Dangerous When Interested
By SUSAN DOMINUS
Published: August 19, 2007
After nearly winning, but ultimately losing, in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, sabotaged by a sprained thumb, Serena Williams took the long way back to Los Angeles. First she stuck around a few days to watch her sister win the tournament on Saturday. (Venus's Wimbledon victories: four. Serena's: two.) The next day she flew to New York, where she had a long layover and got a manicure, and then went on to North Carolina to see one of three specialists she would end up consulting about her thumb. Finally, late Monday, she and her boyfriend, the actor Jackie Long, arrived in Los Angeles, only to find that their luggage had gone astray. Exhausted, they went home to Serena's condo (decorated by Venus), where they relaxed until the phone rang with the news that their bags had arrived. They could have waited for the luggage to be delivered, but instead, jet-lagged and sleepy, they got in the car and headed back to the airport.
"I didn't want to take a chance," said Williams, sitting in a booth at Houston's, a chain restaurant at the Century City Mall in Los Angeles that she had chosen for lunch. "I had some great dresses I bought in London." Williams smiled, then laughed at herself, slouching back into the booth. "I got them at Harvey Nichols. I could not afford to lose those bags!" When Williams talked about tennis, she looked a little older than her 25 years; she looked the way competent people do when discussing an intractable work problem, focused and a little bit grave. When Williams talked about fashion, she became dreamy and giddy; she looked, when discussing those dresses, like she was in love.
Williams was thinking she might want to wear one of those dresses down the red carpet at the ESPYs, the ESPN awards show, for which she had returned to Los Angeles. She had already spent much of the day in hair and makeup for a photo shoot for a small fashion magazine. That evening she would spend another two to three hours having her hair done for a pre-ESPYs party she wasn't even sure she would attend. On Wednesday, she would appear at a Nike event, shoot a Hewlett-Packard Web site promo, get another manicure and spend more time in hair and makeup in preparation for the ESPYs. On Thursday, she would voluntarily submit herself to two more hours of beauty assistance for yet another shoot (for this very article). Reviewing her schedule — the planes, the appearances, the hair appointments — Williams acknowledged it was a lot. Her life, she said, "is like a rock star's." The jet lag was starting to catch up with her, and she yawned, overcome by the pace. "I don't know about everybody else, but my life is like this every day, all day."
This is not what fans of Serena Williams's game want to hear. They want to hear that every day, all day, she is perfecting the toss of her 120-mile-per-hour serve, that she is punching up her volley, that she is running sprints and pounding weights to make her game the best it can be.
For Williams, however, thinking of herself as a rock star isn't necessarily antithetical to thinking of herself as a tennis champion. When asked after losing in the 2004 Wimbledon finals what advice, as a tennis superstar, she would give to the victor, Maria Sharapova, Williams famously shot back, "I'm not a tennis superstar — I'm a superstar." She immediately laughed it off as a joke — "I'm just kidding" — but the quote (often cited without the caveat) made the rounds, in part because it seemed to confirm to her critics something that they had been suspecting: that Williams believed she had transcended tennis and that, in indulging her ego, she had let her game suffer.
In 2003, Williams completed what she calls the Serena Slam, winning four consecutive Grand Slam tournaments and displaying such power and athleticism that she looked as if she might give women's tennis the same kind of jolt that the men's game would get from Roger Federer. That moment never arrived. The conventional critique evolved that Williams — who, in addition to tennis, enjoys modeling, fashion design and acting — had wasted her potential. Without an obvious rival other than her sister — a loaded dynamic that has often produced listless matches — she seemed to lose motivation, dropping in the rankings, gaining weight and pulling out of match after match, citing any number of injuries. She continued to play, and sometimes even won, but not with anything close to the same consistency. She confused fans by showing up occasionally as an actress on TV, and in 2006 she took a six-month break from competing altogether.
