' 'What's that - Romeo and Juliet?' Venus asked. 'No!' Serena tutted, 'It's Hamlet!'

Perhaps realising that her chances as an interpreter of Shakespeare were somewhat slim (that line is from Macbeth), Serena slowly got back into shape. Last year, she had fallen to a ranking of 139, her lowest in a decade. She was widely berated for losing focus, criticised for putting on weight - her fate, it appeared, was appropriated by the whole of America. Chris Evert wrote her an open letter that was published in Tennis magazine. 'Just a couple of years ago,' Evert wrote in 2006, 'when you were fully committed to the game, you showed the athleticism, shot-making and competitive desire to become the greatest player ever. You won five of the six grand slams you entered over the 2002 and 2003 seasons and looked utterly dominant in the process. Then you got sidetracked with injuries, pet projects and indifference, and have won only one major in the last seven you've played. I find those results hard to fathom ... Whether you want to admit it or not, these distractions are tarnishing your legacy.'

But this January, some mysterious force kicked in. After losing a third-round match in an insignificant event in Tasmania, Serena experienced what she later described as a 'Rocky moment' and, symbolically overwriting her 2004 loss at Wimbledon, defeated Sharapova (by then ranked world number one) 6-1 6-2 in the final of the Australian Open. She became the lowest ranked woman to win a grand-slam singles trophy in three decades. To call the final exceptional would be an understatement. It was spectacular: Serena dominated the match against an opponent who had not dropped a set in five previous rounds. In tears, she dedicated the victory to her sister Yetunde, murdered four years ago in Compton, Los Angeles, the gang-ridden town the rest of the Williams clan had long ago left behind.

Serena has performed gloriously ever since (at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami in March, she defeated Sharapova 6-1 6-1 in the fourth round and went on to win the tournament) and, only days before we were due to meet, she had soared back up to number 11 in the rankings. Nick Bollettieri, who has coached Serena since she was nine and who has been involved with nine world number-one players including Andre Agassi, later told me that he rated her comeback alongside Agassi's famous return to form in 1998. 'What makes Serena unusual?' Bollettieri asked himself. 'First of all, once she starts rolling and you tell her to roll through a cement building, she'll put her head down and roll through the building. This girl has so many qualities. They were put into storage for a little bit, but whatever the reason for that, I don't care. The girl is back! She was down - down to the bone - and she found a way. She's a fighter: that's the inspiration.'

Between points at the Australian Open final, the camera closed in on Serena's face as she glanced directly back over her shoulder. Where in Sharapova you saw blunted calm or irritation, here was a close-up the greatest actors would kill for, full of beauty and assurance and tenderness, a face that seemed to tell a more complicated story behind the astonishing force with which she was playing.

But what was that story? Though various speculations have been made about her two-and-a-half-year lull - that she was more interested in her 'pet projects', as Evert called them; that she was distracted by a long-running court case in which she and Venus and their father were accused of reneging on a deal to play an exhibition match; that she was still grieving for her sister; that she was experiencing a delayed reaction to her parents' divorce in 2002 - and although Serena herself has said she was 'at the bottom of the barrel', having lost faith, lost hope, lost 'everything', when we sit down to talk about it she will not budge from the simplest of explanations: she just had a knee injury, and needed time to recover.

'I got injured!' she exclaims once we're out by the pool in the sun, sitting on infrequently used loungers. She stretches out, in her jeans and cut-off grey sweat top, takes the clip out of her hair to set her long, black extensions loose. 'I got injured and I got surgery, and I came back way too soon. And I did well,' she adds, in self-justification. 'I got to the finals of Wimbledon, but I never had fully recovered, so I kept having relapses. I'm much better now and thank God I took the time off. I don't want to go the rest of my career getting to the finals, getting to the semis - I've always considered myself more of a winner.'

But this, she reflects, is not merely the old self back - it's a new self. 'I feel like it's a mature self,' she says, though she is still only 25. 'I mean, I'm playing different, my game is a little better. I never felt that I'd reached my full potential. I always thought that I could play better.' And then she offers, in a pattern that establishes itself almost instantly, yet another proviso lest a crack in her confidence should be seen to appear: 'There was nothing wrong with my old self at all - to get to that level is awesome. I was playing amazing tennis. But at the same time, my game has matured.'

