The S Train

Thursday, July 09, 2009 /by

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by Pete Bodo

Our customary "small group" U.S. writers session with newly crowned Wimbledon champ Serena Williams was postponed on Saturday, in order to better serve Serena and Venus, who had to play the women's doubles final not long after the championship match. We didn't have our little tete-a-tete with Serena until Sunday morning, about 90 minutes before the men's final.

As I walked into the small room we were assigned, Serena was sitting there in that The-Artist-Formerly-Known-As-Prince type waistcoat - all dressed up with nobody to play (unless, of course, she had designs on snatching the racket out of Andy Roddick's paws and having a go at halting Federer's march to his record-shattering 15th major singles title). I said something like: "What? Haven't you had enough for one tournament?"

Serena laughed; she's got a husky, rich laugh that suggests that the humor is coming from her gut, more than her mind, and said she was supposed to play doubles with her agent (Jill Smoller, a former aspiring pro), her hitting partner (I should know his name, but I don't) and a fourth who remained unnamed. Knowing this was Serena organizing the hit-and-giggle session, I had to wonder who that might be? Venus? Too obvious. Pete Sampras? He was still en-route. Barack Obama? Not big enough a name.

Soon we were all gathered around a table with Serena sitting at the head, casting surreptitious glances at her Blackberry-type phone. Was she going to Tweet right in the middle of this conversation, I wondered? Why not - this was probably the 15th media obligation she had following her victory over Venus in a final that secured Serena's 11th major title. That's four titles, not press conferences) short of Federer, not bad for a girl whose life is - and always has been - more complicated and less bee-lined than the male champion's.

Actually, I've arbitrarily decided that the boundary between great female players and merely excellent ones should be 10 Grand Slam wins. This may make fans of Justine Henin and even Venus howl with outrage, but the number makes sense. By contrast, I'd put the boundary between the greatest of male players and those stacked below them in the waiting room of immortality at 6 majors.

One thing I've learned about Serena over the years is that it's impossible to dislike her, or get your shorts all in a bunch over the words that spill from her lips, if you're present in her company. This woman is not just a force of nature, she's a natural. To some degree, she lives on planet Serena, which is not necessarily the same tired rock the rest of us inhabit. She's basically non-linear in her thought processes - she's more of a Goran Ivanisevic or Ilie Nastase than a Chris Evert or Martina Hingis that way - and her basic software package didn't include the self-censoring equivalent to spell check.

There's a lot of Richard Williams in Serena; both of them are expounders and loose cannons, while Venus, severe at the best of times, has raised withholding information to an art form. Serena's mind (and mouth)  run like a train on a parallel track to whatever topic or person she's engaged. She clacks and clatters along, rocking and rolling, occasionally hoving close enough to whatever train is running on the other track for the occupants there to get a quick look inside the windows of Serena's club car. Inevitably, though, she veers off, the tease is over, and you're wondering what more lies behind those smartly curtained panes.

Serena gets in trouble for the things she says, but I hesitate to call it that because "getting in trouble" always presupposes that you got caught doing or saying something and are shortly to pay a price for it. Serena seldom pays a price because even those she's often exasperated have gradually learned that the best, perhaps only, policy regarding Serena is to just throw your hands in the air and accept that this is just how she is. Serena is an entity unto herself.

Serena is no Eliza Doolittle, after all. She has no special desire to please anyone, and nobody is going to teach her the conventions, and she's not in a position to have to embrace them. As awkward or seemingly uncharitable as some of her remarks are, she's become one of those figures who's simply outlasted, out-achieved, and out-foxed those who would shape her into something more palatable to their taste. There's a kind of dignity in that, because the reckless disregard it implies for what we might call "public image" is tonic in a profession with at least one too many specialists fretting over how a player appears to be - rather than how well he or she represents her authentic self.

Turns out that after winning the title and making the obligatory media rounds, Serena repaired to the locker room where she joined the sister whom she just defeated in preparing for their doubles. Venus and Serena watched the men's doubles while they waited in that haven, Serena explaining,  "We wanted to make sure we would play like the Bryan brother." I was glad to see that they didn't, given that the Bryans lost while Venus and Serena won the title.