Having all but given up on Williams as a champion, serious tennis fans were stunned by her spectacular comeback at the Australian Open this past January, when a shocking loss in a tournament warm-up seemed to anger her into action. Williams went on to dominate the Open field, despite carrying what looked like an extra 15 pounds and entering the tournament ranked a lowly 81st in the world. Not long after, she defeated current No. 1-ranked Justine Henin and No. 2 Maria Sharapova to win the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, considered the most important tournament after the Grand Slams, and then powered her way to the Wimbledon quarterfinals. She lost to Henin, but played so well, even with the injured thumb, that she walked away looking almost like the dominant force she had been at her peak.
Come the start of the United States Open on Aug. 27, Serena Williams, ranked 140th just over a year ago, is a top 10 player, as serious and exciting a contender as any player on the tour — if her thumb holds up. It's not a small if. By midsummer, Williams's famous father, Richard, felt she should pass up the Open in favor of letting her injuries heal properly.
At this moment in tennis, even if Venus plays, and plays well, but Serena doesn't, the tournament will suffer from a deficit of Williams family charisma, not to mention sheer tennis talent. The Open could be the tournament that determines whether women's tennis has its two most vibrant players back, or whether one of them has just been visiting.
"I cannot imagine Serena Williams coming back from this," NBC's commentator Mary Carillo announced midway through Williams's fourth-round match at Wimbledon. Minutes earlier, Williams, who had allowed her 10th-seed opponent, Daniela Hantuchova, back into a match that had been one-sided, suddenly grabbed her leg, winced and smacked her calf three times with her racket. She tried to take another step, then fell with surprising grace to the grass. After a trainer applied ice to her calf, Williams let out a blood-curdling shriek. A cramp, the commentators theorized; later, her father would say her calf muscle had suffered a small tear. Either way, it took Williams more than 10 minutes to get up on her feet. Wiping tears from her eyes, she hobbled to the base line. She looked like she was going to put up a brave but ultimately losing fight — she managed to hit a 110-m.p.h. serve off one leg, but couldn't run — until clouds that had been darkening finally let loose. A rain delay. The commentators were beside themselves. "Awfully entertaining," Ted Robinson gushed. "Very dramatic tennis," John McEnroe said later in the broadcast.
Even better, Williams returned after an hour and 50 minutes and stunned the crowd, dominating Hantuchova with power strokes while moving nimbly on her feet. The match, in retrospect, was like one extended metaphor for the arc of Williams's career: She started off strong, then faltered for a while before succumbing to a dramatic breakdown in play. And then, just when spectators and fans had no choice but to assume she would never recover, she came back a winner.
Throughout the Wimbledon match, the commentators' remarks revealed a preoccupation with Williams's complicated relationship with the sport. McEnroe commented on "how much less of her there is," referring to her weight. During her calf crisis, he speculated vaguely about whether that injury might correlate to a lack of conditioning, and the drama inspired Carillo to squeeze in a dig about Williams's other aspirations. "She could star in her own made-for-television movie," she said. "And it would be ongoing."
If anything, tennis professionals have been harder on Serena Williams than even the tennis public has; it's as if, in taking that six-month break, in letting herself put on those extra pounds, in appearing on some TV shows, Williams was forgoing a kind of national service to fans and the tour. "She's earning a ton of the money that generations of WTA women have built," says Pam Shriver, an ESPN tennis commentator and a tennis Hall of Famer. Indeed, Williams has certainly succeeded on that front, thus far earning nearly $18 million in prize money and far more in endorsements from Wilson, Estée Lauder, McDonald's, Wrigley's and especially Nike (which awarded her a five-year, $40 million contract shortly after the Serena Slam). In 2007, she ranked 69th on Forbes's list of the 100 most powerful celebrities, one spot above Michelle Wie. Among women in sports, only Maria Sharapova ranked higher.
