Old-school diva refuses to sing along to the stereotype
For someone who hasn't had to take many lessons in humility during her career, Serena Williams has been eating a lot of humble pie lately.
It was an interview in the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine that landed her in hot water. And as she made clear in that same article, she'd much prefer to be eating French fries or waffles or cinnamon rolls.
But she fessed up and faced the music anyway. She'd offended two people with her comments, one famous, the other unknown. The latter is a teenage girl from Steubenville, Ohio, who'd been raped while almost comatose from alcohol. The assailants, two high school football players, were jailed last March, on the day that the Rolling Stone journalist, Stephen Rodrick, happened to be interviewing Williams.
Watching the news on TV, she threw out some top-of-the-head thoughts. "I'm not blaming the girl, but if you're a 16-year-old and you're drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don't take drinks from other people. Why was she that drunk where she doesn't remember? It could have been much worse. She's lucky."
When the article appeared she quickly issued an apology on her website. And last Sunday at a Wimbledon press conference she apologised again. She added: "I reached out to the family immediately once the article came out, and I had a really productive, sincere conversation with the mother and the daughter. We came to a wonderful understanding, and we're constantly in contact." The family has apparently accepted her apology.
By contrast, the second controversy is just tittle-tattle, although it generated far greater heat because it revolved around another tennis goddess. During the interview, Williams took a call from her sister Venus. Rodrick listened as they gossiped about an unnamed player. Serena, he said, did most of the talking.
"There are people who live, breathe and dress tennis," she said. "I mean, seriously, give it a rest. She begins every interview with 'I'm so happy. I'm so lucky' – it's so boring. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it."
Williams, it is generally assumed, was bitching about Maria Sharapova. The guy with the "black heart" is apparently Grigor Dimitrov, an emerging Bulgarian tennis star and Sharapova's current beau. Serena is rumoured to have had a relationship with Dimitrov. At an official party in London ten days ago, Williams apologised to Sharapova for the comments. But the Russian had a pop back at her in a press conference two days later anyway.
Williams is believed to be currently dating her coach, French man Patrick Mouratoglou. "If she wants to talk about something personal," said Sharapova, "maybe she should talk about her relationship, and her boyfriend that was married, and is getting a divorce and has kids." Mouratoglou, 41, has three children.
So Williams was forced once more to issue another round of explanations at her press conference last Sunday. Later that day, the BBC showed a recent American documentary on the Williams sisters. It included footage from a childhood that was dominated by their father and by tennis.
In one affecting scene they are practising on a municipal court in Compton, the crime-ridden Los Angeles neighbourhood where they grew up. Venus looks about eight or nine, Serena about five or six. Richard addresses them gruffly. He says to Venus: "How d'you feel you're hitting the ball right now?" She replies, in a shy submissive voice: "Good, Daddy." "How about your feet? Are your feet moving alright?" "No, Daddy." He turns to the little girl. "How about you?" Serena replies: "Yes, sir." "Very good."
They are grown-up women now, looking every inch the rich and fabulous superstars. The most impressive thing about them is how well-adjusted they seem, despite the apparent child labour on the tennis courts to which they were subjected for years.
It seems that every modern tennis pro has been subjected to variations of this one-dimensional existence throughout childhood. Which is why so many of them come across as automatons, with any flicker of independence blanched from their personalities. The Williams girls by comparison seem like three-dimensional human beings in their warmth and spiky intelligence and
humour. Venus, by common consensus, is more docile and sweet-natured. Serena comes across as impulsive, funny and strong-willed. In the documentary, as in the magazine article, she was unguarded and spontaneous. She got caught for it and duly tried to make amends.
When she reached adulthood herself, she explored the world beyond sport. She was inquisitive, and self-aware enough to know that tennis shouldn't be the end of her horizon. She didn't then, and doesn't now, want to "live, breathe and dress tennis". She didn't want to be so boring. This was frowned upon by the obsessives within the tennis bubble. The irony is that, at 31, she is still going strong: not burned out or content just to count her money. In fact, she is in the form of her life.
Serena Williams has survived this dysfunctional environment, as a player and as a human being. She has survived the regimented childhood and the racism and social deprivation that surrounded her. She has won 16 Grand Slam titles. The girl has got game, as they say in America. But the girl has got soul too, loads of it. She is a full-scale full-on diva – the Aretha Franklin of the courts.