In the doubles, against the strong team of Slammin' Sammy Stosur and Renee Stubbs, the Williams girls played compelling tennis, and neither they nor their inspired opponents were above firing point-blank missiles at each other. Here's something that bothers me about the lack of exposure for doubles: It means that the vast bulk of matches in which the Williams sisters play together are simply not seen. I can't tell you want a pleasure it is to watch Venus and Serena on a doubles court. They seem so. . . relaxed - so contented and committed to the task at hand. They smack palms, utter encouragements, and hold conferences - meetings so focused that they wouldn't be out of place at Davos, or wherever it is that all those beautiful minds get together to flatter and stroke each other.

That's not what the sisters are doing, of course. They're talking strategy, although knowing the way Serena is, I can also see her changing the subject from cross-court chip returns to something utterly unrelated: Hey, Vee, what's up with daddy running around with that stupid camera, when he can get all the pictures of us that he wants off the Internet?

The sisters really seem to love doubles, and if I were a WTA or ITF honcho I'd want to make sure they get plenty of encouragement to keep doing it for as long as they can. And because Serena leans toward bulk, having half the court to cover would enable her to be a great doubles player for decades to come, even if she immediately embraced the chicken-fried steak and french fries diet. "We were really focused on the doubles," Serena told us. "They (Stosur and Stubbs) really picked up their level but we really wanted to win. Venus wanted to leave with a title, like I did last year. She wanted to have something to take home with her."

You gotta love someone to whom a trophy is still a trophy, not some giant and absurdly ornate goblet symbolizing nothing more than the inevitable inflow of another $3 million in endorsement money. These girls really like the thing in itself, which is touching. In fact, they have their silver and gold booty stashed all over at their various homes. "Everywhere I look there's a Wimbledon trophy, and tons of US Open ones," Serena admitted. "Lately I've been putting mine in LA, while Venus has I don't know how many of her Wimbledon trophies in Florida. And now all of these doubles trophies. . ."

She sounded rather like a pretty young thing, complaining - not at all convincingly - about having the attention of too many men.

This has been a great run for Serena. As she said, "About a year ago I had eight Grand Slam titles, who would have thought that I'd now have 11?"

Well, quite a few people Serena, for the one thing people have figured out about you is that it's easy to underestimate your abilities. El Jon Wertheim asked Serena if she took any pleasure in changing the staid culture at Wimbledon, and she replied: "Today it was a little stuffy in the Royal area. Someone said, 'Wait, you have to wait for the Duke to pass. . .'  I was like, 'I don't belong in here.' But I've never been like everyone else, and I think it's cool. In general, even going somewhere in LA or Florida, I don't like to look like everyone else. I like to look different."

Of her extraordinary ability to respond to the Grand Slam event challenge, Serena said: "I've always been this kind of person that excels, even in school, when the tests and exams come. I was always the best at getting the right answers and doing the right preparation. You can't buy (that innate ability to win), you have to be born with it." 

All matters of Serena's abilities as a scholar and their relation to her talent for beating the tar out of anyone who crosses her path at a major aside, her current run brings back memories of 2002-03, the years of the "Serena Slam," when she at one point held all four titles in her hand. Is she playing as well? Does she appreciate what she's accomplishing a little more deeply, now that she's older and more familiar with adversity?

"That's a good question. . ." She thought for a moment. "I can't say it came easy back then. I definitely worked for it, but I didn't go running or go to the gym as much. It wasn't as intense." She reflected again: "Actually I did go to the gym, so I take it back. I was super fit. The skills came back (now)(, maybe that's it."

We were still staring at the window but the S train seemed to be pulling off and way from us. We craned our necks. How come she's only done well in Grand Slams for the past three or so years?

"I just think that I need to get more consistent with smaller tournaments and be more. . . serious . . " Before she even finished the sentence, she burst into a hearty, decidedly un-serious laugh.

Suddenly, a note of self chastisement, or perhaps it was just mystification, crept into her voice: "I don't have that many titles, thirty something. I think Kim (Clijsters) still has more titles than me. I really want to win the other ones, I really don't know how I lose them! That's one way '03 was better. I was winning all of them."

She seemed to lose interest in the topic and glanced at the screen of her phone. The S train was almost gone now, all that was left was the lantern blinking in the jaunty caboose.

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