As an athlete, Williams doesn't seem to consider Sharapova or Henin — or any other woman who isn't her sister, for that matter — too much of a serious threat. "I thought I was going to win Wimbledon," Serena said, attempting to explain what happened in England, when she fell to Henin in the quarters. She was finishing a gumbo soup that the blushing waitress at Houston's had brought to her in record time. "I would have won if I could have hit a backhand, but I could not." The reason? The thumb. "My hand is all taped, I'm trying to hide it. . . . Finally, she caught on." Williams laughed. "She started hitting every ball to my backhand." In print, Williams sounds ungracious when she doesn't give winners their due. Between bites of gumbo, she sounded honest. "There's no need to lie about it," she said. "I was playing well, and I would have won." She obviously wanted that win, and badly. "Eight is not nearly enough for my potential," Williams said, referring to the number of Grand Slam titles already in her possession. "I feel like I have a lot more to do.
"In person, Serena Williams's shoulders are broader than expected, her waist and hips narrower. She may be dressed in a gold tank, gold ballet slippers and pedal-pusher jeans, but it's her face that's mesmerizing, with its photogenic, dramatic planes and features large enough for fake lashes to look appropriately proportioned. Her manner, gracious and upfront, lies halfway between the hyper-feminine breathiness she offers up for TV talk shows and the tough, stony-faced impassiveness she displays on the court.
Obviously tired, Williams wanted nothing more than to go home that evening and sleep, but there were hours of styling yet to endure. She had been lazily picking at some ribs on Long's plate and suddenly regretted it, perhaps thinking of the photo ops ahead at the ESPYs. "I ate too many," Williams said, turning to face Long. "I had too many ribs." For an instant, her boyfriend's face betrayed the familiar look of panic that men experience at such moments — what's the right answer? "That's good," he said. "You don't have to eat anymore later tonight."
Within a few minutes, the two had piled into Long's Scion, headed for the hair salon. Williams looked out the window, making idle conversation. "Do you know Sprinkles?" she asked. "It's a cupcake place. I don't go there anymore." A brief, wistful silence. "I had to cut Sprinkles out of my life." She no longer sounded like the hard-driving champion convinced she could have taken Wimbledon; she sounded like any other woman struggling with the tedium of trying to stay fit. She watched, perhaps stricken by a small bout of guilt, as a small blond woman with a ponytail jogged down Bedford Avenue. "I need to do what this girl is doing," Williams said without any enthusiasm.
If Serena Williams has had phases of her life when she couldn't face another wind sprint, that would be understandable. When she started playing tennis, at 3 or 4 years old, she probably didn't realize she was signing on for a life of service to the game, as if agreeing at that tender age to a contract with a community that would expect her to play her best for as long as she was physically able.
The Williams family's tennis history, which started in the 1980s, already has the feel of hoary lore: how Richard Williams decided, after watching one woman professional earn more than $40,000 for four days of work, that he and his wife would have two daughters they would train to be tennis stars; how he taught Serena and Venus himself, using videos and books to help guide him. Richard, the son of a sharecropper in Shreveport, La., says he raised his kids as if they were living in the '50s, a bastion of old-fashioned values in the middle of gang-infested Compton, a city south of Los Angeles. After school, Isha, Yetunde and Lyndrea would follow their mother, Oracene, their stepfather and their two younger half-sisters to the court, where they all fed and picked up balls for the girls until it was time to go home. "It wasn't until I got to college that I realized that our lives" — the 10 p.m. mandatory bedtime till age 18, the absence of friends, the family-wide devotion to the two young girls' tennis game — "weren't what other people considered normal," says Isha Price, the oldest surviving sister and an attorney who helps handle some of Venus's and Serena's business affairs. As they got older, their father's tough love materialized on signs he posted around the practice courts. "Venus, when you fail, you fail alone," one read.
Discouraged from playing with the other kids in the neighborhood, the five sisters were inseparable. They shared a single room with four beds, meaning Serena bunked with a different sister every night. Serena always particularly admired Venus, only 15 months her senior. She "looked up to Venus so much she was Venus," Price says. The family would make Serena order first at restaurants so she wouldn't simply default to her sister's choice; no matter what color she claimed as her favorite, she often chose to wear green, Venus's favorite. Her desire to catch up to Venus in tennis, Serena said at the Australian Open, shaped an ongoing desire to upend expectations — to surprise those who doubted her talents. "I love doubters," she said. "Ever since I was young, even when I came on tour, it was Venus, Venus, Venus, Venus. Oh, and the little sister. My whole goal in life was just to prove people wrong."
