Freedom Fried

by: Peter Bodo | June 10, 2013

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PARIS—Serena Williams has gone through a lot, and a lot that wasn’t welcome, since she last won Roland Garros, 11 long years ago. But perhaps nothing she’s done short of winning 16 Grand Slam titles seems as unlikely as her transformation into a Francophile.  Apart from any other benefit, this passion for French-ness surely played some role in her victory in the French Open final over Maria Sharapova on Saturday.

That win seems to me one of the great accomplishments of her career, at least when you factor in elements like her age (and I don’t care what anyone says about fitness and longevity, there’s absolutely no substitute for the sheer desire, intensity, and determination of a 23-year old), the quality of her opponent (Sharapova was the defending champ, and she dominates the WTA gulag as thoroughly as she is dominated by Serena), the surface (red clay), and Serena’s own history of heartbreak Roland Garros.

When Serena first won here in 2002, she was still a shy, watchful 20-year old, peering out at the world through the translucent wall of the family cocoon. As a prodigy without portfolio (she took part in very few junior events, but was well-known in tennis circles in spite of that), she had known little but the daily grind of practice , rest, and practice. She grew up in Compton. Ca., and moved to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., not exactly a humming hive of civilization. In fact, she lived in a family compound , although I imagine that having Richard Williams seated at the head of the table every night expanded her horizons well beyond conventional ideas and pre-occupations.

How many other athletes with anything like Serena’s life experience (and I’m talking about the Michael Jordans, Peyton Mannings, and Sidney Crosbys of this world) have grown as much? And frankly, I don’t care how limited Serena’s French vocabulary is, or how unfamiliar she is with the Metro system or the bouquinistes along the Seine. The main thing is that she tries. She takes her shot. She learns, sometimes having to do it with us watching. That takes courage.

Wouldn’t it be awfully easy for her to stay cloistered in some Los Angeles mansion, or Miami Beach penthouse, venturing out only to collect her trophies or hit the nightclubs?

After the press interviews yesterday, Serena told a small group of us about her love affair with Paris. She has an apartment here, “A small apartment, about the size 3 of these (tiny interview) rooms. But it’s very cute.” She’s proud of having decorated it herself, venturing out to markets and shops to find all the furnishings for the place. “I used a lot of warm and comfortable colors. I actually thought of joining Venus and VStarr because I did such a good job with my apartment.”

One reason she loves Paris is that she can walk the streets without being accosted quite as often as in the USA. She likes her freedom, but it got fried by her fame back in the states. She was amused to learn that her apartment turns out to be near an American college, where she’s both recognized and unable to escape her native tongue.

“Obviously, I love Americans,” she said. “But it’s like when I’m in France I just want to surround myself by French and I end up speaking English all the time because everyone around me is American. I end up seeing a lot of people who want to take a picture with me. I also avoid the Champs-Élysées because there’s too many tourists there.”

But it’s not like Serena spends her time dashing around Paris, visiting museums or boutiques — especially during the French Open. She can’t resist the nearby bakeries (“Why do they have so many of them, so close to me?”), and there’s a Starbucks near the flat. She admits that’s awfully convenient. Like the college, it’s a sometime pleasant reminder of home.

But by and large, she says, she’s a bit of a shut-in. Indulging in some by-now familiar Williams hyperbole, she says: “I never leave my place. I stay there, and I just got into 'Grimm', a TV series. It’s excellent so I’ve watched the whole first season the past two weeks and I am halfway through the second season. And usually I watch a few episodes of that and I get a little treatment. I literally never leave. We have security guards outside and I don't know why because I never leave my place.”

If that sounds a lot like a line out of the that old Joe Walsh classic, "Life’s Been Good to me, So Far." So be it.

It’s also hard to gauge how much of Serena’s new found love of Gallic ways owes to Patrick Mouratoglou, who’s is pretty much acknowledged around the game as her coach-plus. He’s been coy about the exact nature of their relationship — intentionally and happily so, say those who suspect his character. And nobody has put the question to Serena directly. Does it really matter, though?

The very greatest of champions have a knack for organizing their lives in ways that really enhance their chances for success. You’d call them shameless, if this laser-like homing on self-interest were a calculated act. It isn’t, though, it’s second nature, and one of the things that makes them different from you and I, and even most of their talented peers.

Lest your cynicism get the better of you, it was interesting to hear Serena’s reply when she was asked when she remembers first hearing the French language. “That’s a good question. I have no idea.” She paused, then added, “I do remember Jim Courier giving his speech in French and I remember I said I want to give my speech in French, too.”

It was a somewhat surprising reaction that could not have been invented. Her childish dream came true, and life’s been good to Serena — more or less — so far.

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