Years ago, she explains, she would always play to her opponent's stronger side; it was a kind of perfectionist challenge she had set herself on purpose, she suggests, to prove that her strong side was stronger than their strongest side - after all, what would be the fun in winning against weakness? Now, however, she has discovered the merits of efficiency. 'Now I'm like: let me hit to the backhand, I can get off in 25 minutes. It's just smarter. It's smarter tennis.'

She also thinks she has changed outside of tennis. She is more relaxed, she says, more friendly. Not - the inevitable qualification comes quickly - that she wasn't friendly before. 'I was just shy and didn't talk as much. And I'm still very shy. People take it the wrong way, but it's not me being mean or anything, I'm just really shy. But I'm opening up more - in general, in life - I like to have fun more. And I realise tennis isn't the end of the world. I always took it really serious and now I'm out there and if I hit a bad shot I smile, and I won't be as upset, 'cos I realise it's just a game.'

On the subject of her 'distractions', she says that some people need to have 'more of a myopic view on things'. Not Serena: 'I don't need that view. I can do different things, and I get bored easy. Like, if I were to play tennis every day, I would go nuts! Like, I take days off!'

Venus, at home in Palm Beach with an injury, was so nervous she could hardly bear to watch the Australian Open final on TV. Serena says that she didn't especially feel her sister's absence, because Venus sent so many emails and called her so often with tips on how to beat individual players. 'I talked to her every day. She told me some key things - I can't tell you what, unfortunately!' she adds, breaking into glittering-toothed laughter. 'But they were really key. She helped me a lot in the final. Venus is a very smart player. She's played everybody.'

Nevertheless, it is notable that the comeback was staged solo. Venus, after all, was the first to become world number one; she is 15 months older than Serena and they are unfathomably close. There was a time when they only seriously competed against each other in grand-slam finals and their wins seemed so interchangeable that accusations of fixing were frequent.

Initially, she tells me, it was much harder for her psychologically when she beat Venus than when Venus beat her. 'Because Venus has always taken care of me my whole life - she's the ultimate bigger sister. One time when we were in school,' she says, introducing a story that says a lot about the dynamics of their relationship, 'I didn't have any lunch money - one of the many times I didn't have lunch money. And it was the best food - I think that day was like fried chicken day, and we were all so excited!' She laughs. 'Venus gave me her money and said, "Don't worry, you make sure you eat." And another time, when I was in fourth grade, I'd spent all my money at the ice cream truck.' Serena giggles again. 'But she'd saved her allowance and she had to pay for my lunch and she had to go hungry again. She's always taken care of me, almost like a mom. She used to read to me when we were little ... So the first time I beat her it was a little difficult. But after that it got easier.'

The sisters were bred to be champions. A well rehearsed mythology holds that their father Richard, then living in the rough Los Angeles suburb of Compton with his wife Oracene and her three girls from an earlier marriage, heard that the winner of a local tennis tournament had earned more money than he made in a year. He announced to his wife that they were going to have two more girls and that they would be tennis champions. Then he took time out from his company, Samson Security, bought some instructional videos and taught himself how to play.

The girls practised (from the age of four) on public courts in the worst possible condition, with shopping carts full of old balls. On one occasion (so the story goes) gang violence broke out around them and they had to dive to the ground to avoid the scattered gunshot. From then on, so it is said, members of the Bloods gang became the girls' unofficial bodyguards against their rivals, the Crips. Richard Williams wanted his girls to be number one in the 'lily white' world of women's tennis one day and, when they got there, he wanted them to be able to say that they came from the worst neighbourhood.

The hype - as circulated by Williams in frequent press releases scripted in an attempt to drum up some sponsorship for his kids - was soon believed. By the time Venus was 10, she was being hailed by the New York Times and a Florida paper was pointing out, no doubt to Richard Williams's glee, that the murder rate in Compton was 10 times as high as that of Washington DC, the nation's murder capital among major cities. The girls had been seen by John McEnroe and Pete Sampras; they would play against Jim Courier, Jimmy Connors and Zina Garrison within a couple of years. When Venus was 11 (and everything that happened to Venus at this stage was everything Serena would later have to better), Sports Illustrated declared her 'the most hotly pursued pre-teen in US tennis history'.

