Since she hasn’t done this for a while, Serena Williams was not in top press-conference form this weekend.
At her best, Williams may be the most electric speaker in sport. She bops between playfulness and simmering rage, often in the space of a single question. The way she stares through questioners puts most of them on the stammering defensive before they’ve said anything.
But now back at Wimbledon after what was essentially a sabbatical year, she lacked that mojo. Short answers. Less cheek. Zero flashes of annoyance.
Then a German reporter tossed her a softball: “What would be a good outcome for you?”
Williams is 40. She hasn’t played a meaningful singles match since blowing her hamstring at this tournament last year. She’s only here because Wimbledon gave her a free pass.
“Oh yes,” Williams said, like she’d been waiting for this one. She closed her eyes and lowered her voice to a purr. “You know the answer to that. Come on now.”
Laughter in the room. An amused eyeroll from the star.
Then someone else followed with the same question asked a slightly different way and Williams iced him with the same answer: “You guys know the answer to that.”
The tone made it very clear no one should try for a third.
Other questioners tried to draw her on Roe v. Wade and the Russia ban. Williams passed both times. It was a lesson to her colleagues throughout sport – there’s no law that says you must have a public opinion on everything.
Finally, here was the imperious Williams that we have missed. Now let’s see if that dominance can be transferred a few hundred feet onto the court.
Many sports stars dominate their little patch of the field, but few have controlled their whole environments the way Williams has. In the latter half of her career, it often seemed that she could beat opponents by Vulcan mind-melding them from distance. The match would be going their way. Williams would fix them with her thousand-yard stare. And then – whoop! – it’d be going Williams’s way.
Then the injuries started up. And the disappointments in major tournament finals. And the rock in her shoe that is Margaret Court’s 24 grand slam titles (Williams is stuck on 23).
Williams is the most dominating women’s player ever. You don’t need to understand tennis to understand that. All you need are eyes. But until the numbers fall her way, some dingdong is always going to say, “Yeah, sure, but …”
She has steadily denied it, but that appeared to get in Williams’s head. Her mien was still total control, but opponents no longer feared her. Broadcasters stopped mooning about her the whole way through matches. When they did tell Williams stories, they started having a “back in my day” feel. It must feel bizarre to have your professional obit written in real time while you’re still working. Here, she felt compelled to start off her presser with, “I didn’t retire.”
A year away won’t have helped any of that. Nor will the new job title. Everyone else she plays in her two weeks here – come on now – will be a tennis professional. Grinding it out on the tour 10 months a year, racking up the AmEx points.
Williams had been a tennis part-timer for a while, but now she’s more of an occasional worker. A dabbler, even. Her steady gig is as a venture capitalist.
“I’m currently out of the office for the next few weeks,” Williams said.
Her company raised more than US$100-million in seed money in the spring. It’s a good fit. I mean, are you going to say no to Serena Williams? And if you do, how do you plan on getting out of the room? She is a lot faster than you.
So now Williams is not only fighting younger, presumably fitter players, her age and a lack of practice. She’s taking on the whole idea of doing sports for a living. Though she will make money here, Williams has become an amateur. Because one way of defining that word is “someone who does something for fun.”
Williams is currently ranked 411th in the world. She’s not about to start climbing that ladder again. She’s doing this because she can and why not?
If she makes it through a couple of rounds, nobody’s going to feel weird about that. She’s Serena Williams. She can still win matches with The Look.
But if she puts a real dent in this tournament, the modern game is going to look slightly ridiculous. Everyone in it never shuts up about their up-when-it’s-still-dark workout routine and their strength coach and the sports psychologist who sleeps in a cot beside their bed. If the louche star of yesteryear who practises when he feels like it and enjoys a boozy night out were to time warp into the present day, he’d be shunned.
(Not that such players don’t still exist. Just that they’ve figured out they shouldn’t talk about it.)
So what would it say if Williams – her life full of other responsibilities, coming off a bad injury and only having swung a racket in anger as a doubles player about a week ago – were to excel here? It would put the lie to sport’s productivity cult.
When someone tried to put her on the spot about being spared a first-round match against world No. 1 Iga Swiatek, Williams’s expression flattened: “Every match is hard … and anyone could have been drawn to me.”
There have always been a bunch of reasons to be fascinated by Williams. She divides opinion, but two things cannot be argued – her quality and her charisma. She’s an all-timer in both instances. Her place at the top of the pyramid is already assured.
But floating into London in June on a working holiday, seemingly expecting to win Wimbledon? How great would that be? You guys know the answer to that.