Serena Williams: Shout to the top
Playing guitars with Venus, writing TV scripts, wasting time. Oh, and the little matter of an 11th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, starting tomorrow. Paul Newman speaks to Serena Williams
Sunday 21 June 2009
It is just as well that Serena Williams does not play tennis the way she writes television scripts or plays the guitar. On the court the American is the ultimate competitor, a fighter to the death. Off the court she gives the impression of a half-hearted dabbler without the commitment to see a project through.
Williams admits she has a "remarkable ability to waste time" and can idle away hours surfing the internet. She has tried her hand at fashion designing and acting and now wants to write. She has plans for a "dramedy", mixing comedy and drama. Sister Venus has even bought her a book called Writing a TV Drama Series.
There is only one problem. "In my mind I've been saying I want to write, but I haven't actually physically picked up a pencil and started writing," Serena confessed recently. "That is my next challenge, to actually sit down and do it. I don't know why I haven't started it yet. I have these unbelievable dreams. I need to write about them. I need to write an episode in this 'dramedy' to get them in. I've got the book on how to write it. I've been reading the book so maybe I now have just to start writing it."
It is much the same with her collection of Stratocaster guitars. "I have five guitars, all Strats – I love Strats," Williams said. "I have one in baby blue, two blacks, one red, one wood-coloured." So how often does she play? "Not often, not as much as I used to. I used to have an acoustic, which I played more. But with my long nails now it's impossible to play my guitar. I won't cut my nails.
"I used to always jam with some other people in a band. We could never find a drummer, but we used to jam together. Venus played the bass, I'd play the guitar. Sometimes I'd play the bass, she'd play the guitar. We played lots of rock music, punk. Venus did more alternative stuff. It was fun."
Nowadays Williams tends only to listen, either on her iPod – provided she can find it – or on her computer. "I lose my iPod every day," she said. "I don't have one at the moment because I lost it, just after I had bought it. On a plane I probably read and watch movies more than listen to music. I mostly listen to music in my room. If I'm just relaxing I have the music playing. I play it on the sound system on my HP computer.
"Music is important to me. It just takes you to a different place. I've read that Michael Phelps listens to music every day to get himself abbed up. Most players listen to music before they go out on the court."
Does she use music before matches? "It depends. I did it one year and I didn't do it another year. I think that was because I lost and then I got mad. I obviously do it when I'm working out. I have my MP3 player. I use it to warm up. Sometimes I do dances before a match."
What would she listen to before a match? "I have a playlist. I listen to some songs that keep me motivated, keep me abbed up. One is a Green Day song. I also listen to some Beyoncé. She seems to be so abbed with her music. I listen to a lot of hip-hop."
As she prepares for her 10th Wimbledon, starting tomorrow, Williams might wonder whether to add Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" to her playlist. The 16 seeds in Williams' debut year at Wimbledon in 1998 included Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Jana Novotna and Anna Kournikova, while only two of the seeds, Venus Williams and Patty Schnyder, are still playing today.
Three years ago, when Serena missed the French Open and Wimbledon, there was speculation about her own future. Even when she won the 2007 Australian Open she was clearly short of her best physical shape, having played just five tournaments in the previous 16 months.
At 27, however, she has just enjoyed her most successful 12 months since 2003, when she completed the "Serena Slam" – holding all four Grand Slam titles at the same time. Reaching last year's Wimbledon final was the start of a run that saw her win the US and Australian Open titles and regain the world No1 ranking she had last held five years previously. She has 10 Grand Slam titles and she is hungry for more.
Serena needs hard work to stay in shape. She thinks she has never been fitter than this year, thanks in part to her winter training. "I was in Florida and a little bored – a big change from LA," she said. "I just trained with Venus [pictured with Serena, above] and my Dad in Florida. I practised a little more than I normally do. Florida's a little boring. There's nothing to do there. Every day I felt like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. I couldn't wait to get to Australia. Maybe that's why I won: because I didn't want to go back.
"It was a lot more focused for me in Florida. I'm on a great regime now – in LA as well. And being around Venus and seeing her work hard makes me want to do better and work harder. I have to work hard. I'm lazy. But the older I'm getting the more I'm enjoying hard work. I've realised that my job is to stay fit – and that's a pretty good job to have. I'm not a natural-born person who wants to go to the gym. That's not me."