Eventually, the little sister prevailed. Today she is considered the stronger player; she heads into the month of the Open ranked No. 8, compared with Venus's rank of 16, despite the victory at Wimbledon.
Richard Williams, now divorced from Oracene, has never been coy about what drew him to tennis: to make wealthy women of his daughters. "Richard's ambition propelled the girls into a celebrity lifestyle," says the narrator of the 2002 DVD "Raising Tennis Aces: The Williams Story," a film that was authorized by Richard Williams and that glorifies him as father, coach and inspiration even as it reveals his tight control over his young daughters. "He was keen to see his daughters make money."
Financial comfort, family closeness, staying healthy — even people who ultimately quarreled with Richard Williams, like the sisters' early coach Rick Macci, would concede that his daughters' well-being was the priority in the Williams household, more so than their place in history. "If someone asked you today who won Wimbledon in 1885, do you know? Do you care?" Richard Williams asked. Reached by phone, his voice tinny over a bad connection and his deep Louisiana accent still strong, he had the sound of an old-time prophet. "Americans only care about who won this year. They don't even care who won last year. My daughters were taught that there's a life beyond the base line."
For all of Richard Williams's grandstanding, for all of his sideline provocations, both Serena and Venus have benefited from his ambitions: they're both successful, rich and, from all outward appearances, relatively happy. In the process of gaining all that wealth and acclaim, they've already changed women's tennis for the better, making it a more athletic, crowd-pleasing game, adding glitz and style to a formerly staid sport. Even those who expect more of the Williams sisters would have to admit that at 25 and 27 they've already given more than most.
Serena Williams did decide to go to that pre-ESPYs party the Tuesday after Wimbledon, but was home by midnight and up early the next morning for the Hewlett-Packard shoot at the Beverly Hills Country Club. Her opponent was to be a pineapple perched atop the head of Jason "Wee-Man" Acuna, a 4-foot-7 athlete and comedian best known for his work on the MTV prank show "Jackass." Williams's job was to remove the pineapple using her serve.
She started warming up, and the whiz of the ball rose incrementally in pitch as her serve's speed increased. "That was about 112," she said. She twisted her torso, then rose up balletically, almost en pointe, and hit another. "119." Looking over at Wee-Man beaming in his tennis whites at the service line, a brazen and willing target, she stopped to laugh. "I wish you all the luck in the world," she called over to him before commencing her assault. "I don't have good aim." A few serves later (including one that left Wee-Man with a good-size welt on his thigh) she nailed the pineapple, sending it tumbling to the court. Wee-Man ran up to Williams to shake hands, then faked her out, running his hand through his hair instead. When he pulled it off a second time, he ran away, and Williams gamely chased him with her racket, hamming it up easily for the camera.
Williams's approach to extracurriculars has shown discipline only in the sense that she has seemed reluctant to do any of them half-heartedly. She went all-out Hollywood as her tennis career took off, about midway through the Serena Slam in 2003. She dated the director and bachelor-about-town Brett Ratner. She starred along with her sister in a reality television show for the ABC Family network called "Venus & Serena: For Real." She broke up with Ratner on the show ("Is this the breakup episode?" Ratner cracked for the camera). She guest-starred in an episode of "ER" and a trio of cop shows: "Law & Order," "The Division" and "Street Time." And she started a fashion line, Aneres, which is still in its infancy and has yet to make it into stores.
Critics of Williams complain that all the energy expended on acting and fashion leaves her less time to play and makes her vulnerable to injury; Williams would argue that she has merely taken advantage of downtime to pursue her other interests. She tore a quadriceps in the spring of 2003 and had surgery in August. She cut down her schedule so she could heal and indulge in a little acting.