Once the impoverished stage for their success was set, and with potential sponsors standing in line, the family left Compton. With the exception of the eldest daughter Yetunde, who was pregnant with a Bloods member's child, they moved to Haines City, Florida, and quickly gathered stellar tennis coaches around them. Bollettieri tells me that 'when the Williams girls used to come here, my coaches used to go in the bushes and hide. These girls beat the crap out of them. I had to have eight coaches during the course of the day!'

Serena says that she left Compton young enough never to have felt like she came from hard times. 'For me, growing up,' she tells me, 'I never wanted for anything. My mom had a great job - she was a nurse. But I'd talk to my oldest sister sometimes and she'd say, yeah, we couldn't do this, and we couldn't do that, and I never even knew, because I was so young. I left Compton when I was 10.' Venus has said that she didn't have a shower until the 1990s - and when she did, she thought they were a new invention. 'I went back to the house where we grew up,' Serena goes on, 'and I was, like, "Oh my God, how did I live there?!" If I'd been my sister's age, I would have died! We were five of us in one room, and we had bunk beds, so there were only four beds.' Serena never had a bed of her own - she just decided which sister she felt like sleeping with each night. 'I slept around, basically,' she says, giggling.

It wasn't long before Richard Williams had a change of heart. He claimed to despise the money that had been his reason for going into this in the first place. 'I'd be prostituting my girls and I'd be the big-time pimp,' he said of all the endorsements he could accept on their behalf. 'All these crazy people come up to you with cash in duffle bags, trying to get you to sign contracts. We just need a place to hide out.' He took to driving three different cars in the course of the day in order to throw people off the scent. He pulled the girls out of school and recruited different family members to teach them at home. He refused to let the girls enter any junior tournaments, to the point where it was years before they played anyone who was not an adult - a clue, perhaps, to their eventual reputation for locker-room shyness. 'I need to see them play against someone their own age,' said Billie Jean King, who had been observing their progress, 'see how they are emotionally and mentally.'

Serena Holds Court (part Two)
Tennis: Isha Price's first memory of her little sister Serena is seeing her coming home from the hospital after she was born and wishing she was a boy. 'But we got something that was even more precious,' she says now.
Isha Price's first memory of her little sister Serena is seeing her coming home from the hospital after she was born and wishing she was a boy. 'But we got something that was even more precious,' she says now. 'We were able to form a fantastic sisterhood, that we still have.' The five girls - Yetunde, Isha, Lyndrea, Venus and Serena - have always been extremely close, so close that they bristle when they are referred to as 'half ...#8209;sisters'. There's nothing 'half' about the way they relate to each other, Isha explains.

As the youngest, Serena was always the most mischievous, the most fearless, the most princess-like. She also modelled herself very precisely on Venus. 'It's pretty funny when you think about it in retrospect,' Isha says, laughing. 'If we went out for dinner as a family, we used to try to have Serena order her food first, because otherwise she was gonna get exactly what Venus got. But she would order first, and if it wasn't what V had, then she'd change it. It was ridiculous.'

She remembers the moment when that stopped. It was 1996; they were all in Paris for the French Open and both Venus and Serena were competing. 'I'll never forget this. She had read this book. Actually, Venus had read the book first. We were sitting down at this Chinese restaurant, and Venus was telling us about this book, it was a book of personality tests, like if you're introvert you use the letter I, if you're an extrovert you're an E. We were talking about what our choices were. Serena did the little test herself, and her letters were exactly like Venus's - now this had been going on for so long it wasn't even on purpose. And we were like: you are so wrong! You are so not an introvert, you're an extrovert! And she was like, "No, I don't really like to talk to people." But when she really did some self-analysis, she started to figure, "You know what? I might not be just like Venus ..." '

Serena remembers the moment when she became herself as being slightly later - at the age of 18 or 19. But the effect was the same: 'I realised that I liked different things. And it was OK: I thought, "We're different people. I don't have to do everything Venus does." I was able to move on after that.'

