Studying Serena: Talent, or Show?

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By Sally Jenkins
Thursday, September 6, 2007

FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. Serena Williams has a decision to make: Does she want to be a tennis champion or a paper doll? The last time we saw Williams begs the question of when we will see her again, and in what form. A hat was squashed low over her fashionable hair, her arms were folded defensively across an unfashionable muscle shirt, and she was wordless and all but choking on a quarterfinal defeat at the U.S. Open. "I really don't feel like talking about it, to be honest," she said. At least Williams was sincere, a preferable demeanor to that bad imitation of Holly Golightly she has been doing lately.

Williams can't seem to decide what's worse: losing or having to work at this game. The 25-year-old former No. 1, who used to win with such ease, has arrived at a reckoning. We'll be able tell a lot about her tennis future by what she does with the rest of her season, now that there are no bright stage lights and nothing big left to win in 2007. Will she quit denying the obvious and train herself back into decent shape, and get her ranking up for next season? Or will she bail and go back to L.A. or South Beach and dabble in the fashion and film worlds, as has become her blithe habit?

She showed up here in a black dress with cunning knife pleats and a pink beribboned neckline, which she pronounced "simply divine." But you could see that she was heavy-legged and fighting herself in the very first round, when she reached up and irritably yanked the bow off. In her quarterfinal match against Justine Henin she fought ferociously for a set, but was thoroughly gassed in the second, 7-6, 6-1. It was her third Grand Slam defeat of the season at the hands of Henin, the straw-thin Belgian with the stinging forehand who has supplanted her as the top player in the world. In her post-match news conference, a querulous and sarcastic Williams said that Henin hit "a lot of lucky shots," but the fact was that Williams committed an avalanche of errors and Henin has owned her this season, beating her on clay, grass and hard courts.

Q: Are you devastated by this loss?

A: (acidly) No, I'm very happy.

Q: You seem much more disappointed than Paris or London.

A: Do I?

Q: You do.

A: Go figure.

The only reason she even attended the news conference, she declared, was because she didn't care to incur the $10,000 fine for skipping it. "I can't afford to pay the fines because I keep losing," she said bitterly. At this point, sympathy for Williams depends entirely on what you believe her duties as a champion to be. What does Williams owe to anybody, to her sponsors, her audience? What claim, if any, should greatness and posterity have on her? For the better part of a decade now, Williams has treated tennis as her prerogative.

She played, or not, as she pleased; she has bounced from No. 1 to No. 139 and back again. In 2006, she appeared in just four events and her record was 12-4. Yet, impossibly, she stormed back this January to win the Australian Open, the eighth Grand Slam title of her career.

It's tempting to scold Williams for her long periods of dormancy -- to remind her that play is the ultimate luxury, and that it's not much to ask of a champion to show up when she doesn't feel like it, just as ordinary heroes get up and go to work every day in their neckties and work boots.

But there's also something fascinating in the way she takes what she wants from the game and leaves the rest, plays it on her own terms. To be able to show up or walk away at will from a profoundly elitist sport -- one that excluded and snubbed her as a girl, when she didn't have the wherewithal or come from the right kind of community or follow the conventional path -- is perhaps the ultimate act of self-determination. Now that she has every advantage, where she once had none, maybe it's her right to squander or use them however she wishes.

But it's also true that Williams's eight Grand Slams are less than half of what she is capable of. She could be, arguably, the best that ever played the game. Yet it doesn't seem to matter to her -- this season marked only the third time in her career she played all four majors.

What does Williams believe in? Is tennis just a means to an end for her? If her aim is to be taken seriously in fields that a black female athlete hasn't been in before, then her absences are more understandable. If it's simply to become a celebrity, if she's merely a glory seeker who wants to make a lot of money and be one of Nike's dress-up dolls, then her untapped potential is a lot less sympathetic.

"Glory suggests two ideas to me, one of which seems wicked and the other ridiculous," C.S. Lewis wrote. "Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?"

The most immediate issue for Williams to sort out is not what others want of her, but what she wants of herself. Grand as her off-the-court ambitions may be, her level of on-court play at this Open obviously pained her. Williams, patently the greatest fighter of her generation, wailed on the court against Henin like someone frustrated and at bay. Critics labeled her comportment in the news conference sullen, but in fact, she was in agony, gagging as she swallowed a loss so tough it must have tasted of shoe leather.

There was one good thing to take from it: She felt all that a competitor of her abilities should feel after such a loss. If nothing else, maybe it gave her a needed sense that she runs a risk with her occasional play: Someday she may have to cope with the fact that real greatness isn't hers, but rather, just a whisper of something she overheard through a door she never entered.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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