The injury was the first of many that dragged her game down. There was a rib malfunction, an abdominal injury, gastrointestinal illness, a sprained left ankle and a groin injury. The loss to Sharapova in the 2004 Wimbledon finals was the start of a slow decline, during which she withdrew from tournament after tournament, citing injury. In 2004, for the first time since 1999, she dropped out of the top 10. She came back with a victory at the Australian Open in 2005 but, after that, was eliminated before the semifinals in all but one of her next nine events. Most damaging was a loss in the second round of a Beijing tournament, to a player ranked 127th.
Suddenly, and painfully, Williams wasn't hearing from Nike as often, and Sharapova, whom the company had signed right after she defeated Williams at Wimbledon, seemed to be the new favorite face.
Assuming the role of tennis den mother, Chris Evert took it upon herself to give Williams a stern talking to in the pages of Tennis magazine. In an open letter to Williams in the May 2006 issue, she wrote that Williams's career had been troubling her: didn't she ever consider her place in history? Williams's distractions, Evert warned, were tarnishing her legacy. "I don't see how acting and designing clothes can compare with the pride of being the best tennis player in the world," she wrote. "Your other accomplishments just can't measure up to what you can do with a racket in your hand."
Around the time Evert wrote the letter, Williams hadn't been acting at all. She had been taking a six-month break in Florida, hanging out with her family and her dogs, trying to pull herself together, doing what Jill Smoller, her agent at the William Morris Agency, calls "some physical and emotional healing."
In September 2003, the oldest Williams sister, Yetunde, a nurse, was shot and killed in Compton by a bullet reportedly intended for a man with her in a car. From the circumstances of her death, one might imagine that she had led a life far outside the boundaries of her sisters' circle. In fact, Yetunde and Serena were quite close; when Serena tore her quad just a few months earlier, for example, Yetunde had checked in every day, attending to her care. For years, Williams never spoke publicly about what happened, about how close they'd been or how she had been the first in the family to get the call with the news. Just as Williams had tried to play through her injury, she had apparently tried to play through the tragedy, literally and figuratively, filling her schedule with guest spots and red carpets and tournaments. Finally, it caught up with her, in a way that was so overwhelming that Williams will talk about it only in near code: "I went through some things in my life, things I've never spoken about, that were extremely painful. Things that happened to me on an emotional level . . . and other things. I think it would have been abnormal not to have been sidetracked — like, does this girl have feelings?"
Smoller elaborates: "If you keep playing and moving on, and moving on, and the tragedy's not dealt with, and you get injured, you eventually have to deal with the emotions and the hurt and the pain."
After her surprise win at the Australian Open this year, Williams spoke about her sister, dedicating her win to Yetunde in tears. And though she may be too private to bare her soul on "Oprah," she poured her heart out to her fans on her blog, thanking them for sticking with her: "One day you are on top of the world, and the next day you are fighting to hold on . . . physically and mentally. U grasp onto a small string that's holding U between sanity and insanity . . . groping in the dark trying to find the light that can lead u out of the dark tunnel . . . then and only then u find . . . the true people that are your friends . . . the ones that are willing to be there for you whether or not you are extremely successful, or just normal." At times, she nearly let go of that string, she wrote, and thanked her fans, her family and Jehovah for helping her hold on.
"I tried to develop a better relationship with God," Williams, who was raised a Jehovah's Witness, told me over the phone. "You have a strong solid foundation, the Bible says, you won't crack, but the man who built his house in the sand, his house went down spiritually. I have a really strong foundation. That's how I was raised." Williams was never a lapsed Jehovah's Witness — even after she was famous, she claimed she still occasionally proselytized door to door. But as she tried to pull herself together in Florida, she renewed her commitment to her religion, attending Jehovah's Witness meetings three times a week.
In contrast to another former child star (and Grand Slam champion), Jennifer Capriati, who recently spoke openly about her ongoing struggles with depression, Williams seems to have moved out of whatever emotional low she'd been caught in. Capriati expressed disappointment at her agency and the United States Tennis Association, feeling that they had abandoned her once she was injured. "I had no idea," Williams said upon hearing of Capriati's troubles, her feelings of abandonment. "But that's why for me I've always done different things. You can only play tennis for so long."
