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A couple of champions
Bucs WR Keyshawn Johnson discusses his relationship with Serena Williams, the world's top women's tennis player.
By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 22, 2003

CELEBRATION - Keyshawn Johnson moved to the edge of a couch near a table on the patio outside the Celebration Hotel. Elbows resting on his knees, he leaned over his cell phone like a bird hunched over a nest.

The air was thick and damp. The only things stirring were a few die-hard autograph seekers straining against a barricade and a police officer sitting inside his cruiser parked a few feet away with the air conditioner running.

Mosquitoes took turns making stealth attacks at his arms and legs, but Johnson rarely raised a hand to swat them.

"Those mosquitoes bothering you, man? You've got to just let them eat away," Johnson said.

When you are Keyshawn Johnson, you have to develop a thick skin.

Everybody wants to take a bite out of the Bucs wide receiver. Everybody seems bloodthirsty for news about his once-strained relationship with coach Jon Gruden, or about his divorce, or about his jet-setting new life with a certain international tennis star.

"Everybody," Johnson said, "wants to know what my relationship is with Serena Williams."

Lately, Johnson has been spotted at nearly as many of Serena's tournaments as has older sister Venus.

He attended the Open Gaz de France in Paris in February. Then it was off to the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, S.C., in April. Two weeks ago, he arrived in London, where Serena defeated Venus to defend the Wimbledon title, winning her sixth Grand Slam singles championship.

Johnson only laughed at reports that during Super Bowl week he sent two dozen roses to her at the Australian Open. Or that after winning the tournament to complete her Serena Slam, she flew to San Diego to watch the Bucs win a world championship and joined a postgame party at the W Hotel.

But they are seen together all the time, shopping near Williams' home in Palm Beach or dining at a trendy Brentwood, Calif., restaurant.

Last week at the ESPY Awards in Hollywood, Calif., comedian Jamie Foxx constantly teased Williams about the new relationship with Johnson, who sat several rows away with teammates.

So is it true love-love? Has the greatest women's tennis player on Earth met her match in the flamboyant football star? Or do Johnson, 29, and Williams, 21, enjoy playing serve-and-volley with reporters and the paparazzi?

On his relationship with Williams, Johnson is low-Key.

"Everybody wants to know," Johnson said. "And I think because of who she is and who I am, and respect for her and respect for myself, we are leaving our relationship to ourselves. Not for public scrutiny or any of that. But they're going to do it anyway.

"The less people know about you, the better off you are. People digging through the trash can ... you don't need all that. Your personal life is your personal life, and from my standpoint, I'd just as soon people not get involved with my personal life. But being a public figure, I can't stop that. And since she's an international figure and in the United States, it's very difficult for her. But she's handled it well, at least I think so."

The pairing seems natural when you think about it.

Johnson, who has two children who live with their mother in California, has a lot in common with Williams. Both beat incredible odds to escape impoverished neighborhoods in south central Los Angeles to become professional athletes with fame and fortune.

"As far as our friendship goes, I think we understand each other in a very, very strong way," Johnson said. "The demands, the competition - all of that. That's why we're friends, and we're good friends because we both have similar professions. Obviously, she's bigger than I am, and we both, as friends, understand that.

"I don't have a problem with it. I don't have a problem with it at all. It's fine with me. I like to be with her when we go out to eat because they leave me alone. That's fine with me. Deal with her. She says the same thing if we go out to eat and go somewhere, she enjoys it when they all mess with me. It depends on the arena."

As Johnson talks, he is interrupted every few minutes by his cell phone ringing. A familiar voice, calling from Los Angeles, is pleading for directions. She is trying to find the San Diego freeway and headed in the wrong direction.

Could it be S-E-R? Johnson comes to the rescue then promises to call back.

"But we're not in a relationship. It's a friendship," Johnson said.

Whatever it is, it has benefited Johnson, who appears happy, relaxed and in tremendous shape. He is asked about his biceps, which look larger and more toned this season. "I've been playing a lot of tennis," Johnson said, smiling.

It's clear the turmoil has passed in his life, like a raging storm blown out to sea. "Whenever you're always in a divorce, people always think it's going to be dysfunctional," he said. "But it wasn't a dysfunctional situation. I see my kids all the time, they take priority."

On the field, despite catching 76 passes for 1,088 yards and five touchdowns, it was his clashes with Gruden - like the ugly sideline screaming match caught by Monday Night Football cameras - that made headlines.

Gruden, who was put off by Johnson's habit of training in Los Angeles, said he has a better understanding of his leading wideout.

"When I fell in love with my wife, I didn't know all about her the first three weeks," Gruden said. "But we've grown over the last 12 years in our marriage. That's kind of an analogy I'm using with Keyshawn. I'm hoping that I can better understand him and also get a better feel for him as a football player so we can put him in better situations in 2003."

Johnson, who has had two head coaches, three coordinators and three quarterbacks since being traded to the Bucs four years ago, agrees that his relationship with Gruden is better. A Super Bowl ring will do that.

"I'm not going to say (Gruden) got a better understanding of my skills, but maybe a better understanding of me as a person," Johnson said. "I think he was to some degree led to believe that I was some sort of, I don't want to say cancer, but some knucklehead. A hardhead. A guy who's not paying attention, like most people probably perceive me."

"I don't think very many guys can have distractions outside of what they do, from their profession, and still excel at a very high level. I get away from it. I'd rather divert my energies in other places when the year is over and recharge. When you've got people trying to undermine you in everything you do, sometimes it can put a negative cloud over your head until you put an umbrella there and show everyone it's totally different."

Well, it's time to put away the umbrellas. Johnson's "relationship' with Williams, whom he says he first met briefly when she was 16, appears to be advantage Johnson.

"Having a friend that's a competitive athlete, that's a champion, it gives you some understanding what being a champion, fighting for a championship, defending a championship is all about," he said.

"I've seen the things that are interesting, practice habits, the work ethic put into trying to win a championship. And the disappointing factor of not winning a championship. The expectations and everybody's demands that everybody has on you.

"The world has to believe what they need to believe. It's none of their business what it is. If you were married to somebody, it'd be different. But no matter what type of relationship you're in, they're still a friend. That's how I leave it. "She's definitely a champion. There's no other way to describe her than champion."
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