Serena Williams not only seemed more mellow than usual but also atypically down to earth as she readied for her opening match Thursday at what she considers her hometown tournament, the Sony Open.
Perhaps Williams was relaxed because she owns the Sony trophy. The defending champ has won it six times.
Perhaps Williams was calmed by the Key Biscayne sea breeze blowing her long blonde locks Tuesday morning during an interview session with reporters at which she did a little Hula hooping for fun, and again Tuesday evening when she played tennis with fans and giggled with sister Venus as they beat Novak Djokovic and Fernando Verdasco during a charity doubles event.
One of sports’ most imperious divas was actually pleasant as she chatted about this and that and later interacted with recreational players — high-fiving older folks and hugging kids. Revealing would be too much to ask of Williams. We will settle for nice.
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Though she might have let her aura down briefly, don’t be fooled. Williams at 32 is more ambitious than she was at 25. History is in her sights, and she’s not losing focus.
Williams has won 17 Grand Slam singles titles. Expect her to surpass this year the 18 won by both Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. Steffi Graf’s 22 and Margaret Court’s 24 are within reach if Williams keeps dominating women’s tennis and wins at a clip of two per year.
She believes she has only recently achieved her full potential.
“I’m always working to get better,” she said.
Williams, who considers Palm Beach Gardens her home base, has been off for nearly a month after losing to Alize Cornet in the semifinals of the Dubai Open, which Venus won. Williams lost in the fourth round of the Australian Open to Ana Ivanovic. She has rested a sore back and is ready to go after No. 7, starting with Kazakhstan’s Yaroslava Shvedova in a quarter of the draw filled with shaky seeds.
What stands out about Williams is her steadfastness — which is curious in retrospect considering that her father Richard insisted his daughters would be finished with the frivolities of tennis and on to entrepreneurial careers by their mid-20s, and a 180-turn from Williams’ years when celebrity was a priority and tennis was something she dabbled in.
At 32, it’s usually all up to Williams whether she wins or loses. Rivals? Venus, 34, played only 26 matches last year as she coped with an autoimmune disease. Maria Sharapova, never quite the same after major shoulder surgery, has lost to Williams 15 of 17 times. Other players have had fleeting embraces with No. 1 — Caroline Wozniacki has since plunged to No. 11 — but Williams was always de facto queen.
Physically, Williams is stronger than the opposition, and her serve is best in the game. But what sets Williams apart is her will. So many players hit a rough patch or turning point in a match and unravel. Williams refuses to be unnerved.
“Serena is the mean one,” Richard said long ago when comparing his girls.
She’s not afraid to go for the kill, no matter how unladylike or abrasive that might seem to those with old-fashioned notions of female athletes. She has done a huge favor for all who follow her — and despite her comments to the contrary, there have not been enough of them among American girls.
“I’d be a linebacker or a quarterback,” Williams said when asked about her part-ownership of the Dolphins and what position she would prefer in football. “Linebackers are so cool. They save games and win Super Bowls. I loved Lawrence Taylor. I thought he was super cool.”
The key for Williams is staying motivated.
“The only time it becomes a little boring is the training part,” she said. “I really love to compete. I don’t see any end yet.”
In fact, she feels tremendous pressure to never, ever lose.
“It’s bigger news for me to lose than to win,” she said. “Billie Jean King always told me pressure is a privilege.
“I feel really, really bad when I don’t play well. That’s one of the reasons why I tend to be a little hard on myself. It gets frustrating and sometimes, embarrassing when I can’t make shots.”
Williams seemed comfortable with herself. She wore black leggings and a crop top that didn’t hide her stomach or the body jewelry that wrapped around it. The haughty Serena was not in attendance.
The game face returns Thursday when Williams takes the court. She’s not out to win friends. She’s out to win championships.