The two players have a motto when it comes to tennis: 'If you can't do it for you, do it for me. And die on the court!' So when Serena did it for Yetunde, who died from a shot to the head from a gang member when she was in a car with another one ('a classic case,' Serena says now with some understatement, 'of being in the wrong place at the wrong time'), she was stretching their pact to include all the sisters. After a protracted series of trials, including a mistrial and a hung jury, Yetunde's killer was convicted last year. Late in our interview, Serena reveals that on the night of Yetunde's death, she was the only person who could be contacted. 'I got a call at like three in the morning ... So now I always have my phone on and if someone calls me late I get really scared. Or if a friend's coming over, I'm always thinking something bad's gonna happen.' Contrary to what her name suggests, she says, she is 'so not calm. I'm the most panicked person in the world. It's weird. I guess I have to get over it.'

Isha, now the eldest of the remaining siblings, says they each carry a different burden in relation to their sister's death. 'I'm not sure it ever goes away - there's a part of me in the pit of my stomach that always falls, whenever something reminds me of her. It's difficult for me to speculate how it's affected Serena long term. Does she still grieve? Absolutely. We all do. Has it been a positive influence in some way? You know, I think the dedication of the match to her is demonstrative of the fact that Serena's trying to use it as an incentive to propel her forward.'

In April 2006, Serena attended the sentencing of her sister's killer, Robert Edward Maxfield, who was jailed for 15 years. She stood before the judge and said the murder was 'unfair to our family. Our family has always been positive and we always try to help people.' What did she mean about the help? I ask her.

'I was just saying that we've always tried to be a positive role model for people that come from a ghetto,' she explains. 'You can make something out of your life. You can start at zero and come out and have something. It's not about having money, it's about having pride and about upping your community. You see so many inspirational black people, but who do these people look up to? The rappers? Who, granted, are great people, I don't have anything against rappers, but some of the role models that African-Americans have aren't the best role models.'

'Yetunde, I did this for you': that, it seems, was the happily ever after line, the end of the ghetto Cinderella story. It isn't the end, of course - Serena will go on, and has already - but everything after that point surely constitutes a sequel. Because the Australian Open triumph alone looks so unassailable, with Serena as the glorious avenger of her sister's death, doing with that win what she was said to have done with her life: translate the violence of the streets of Compton into pure, magnificent talent. Myth or truth, her cultural significance should not be underestimated.

Her comeback, Isha says, sends a message 'for African-American women, for African-American people, for women, of any colour. I think that for too long we have been disjointed, and if everybody were able to realise the power that we have, we could really cause some incredible change in society as a whole - but we still have a long way to go. In America - the country that is supposed to be the land of the free - I think it speaks really loudly to the type of child that my mother raised - she's been recognised by some extraordinary cultural icons, from Oprah Winfrey to Sidney Poitier. I think they recognise her efforts in just trying to be a good human being - despite culture, despite race, despite gender.'

Arnold Rampersad is the biographer of Jackie Robinson, the baseball star who broke the sport's colour bar, and the writer Ralph Ellison. Professor of English Literature at Stanford University and co-author of Arthur Ashe's poignant memoir, Days of Grace, Rampersad believes that the Williams sisters' broader cultural impact is less felt than it might have been had they been less self-sufficient. They might have cared more about endearing themselves to the mainstream, he suggests, as Tiger Woods has done.

'As black Americans trying to reach out to white Americans, they had to show that they wanted to be loved, whereas white players could just go ahead and they would automatically be loved. It is a big burden. But they made their bed, as it were. They decided they would rather either be true to themselves, or live out a kind of racial politics quietly. They've never made racial politics an advertised thing, but they advertise it to me, certainly, in their body language. I once saw Venus - maybe she was with Serena - go up to a group of kids after a match. The kids were begging for autographs and clearly the girls were in a hurry, but they gave autographs only to the black kids. I thought that was incredible.'

He remembers an incident, decades ago, when Arthur Ashe saw his daughter in the stands, playing with a white doll. 'Arthur rushed to quietly take the doll from his daughter because people would be upset that she was playing with a white doll. I thought that absolutely ridiculous, but you can see in Ashe's case a hypersensitivity to the feelings of an audience - black or white - on the subject of race in particular. He wanted to please whites, and he wanted to please blacks. I don't know if the Williams sisters want to please anyone at all. In some respects, they're like black jazz musicians, like Miles Davis, who turned his back on the audience.'

