WIMBLEDON, England—If she had been competing in a tennis match, you would have said that Serena Williams “came to play” in the interview room here on Sunday.
The anticipation for her press conference was such that many reporters sat through Roger Federer’s presser, which came immediately before Serena’s, just so they would be guaranteed a seat for Serena’s. Roger as warm-up act; that’s something you don’t see every day.
You likely know the reason for the clamor. Last week, a Rolling Stone profile on Serena contained this quote from her, about an unnamed Top 5 player: “She begins every interview with ‘I’m so happy. I’m so lucky’—it’s so boring. She’s still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it.”
Serena said that the quote came from a "private conversation" that the article’s author, Stephen Rodrick, overheard. Rodrick made "an educated guess" in the article that the player was Maria Sharapova, though it sounded as much like Victoria Azarenka to me. Whoever it was, Sharapova believed it was about her. When asked about the Rolling Stone piece yesterday, Maria said this:
“If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids.” Sharapova was referencing Serena’s coach and assumed significant other, Patrick Mouratoglou.
Serena served, Maria returned: How would Serena play her next shot? She came prepared to take the highest road she could find. Serena, who has been known to slouch with boredom if she's not in the mood for a press conference, sat forward, at full height, and answered every question as brightly and forthrightly as she could. She even went so far as to flatter the tennis press, comparing our methods favorably with Rodrick’s:
“I’ve been spoiled dealing with the professionalism here in the tennis world,” she said, in what a hard-bitten journalist might take as a somewhat backhanded compliment. “I’m used to dealing with professional reporters...I’m used to dealing with these people not writing or commenting on a private conversation that I may have.”
But she didn’t lay the blame for the quotes entirely on Rodrick, either. “I’ve been in the business for a little over 200 years,” she joked, “so I should definitely, definitely know better. I should definitely know better to always have my guard up.”
The big news was that Serena said she had apologized to Sharapova at the Wimbledon player party last week:
“I made it a point to reach out to Maria, as well, because she was inadvertently brought into my situation. I want to take this moment to just pour myself...be open, say I’m very sorry for this whole situation.”
For all of Serena’s forthrightness, not everything has been resolved or cleared up. She said she thought that Sharapova had accepted her apology, though Maria’s own presser would lead you to believe otherwise. We also still don’t know who the Top 5 player in question was; Serena apologized not for what she said, but for the fact that Maria “was brought into the situation inadvertently”—by both she and Rodrick.
As for the more serious issue of her comments about the Steubenville rape case, Serena said last week, “I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written—what I supposedly said—was insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.” Serena said in the article that the girl “shouldn’t have put herself in that position.” Again, it’s unclear if Serena was apologizing for what Rodrick produced out of their time together, or what she actually said to him. (Rodrick says he has the quotes on tape.)
But while her admissions have been qualified, she has made her apologies in both cases. Serena said today that she had learned her lesson when it comes to interviews, and that she should only speak about a subject when she has all the information on it. And Rodrick probably shouldn’t have speculated in print as to who the Top 5 player was, when it could have been someone other than Sharapova (maybe a member of the tennis press would have held back on speculating so specifically). The family in Steubenville has accepted Serena’s apology, but it seems to be a different story with Sharapova. It was her press conference this weekend that was the surprise. Like Serena, Maria began by taking the high road:
“Obviously I have a tremendous amount of respect for Serena and what she’s achieved,” were her boilerplate opening words. “You can never take anything away from that.”
She went on in that vein: “At the end of the day, we have a tremendous amount of respect for what we do on the court. I just think that she should be talking about her accomplishments, her achievements...”
That’s when the mask, and reporters’ jaws, dropped as she brought up Serena’s relationship with Mouratoglou. It was a stunningly aggressive moment from someone who is usually so controlled. We’ll see what Sharapova does with her next shot in this rally, which may come after her first-round match tomorrow.
Today Serena referenced the 40th anniversary of the WTA, and Billie Jean King’s slogan, “Pressure is a privilege.” She also said, “I have the utmost respect for Maria on and off the court. That’s another reason why, being a woman, I wanted to reach out to her and say, ‘Look, this is this, this is this, sorry.’” She really did pull out all the stops on Sunday.
From the WTA perspective, it's unfortunate is that this happens to be the biggest story in women’s tennis just as we’re celebrating the the tour's 40th. Those of us who say we want more fights, and less camaraderie, in tennis can’t really pick what we want the fights to be about, but is the spectacle of Maria and Serena trading insults about the health of their romantic relationships what any of us had in mind? As Maria said, she was, more than anything, “sad” to hear what Serena had said. If she really feels like Serena was talking about her, she had a right to talk back. But I hope, at least publicly, she lets it drop now.
Serena did her best to put the issue behind her today, and that was the right move. As Sharapova said, before she said too much, the accomplishments of these two players are what’s notable about them. The WTA can point to their excellence, as well as their stardom, as the hard-earned products of 40 years of pioneering work in women’s sports. The quality of their French Open final even made it seem as if a real rivalry could brew between them someday. That on-court clash would certainly be an improvement over the one we’ve had in the interview room this weekend.