The first question of Serena Williams in her postmatch media session Thursday probed her fashion sense — how she goes about picking her outfits (she designs them), and her preference in colors (loves white because she wears it so seldom). The second reference, naturally, was to her nail polish (an unmistakable bright red).
Eventually, it got around to tennis.
This might have been a perfect launch point, once, for another lambasting of Serena’s misplaced priorities, or at least with others’ obsession about that. It might have invited more admonishment over how her interests in stuff like clothing design and acting have sometimes made it seem tennis is what she does on the side, time permitting.
No more. Enough with that.
Maybe Serena had it right all along. Maybe the rest of us had it wrong.
We all seemed to know better than she did what was right for her and her career, didn’t we? We knew best. Serena was not playing in enough tournaments. She was not serious enough about the sport. She was not respecting it! She let outside interests distract her. She was wasting her true talent.
Wrong, wrong. All of it.
This is her life and her career, not ours. And it turns out the pace she has chosen for that career has been just right for her. It has kept her fresh, engaged. It has extended her prime. It has helped make her the oldest woman, at 31, to stand atop the tennis world — and with no decline in sight.
(The older I get, the stranger it seems that 31 in any context might be considered old. But enough of that lament.)
Serena needs no outside validation but deserves it, anyway. If she can win two tennis majors in 2012 while also recording a hip hop album (according to reports), well, that’s raising the bar on multitasking. More power to her.
This sport can heap pressure on aspiring pros before their acne is gone and leave them burned out early. Rare is the pro still at his or her peak at 31. But here was Serena, stepping from a tunnel Thursday into the sunlit breeze at the Tennis Center at Crandon Park, and onto that distinctive purple court.
They say purple is the color of royalty.
Fitting, then, because Serena is still the queen.
“Ladies and gentleman,” began the stadium announcer, “the No. 1 player in the world …”
Nourishing, those words. Like youth serum.
“There’s nothing like when they announce you [as that],” Williams said. “For me it definitely gives you a little more confidence. A little more pep in your step. It’s just a great feeling. This keeps me going. I’m No.1. I’m pretty good at it still.”
She’s “pretty good” at tennis like LeBron James is at basketball. Serena exudes the same physical presence and aura of intimidation that LeBron does. She just seems palpably better. You know how a towering, dunking LeBron looked to the Celtics’ Jason Terry the other night? That’s how Serena must look to so many overmatched opponents.
The latest, on Thursday, was Italy’s Flavia Pennetta, a 6-1, 6-1 victim in Williams’ opening match of the annual two-week tournament in Key Biscayne, the sport’s “fifth major” in its 27th year just southeast of Miami.
The match was over the moment the two women’s sneakers hit the court. The mismatch was such that when Pennetta hit a winner in the final game of the second set, she lifted her arms and waved them to rev up the applause, so little of it had she earned.
Serena, though, despite the waltz, sharpened herself for tougher tests ahead, at one point shouting to herself, “Come on!” after an unforced error. She bent and shook a fist at the ground after key points won.
This is not the woman so many once saw as not being passionate about tennis. Not caring enough.
During the match, between points, a young female voice was heard to call, “You’re my hero!” Serena heard. It moved her.
“It was so inspirational. I felt amazing,” she said. “I had a moment when I had to stop and think to myself that this is the ultimate compliment someone could give. I just never, when I was growing up, I never dreamt of someone saying that to me.”
Serena and older sister Venus Williams grew up in Palm Beach Gardens. This is their home tournament. I still recall the excitement of what might be when we saw her here for the first time at age 16 in 1998.
The next year, she wound up winning her first Grand Slam title.
And then, 13 years later, she won her 14th and 15th last season. You know the year LeBron had last year? Serena was right there, winning Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and an Olympic gold medal.
Her 15 majors place her sixth all time among women. Just ahead with a catchable 18 are Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. The American record is 19 by 1920s and ’30s star Helen Wills Moody. The overall record, 24 by Margaret Court, seems out of reach — “seems” being the key word.
Legacy and place in history drive Williams now in a way she used to not admit.
“I don’t know if I could ever top Margaret Court, but, you know, I don’t know,” she said. “It would be exciting to try to reach some of my fellow countrywomen that are ahead of me.”
Serena’s personality is not entirely charming. She can be a bit combative in interviews, something of a diva. She has infamously attacked linemen with withering words. Years ago when his daughters were teens, father Richard Williams correctly predicted Serena would be even better than Venus. How did he know? “Because Serena’s meaner,” he said.
Give her this in the broadest appraisal, though: Serena Williams has designed and paced her tennis career for the long haul, and with rather spectacular results.
The latest reminder came here Thursday when the woman who needs no introduction heard the only one that matters:
“Ladies and gentleman, the No. 1 player in the world …”