Race has inevitably been an issue. Early on, Richard Williams accused a white player of bumping into Venus on purpose in a racially motivated attack when they changed ends during a match. In 2001, when Serena played Kim Clijsters in the final at Indian Wells, she was booed by the entire crowd. This, too, has gone down in history as a racist incident, since neither of the Williams sisters has ever played there again in protest. While it's pointless to rule out a racial element to the scene in Indian Wells (Serena says she looked up to see all white faces and ended the match in tears), the ostensible reason for the crowd's displeasure was that Venus had pulled out of the semi-final against Serena only minutes before it was due to begin. Venus claimed injury, Serena walked through to the final and the audience, who felt cheated out of a match, assumed it was a fix.

She says she 'can't imagine' what earlier African-American players had to go through - Arthur Ashe in the Sixties and Seventies, or Zina Garrison in the Eighties, 'and I don't even want to think about Althea Gibson, because she was in the Fifties'. Serena adds: 'When I first came on tour there was some trouble, but not really. I've been really blessed to not have too much, at least in my face. I mean, I don't know what goes on behind closed doors. We're a young country - slavery's been over 130 years, and I would be naive to think that in just so short a time, things can do a 360.' Her mixed-doubles partner James Blake, whose father is African-American and who played tennis in Harlem as a child, tells me admiringly that Serena 'has taken race - as Arthur Ashe called it, a burden - and not let it be a hurdle in any way'.

Still, just over a month ago she had a racist heckler in the stands in Miami. 'Hit it into the net, like any negro would,' he was heard to say, before being escorted out. It took Serena a while to realise what he was shouting. She laughs a little when she tells the story. 'In the beginning, he was saying, "foot fault, foot fault", and I thought he was helping me out. I'm trying to make sure I didn't foot fault. Talk about seeing the glass as half-full! I took the positive, I was like, "OK, thank you! I'm gonna move back." Then when he said the negro thing ... three games later it clicked. But,' she concludes cheerily, 'he ended up helping me!' And what better revenge could there be than that?

Though Serena has said in the past that she feels she is 'a black player 100 per cent', she now says she thankfully does not have cause to think about the subject very often. 'Sometimes I'll be like, "Yeah, I'm black, whassup?" But I think it's incredible that I don't have to think about it. We've come such a long way.' She does believe, though, that some of her phenomenal mental strength derives from her long-term heritage. 'I think it's innate,' she reflects, 'it comes from my history, as an African-American, and what we went through as a struggle of the people. I just think that we became really strong. Because to endure what slaves went through, what everyone went through, is incredible.' Then she giggles, her teeth sparkling as she grins. 'I also like to believe I'm a princess in Africa, and that I have to go back and claim my fortune!'

There is another source of Serena's psychological strength: her religion. All the Williams girls were brought up as Jehovah's Witnesses and all of them, she tells me, remain devoted to their faith. (Serena even goes door to door when she has time.) Not only that, but their best friends are Witnesses too. 'It's fun,' Serena explains of this arrangement, 'because you get to relate to somebody and at the same time you know you're not going to be living a promiscuous life.'

Her sister Isha tells me, when I marvel at how supportive they are of each other, that 'sometimes we do have a very me-against-the-world mentality, and I don't know how healthy that is. We feel like it's us against the world and we don't care about what anybody else is doing as long as we're OK with each other.' It confirms, to a certain degree, Arnold Rampersad's point about their closed world - their at times alienating self-sufficiency. But whether this is to do with the tightly knit family or with their religion - whether the two things can even be separated - is unclear. I ask Serena whether her faith has made it hard for her to trust other people and she breaks into broad, cackling laughter. 'No!' she says, 'I don't trust people as it is! So it doesn't really make it any harder.'

Mainly, Serena feels it keeps her out of trouble. 'You go out and you see people smoking weed,' she offers by way of example, 'and you're like, "OK, well I know I'm not gonna do that because I don't think God would be very happy if I did that." I mean, I've never been around coke, and I never want to, and honestly I'd probably freak out,' she squeals, 'because I think that's something that's only seen on TV and doesn't really happen in the real world! I would just freak out. But some people are around that - apparently! - and I think they can't make the right decisions because they don't know what they should do.'