Does Venus bully her into working harder? "No, she just always says: 'Well, I did this, this and this.' It makes me want to say: 'Well, I did this, this, this and this.' So it was good. We were able to motivate each other."
For years the sisters seemed to hate playing each other. Their matches were often poor and there were suggestions – strenuously denied – that they took it in turns to win. Over the years, however, their contests have become gripping. Last year's Wimbledon final, which Venus won 7-5 6-4, was memorable, while their US Open quarter-final, which Serena won 7-6 7-6, was arguably the best women's match of the year, full of wonderful athleticism and ball-striking.
"I think our matches have got a little better," Serena said. "We've got better as well, so that has made the quality of the match better, and our games have got closer. At one point she was dominating me and then I was winning. Now we're really neck and neck [they have won 10 matches each]. I think that has something to do with it as well."
As for her own game, she believes she is a more complete player. How would the 2009 Serena fare against the 2003 version? "I think the Serena now would definitely beat the other Serena. I'm older. I think I'm wiser, a more mature player. Back then, it was more nitty-gritty. Now it's more composed and planned-out playing."
Serena's recapturing of the world No 1 position – which she has since relinquished to Dinara Safina – was remarkable considering her comparative lack of success on the Sony Ericsson Tour. In almost five years, she has won just four tournaments away from the Grand Slam events. Safina has won six in the last 13 months alone – but has lost three Grand Slam finals along the way.
After the Russian became world No 1 earlier this year, Serena was dismissive. "We all know who the real No 1 is," she said. "Quite frankly, I'm the best in the world."
She insists, nevertheless, that losing the top spot is no big deal. "It's cool to be No 1, but everyone assumes I'm No 1 anyway," she said. "When I'm at home people come up to me and say: 'You're No 1.' I hadn't been No 1 for ever, but I never corrected them. I just let them assume.
"It's important, I guess, but at the same time I don't worry about it. I just take things as they go every day. If I'm No 1, great, if not I just try to keep winning the tournaments. It's hard these days to be No 1. You get to the finals of three Grand Slams in a row and you're still barely No 1."
Serena concentrates on the Grand Slam tournaments. The Tour have tried to construct a calendar in which the top women all play at certain events, with fines for those who do not turn up, but appearing on court and winning matches are two different matters. Serena has fallen at the first hurdle in her last three tournaments outside the majors, losing to Klara Zakopalova, Schnyder and Francesca Schiavone.
In Madrid she retired after one set against Schiavone, having arrived with a knee injury. Asked at a press conference if she would have been better advised to stay away and pay the $75,000 (£46,000) fine she feared, Serena replied: "Do you want to pay it for me? I'm remodelling a house. I don't know about anyone else, but $75,000 is a lot of money to me. That's like my whole furniture bill, some stairs, rugs. That can go a long way. In this economy I'm not in a position to just write out $75,000 cheques."
Provided she remains fit, she plans to be around for a while yet. "I just feel like I'm going to play and keep playing," she said. "Right now I don't see an end. Today I actually enjoyed practising for the first time ever. I hate practising. I thought: 'Oh my God, the older I get the more forehands I want to hit.' So I think that's a good sign."
And her ambitions for Wimbledon after finishing as runner-up 12 months ago? "My goal is just to do better than last year."
Serena's possible path to final
Round 1 Neuza Silva (Portugal) Age: 26. World ranking: 155
Has spent most of career on second-tier ITF circuit.
Round 2 Lucie Safarova (Czech Rep) Age: 22. Ranking: 48
Took a set off Venus Williams in Paris last month. Has won four titles on main tour.
Round 3 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (Russia) Age: 17. Ranking: 30
Won three Grand Slam junior titles and entered world's top 30 this year, reaching Indian Wells semis.
Round 4 Jie Zheng (China)
Age: 25. Ranking: 16
Beat world No 1 Ana Ivanovic in first round last year.
Quarter-finals Victoria Azarenka (Belarus) Age: 19. Ranking: 8
Troubled Williams in Australian Open until retiring with heat exhaustion.
Semi-finals Elena Dementieva (Russia) Age: 27. Ranking: 4
Olympic champion has gone off the boil in recent weeks.
Final Venus Williams (United States) Age: 29. Ranking: 3
Dinara Safina is seeded to reach final, but Venus will be favourite to emerge from top half of draw.
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