Serena Williams Is Eager To Get Going

By Paul Daugherty
Updated: July 17, 2006

MASON, Ohio — It’s great sleeping until noon, until the day you wake up and wonder what you’re doing with your life. The thought occurred to Serena Williams, as she rested her surgically fixed knee. “What to do all day, you know?” she said.

Williams spent months shedding the skin of regimented responsibility so second-nature to tennis players, waking up whenever, shopping in Beverly Hills, commuting to her home in Florida, doing much of nothing. It was good, but then what? “I was twiddling my thumbs for hours,” Williams said.

That doesn’t mean she was itching to return to tennis. Or maybe it does. It’s hard to tell. Tennis, or normal life? Listening to Williams, a wizened pro at age 24, you get the feeling she doesn’t know the answer, either.

Tennis is like few other sports. If you don’t give it your life, it will show you why you should. You can be a great NFL quarterback without being married to football. You can be the QB on the team that wins the Super Bowl, for example, and still have plenty of time to ride your motorcycle.

You can’t ease off in tennis. Because down in Bradenton, Fla., there is a 12-year-old at Nick Bollettieri’s factory, whapping backhands 60 hours a week, for the sole purpose of eventually ruining your day.

Serena Williams had knee surgery in 2003, yet never allowed for enough healing, never allowed for much of anything but hoisting title trophies. That was a mistake so familiar among tennis stars, it’s practically a cliché.

“I was training too much, so focused on going out there without recovering,” she said.

“How long had you been training too much?” someone wondered.

“Twenty-two years,” said Williams.

And so it goes. You can have balance in your life, if you are Serena Williams. In a two-hour practice session, you can hit half forehands and half backhands. What you can’t do, if you want to be the best (not the 140th best, her current world ranking) is indulge your other interests.

She has been criticized by Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and others.

Those others have suggested Williams hasn’t taken full advantage of her tennis talent. Evert even suggested that Serena has “tarnish(ed) her legacy” though at age 24, you wonder how deep that legacy runs.

Maybe Williams agrees with that, and maybe she doesn’t. She says she “would have been playing all the tour events” had she not been injured. Yet her Web site highlights almost everything non-tennis: Her shopping habits in New York (shoes at Bergdorf’s, clothes at Henri Bendel) and her favorite TV show (The Golden Girls).

On Tuesday, Williams is back playing tennis for the first time in five months, in a first-round match at the Western & Southern Financial Group Women’s Open. At 24, she has won seven Grand Slam events, some with an ease that demonstrated domination and hinted at boredom. Yet she has played just three matches this year.

So the question lingers: Did Serena need the time off more for her mind than her knee?

“A lot of things come into play,” she said. “It takes a lot of grinding, a lot of focus on just one thing. Everyone is different. Not the same equation works for every person. It depends on your personality.”

Williams’ personality cannot be contained by tennis. Yet it has to be if she wants to regain her status as the best in the world. She is someone who has an obvious and abiding interest in other things, whether it’s designing clothes or working in movies.

After 22 years of waking up at 7 or 8 to play tennis, a voice whispers to her that there is more for her out there.

Or maybe not. At least not yet.

“I don’t have all the off-court pursuits I read about. I’m trying to figure out what all the off-court pursuits” are, she said, before adding, “Lately, I just have my tennis.”

It’s a demanding mistress. We’ll see how faithful Serena Williams chooses to be.