Serena says she has never doubted God - if she has a crisis of faith, it consists more of wondering whether God will forgive her. Like all Jehovah's Witnesses, she doesn't celebrate birthdays or Christmas, and she reads the Bible in her spare time. At the moment, she's rereading Genesis. 'Genesis is so much fun,' she smiles, 'you get to read how God made the Earth in seven days ... But I wonder, like, were dinosaurs ...? I don't get it! Maybe when He made part of the Earth on the first day, maybe that's when the dinosaurs lived. You know, it made me think, "I don't know," 'cos dinosaurs were here. And the cavemen were here. When?'

Suddenly, I think she may be having an existential crisis before my eyes. I ask Serena how she reconciles those things - the dinosaurs and the Creation myth - and she shakes her head blankly, asks me what I mean. Well, I say, at what point do you think maybe the Bible isn't entirely accurate? 'No, I believe in the Bible,' she says emphatically. 'I was just thinking, if you think too hard, you'll go nuts!'

I ask her how her faith feels about having money, if they are supposed to live in a Christ-like way. 'I think times are different,' she says in response. 'I believe in the Bible but I also believe in being smart. I'm not about living poor. I don't think God's gonna punish me because I'm well off, because I've earned every dollar. I've worked since I was literally two years old. We used to deliver phone books with my dad because he wanted to instil a strong working habit in us. And I work hard, let me tell you, I sweat every day. I work hard for my money and I deserve what I have.'

Some time ago, Serena said she didn't believe in sex before marriage. She is famously silent on the subject of her love life - James Blake once told me that she 'dates some pretty big guys', but the only boyfriend anyone officially knows about is the film director Brett Ratner, whom she dumped in front of the cameras in her reality TV show because he had been out partying with P. Diddy and his cohorts. I ask her if she still subscribes to the idea of not having sex before marriage.

'I'd definitely take the fifth!' she says, laughing uncomfortably as she asserts her right to silence.

I ask her if she's single.

'I don't know. I don't think I'm single.'

You don't think so?


You're not sure?

'I'm sure, but ... I don't like to talk about that.' She smiles shyly, and looks away.

And then, a little later, she bursts into a fit of laughter she immediately regrets.

'Seriously,' she says through the giggles, 'I'm not Britney Spears! Oh God, did I just say that?!'

By now, we have moved inside. We are curled up on a large tapestry sofa and Serena is munching pretzels from a bag. From time to time, one of her dogs comes up and licks one. 'You need to lose some weight, you know?' she says to Lorelei, a very small white Maltese. 'Look at me: are you gonna do it?' She kisses the dog: 'I love you!'

For a while, we chat about random things - the fact that she's happy with her body but, if she ever wanted to have work done, she would get Ashlee Simpson's surgeon to do it; the poems she used to write when she was younger; the names she has picked out for the three children she hopes to have ('Julia Roberts already stole one of my names, though - Phineas. I was so mad!'); the skirt and jeans she wants to buy online as soon as I leave.

How will she know when it's over? I ask her eventually. Her father always said they should retire at 23 or 24 - Serena is 25 now and she has just made this phenomenal return. How did she know that she wasn't really finished?

'You know,' she muses, 'hopefully I'll just know. I think I heard Sampras or someone say you wake up and you don't want to go to practice. I don't want to go to practice now!' she laughs. 'But I mean, you genuinely don't want to go. Apparently there's a difference.'

Serena says she never read the open letter Chris Evert addressed to her, but there was one question in it, I tell her, that I've been wondering about, too: 'Do you ever consider your place in history?'

'I don't,' she says, shaking her head. 'I think when my career is over, then I'll look back, I'll look at everything that I've done and I'll probably drop to my knees and be like, "Wow, how did I accomplish all that?" But this keeps me hungry. If I thought, "Oh, I'm historic," my head would be crazy. Honestly, at the end of the day I come home to my dogs and my sister. I have friends, and I cry when I see movies, and I watch reality TV ...'

She shrugs, and I think: 'Who needs fairy tales, after all, when such a great story can be as simple as this?'

'I'm Serena,' she says, 'And that's all I am. I've never considered history.'

By Guardian Unlimited © Copyright Guardian Newspapers 2006
Published: 5/5/2007

May 6th, 2007, 11:25 AM
big THANX ! ;)

May 6th, 2007, 03:24 PM
Excellent article.

May 6th, 2007, 06:32 PM
:worship: great stuff. But then it's about Serena :)