That may in part explain why Williams so easily dismissed Chris Evert's very public critique. "Very public in the tennis world," Williams qualified, "which is a small world." It's an important point for her — and not just in the context of Evert's criticism, which she says she didn't read. "If you think of the tennis world, it's not that big," she said. "There's the big picture, people dying overseas in the war, and people giving to charities, and people changing lives. . . . Tennis, in comparison, is not that big. And if you keep it in perspective, you can play even better. If I lose, you know what? I lose."
For the casual spectator, that sentiment has the sound of sanity. For die-hard sports fans, it's near blasphemy. "When you want to be the best in the world in anything," Pam Shriver says, "balance isn't always part of the equation." Either Williams isn't interested in being the best or she has a different idea of what it takes. She plans to start auditioning for movie and television roles in the fall.
The afternoon of the ESPYs, Serena Williams showed up at the red carpet celebrity-style, fashionably late and with a large entourage. She wore a white Grecian chiffon dress by the up-and-coming designer Rachel Roy, and wore her hair piled atop her head. A gold necklace dangled deep in her cleavage, and the rhinestones on her Christian Dior sandals sparkled. Her shoulders shimmered with gold-flecked powder. "Is that Beyoncé?" someone wondered aloud. "She's a fashion icon," said another, clearly knowing it was Williams.
In that same post-Wimbledon interview in which Williams referred to herself as a superstar, she had gone on to describe her level of celebrity as "that Britney Spears thing." She regularly says of her body type that she's no "Mary-Kate Olsen." She told me at one point that she doesn't want to be written about like Paris Hilton, although don't get her wrong — Hilton is a "really nice girl," she says. Practically as often as she's comparing herself to Henin or Sharapova, Williams is placing herself in context among the gossip world's No. 1 players. Those kinds of references, of course, reflect a typical twentysomething celebrity fixation — Williams can carry on a conversation with one friend while texting another on one of her two P.D.A.'s and simultaneously checking for news about Nicole Richie's latest courtroom drama. But Williams also seems to want to believe that if she begins an acting career while she still has her Nikes in the tennis game, she has a chance at maintaining the same level of celebrity she has had as a world champion. In becoming an awards show presenter, an attender of premieres, a host of high-profile parties, a presence at fashion shows, a guest star on prime-time dramas, Williams may indeed hope to transcend the game. But her association with this other kind of fame may prove just the opposite — a relic of a certain moment of see-and-be-seen, TMZ.com-style celebrity, as dated as Chris Evert's tennis bracelet.
Then again, there is one more possibility, a story line that breaks the beloved traditional sports narrative, the one that requires single-minded sacrifice to be the best. Maybe Williams will perplex and irk the pros and the fans by continuing to win tournaments while acting on the side.
Shortly before her strong showing at Wimbledon this year, Williams appeared on a popular British talk show, "Friday Night With Jonathan Ross," which has the witty, irreverent Ross as host. Williams was resplendent in a short red dress with a striking V-neck, prompting Ross to pronounce her a "spectacular hunk of woman."
Williams was playing that evening, as she often does in televised appearances, the part of the perfect Southern belle, well trained in the art of the intimate smile, the forefinger sweep of a single strand of hair, the batting of her eyelashes. Why did her game fall down at the French Open? She didn't have her lucky shower sandals! Isn't women's tennis just as interesting to watch as men's? Why, yes — and she particularly likes watching her sister Venus. Ross doesn't so much interview his guests as set them up for charming quips, so it was obvious what he was going for when he asked, in the closing moments, what she thought about women playing men — whether she thought, for example, she could beat Ross in a tennis match.
In an instant, every aspect of her body language changed. The mask of gentility fell, and her game face appeared — the face the people who know her best would instantly recognize as hers. She was apparently willing to take the part of the aspiring Hollywood starlet only so far before she needed to set one thing straight.
"Oh my God, yeah," she said quickly, all but baring her teeth. "I'd kill you."