Serena Williams Forges a Winning Style in Fashion and in Tennis

(Al Bello/getty Images)
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla., March 30 -- Near noon a few days ago, as early-round matches of the Sony Ericsson Open got underway, Serena Williams strolled into a pre-tournament news conference bedecked in dangling gold earrings, a trio of chunky bracelets, shiny rings, a purple dress, raspberry eye shadow, nail polish and lipstick, and precisely curled hair.

In the bowels of a stadium that plays host to what many consider the fifth-most important tennis tournament in the world, several of Williams's handlers scurried about to arrange various pieces of the signature line of jewelry and accessories she had chosen to unveil here three days before her first match.

The fashion venture, Williams said when she stepped to the microphone, creates far more anxiety than the other business in which she dabbles: that tennis thing.

"It's really stressful," said Williams, 27. "I think that's why I'm playing more. It's so much easier to play in the tournaments."

Indeed, when Williams has shown up, the tennis part has looked relatively easy recently. In winning last year's U.S. Open, she regained the No. 1 ranking after a six-year absence from that post, and she grabbed it again when she claimed the Australian Open in January. Monday, however, proved temporarily troublesome. Williams defeated Zheng Jie to advance to the quarterfinals here, but she needed three sets to do it, winning 7-5, 5-7, 6-3, in a grueling match about 90 minutes south of the home she shares in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., with her sister Venus.

Though she clearly benefited from the splintering at the top of women's tennis that began last May with the sudden departure of Justine Henin, Williams also has surged in a way that reminds of the dominance of her younger years. Monday's match, however, encapsulated the question that yet hovers around Williams: Can the sport hold her attention as fully as discussions of colors, fabrics and craftsmanship?

Even with groundstrokes so ferocious that Williams's second-round opponent, Alexa Glatch, said of one return of serve, "she hit it so hard I don't even think I saw it," Williams has been known to lose her focus for long stretches of individual matches -- or entire seasons. After leaping to a 5-0 start against Zheng in the first set Monday, Williams sprayed a host of unforced errors as Zheng got precise fast. Williams, who at times looked stricken by her own performance, barely closed out the first set with ripped forehands; looked listless while falling in the second; and had to claw for every point in the third.

In the years immediately after she won four straight Grand Slam titles from 2002 to 2003, Williams seemed more intent on playing off the court than on it. But Venus Williams, the sixth-ranked woman in the world and the historically harder worker of the two, said she's noticed something new: She sees more of her sister on the practice courts. Serena Williams admits she's learned she has a lot to lose.

"I've never been just a tennis player," Serena Williams said. But "I've definitely started practicing a little more the last few years. . . . I think that's just a level of maturity, realizing this is my job and I can be even better at it if I practice a little more."

Isha Price, another of Williams's five sisters, says the family's baby has gotten more serious about everything. A few years back, Serena Williams wore a $2.5 million diamond necklace while competing in Australia and dropped $30,000 during a 30-minute shopping spree at a Versace store there. At a match in Flushing Meadow during the U.S. Open, one of her $40,000 chandelier earrings flew off in the midst of play.

But the loopy earrings and glistening bracelets she wore against Zheng on Monday did not dwarf the salaries of anyone in the stadium. None of the jewelry, purses or other accessories that make up her "Signature Statement" line costs more than $100, and that, Price said, was a sticking point with Williams.

The fact that Williams removed the earrings midway through the match because, she said, she wanted to change her luck showed how determined she was to put tennis before salesmanship. Williams had said she intended to use this tournament as a runway of sorts, demonstrating the style and durability of her new wares.

Price said Williams's insistence on low prices and quality materials slowed the latest project, which she had hoped to unveil last year. Those demands also hinted, Price said, at a growing social consciousness and maturity that have infected all of Williams's pursuits. Williams, Price said, has simply grown up. She is less concerned about simply spending her millions -- when she won her 10th Grand Slam, the Australian Open in January, she surpassed $23.5 million in earnings, making her the all-time career money winner in women's sports.

"Before it was like, 'Just let me enjoy the fact I'm a young celebrity,' " said Price, who resides in a Maryland suburb of Washington. "Now she knows she can be a renaissance type of woman who does it all. No one is born there. It takes time. She's in a good space."

Beset by a string of injuries in 2005 and 2006, Williams plunged to No. 140 in the rankings. After winning the Australian Open in 2005, she did not advance past the fourth round of a Grand Slam until she won it again two years later. Williams said she likes being back on top and wants to remain.

Besides the Williams sisters, no other American women are in the top 25. Led by Dinara Safina at No. 2, five Russians dominate the top 10.

Williams said she prefers Grand Slam titles to the No. 1 ranking because titles endure. That's good, because Williams will lose the top spot in the standings next week unless she wins this event because of the rolling nature of the rankings.

"Whether I end up No. 1 at the end of this week or not, people obviously see me as No. 1," Williams said. "The respect is there. I've been working hard for a number of years now at being super-consistent, and I think it's paying off."

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