Blessing or curse?
As 2012's first Major gets going, Serena Williams has admitted she has never really liked tennis. Kait Borsay examines why the younger of the Williams sisters has angered many in the sport.
Last Updated: 19/01/12 8:50am
"It's not that I've fallen out of love" Serena Williams was quoted after winning her first match at the Brisbane International. "I've never actually liked sports, and never understood how I became and athlete. I don't like working out, I don't like anything that has to do with working physically. If it involves sitting down or shopping - I'm excellent at it."
Refreshing honesty? Disrespectful to her fellow competitors, or just a bit of a joke?
Well if that statement was meant to be a joke the phrase "never a truer word said in jest" springs to mind.
Venus predicted that Serena would rule the tennis world before she even turned professional. And now that foresight has come to bear, has Serena simply done it all?
There's no doubt about it, Serena Williams is a huge force on the tennis court. Her physical presence and mental strength has always given the impression she will fight for the win, if it warrants a fight of course. After claiming to have never loved sport she admitted she cannot live without tennis - but is she still actually that competitive? Or just simply going through the motions?
I've seen Serena play live - at Wimbledon in 2009 when she dispatched Daniela Hantuchova in straight sets in the fourth round at Wimbledon. She was magnificent. Hantuchova is actually taller than Serena but never looked smaller when up against her opponent's powerhouse game as the American completely dominated the match.
To use a much-repeated statement, there are some exciting prospects in women's tennis - but currently no great rivalry for Serena. So does the lack of nailed-on competition mean that she can take a back seat? You could argue that her sister has been her closest rival, but these days, and particularly with Venus out for the long term with injury, their sibling status more than dampens any ambitions to truly get the better of each other.
You've only got to look at two tennis greats - Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova - whose rivalry extended over some 15 years and who met in six consecutive Grand Slam finals in 1984 and 1985 to look at how healthy competition, and a real desire to overcome your opponent can keep you focussed. And if the crowd's excited, the performers will be too.
Richard Williams, father of Serena and Venus, is often accused of offering his daughters little else in their upbringing than tennis. Has this contributed to Serena's apparent aversion for her profession?
The driving force of a parent is certainly not a new concept in any sport, particularly tennis. But Williams senior withdrew his daughters from national junior tennis tournaments when Serena was ten, and then pulled them out of the tennis academy that the family had moved to Florida for a few years later, preferring to train his daughters in his own, slightly unorthodox way.
No doubt there was lots of hard work involved but it's known that Williams allowed his daughters to behave like the little girls they were, was even indulgent; reportedly taking Serena shopping or to the beach if she complained of a sore knee. You can chuckle at how not much has changed; presumably Serena is old enough to take herself shopping now. I'm sure Serena's comments would not have surprised her father at all.
So what might have provoked Serena to make such a clumsy statement?
After taking eight months out in 2003/2004, many doubted that Serena would ever get back to her best. During her time away from the game she was devastated by the loss of her half sister, Yetunde Price, she started to get a firm footing in many of her media projects, and became something of a star turn on the celebrity circuit. Paris Hilton she was not, but she was still getting out an awful lot more than many of her fellow professionals.
She returned to the game, but from 2004 to 2008 seemed to experience injury after injury.During that period she realised that she just couldn't cope with relentlessly pursuing tournament after tournament - something that Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin have learnt in their time too.
Serena was by no means a write off, and although still not injury free she ended 2008 ranked world number two and with four singles titles - her strongest performance since 2003. She endured the longest loosing streak of her career in early 2009, but as if determined to prove her doubters wrong finished the year ranked world number one - having played more tournaments than in any other year.I think Serena needed that number one spot - she needed to know she could do it if she wanted to - and although she won both the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2010 she played noticeably less. A freak foot injury suffered in Munich in July 2010 when she stepped on some broken glass whilst out at a restaurant put pay to the rest of the season.
Had she not already decided to cut back - choosing her tournaments carefully, ensuring she played enough to maintain or better her ranking and keeping one eye on the big money Grand Slams she certainly seemed to be doing so now. In 2010 and 2011 she played only six tournaments in each year - her foot injury was accompanied by all sort of complications and was largely to blame but I think there was also a conscious decision there - to worry less - to just try and get what enjoyment she could out her sport.
Should we criticise her for that? It's a double-edged sword. Shouldn't she be more dedicated, take it more seriously? I actually think she's beyond that point.
It took a sizeable period out of the game for Clijsters and Henin to want to make their return after retirement. In getting back to something that will have dominated the lives of most professionals they needed to convince themselves of the finality of their decision to quit before even contemplating making a return.
If this current mind-set is what works for Serena, if this takes the pressure off the expectation that she should live, breathe and consume tennis every waking hour of the day then I think that's perfectly respectable. We might now be able to enjoy her brand of tennis for many years to come - albeit in limited doses.
So back to Serena the media machine, and a quick look at her website:
'Serena Williams embodies style, power, beauty and courage. Like numerous A-list celebrities, Serena is recognised by the mere mention of her first name.'
'Only her unique charm and drive could explain her successful endeavours outside of tennis, in film, television, fashion and philanthropy. Her tennis ability combined with her off-court activity makes her one of the most recognisable names and faces in the world - an icon'
I'm in no doubt - Serena is a superb tennis player, ground breaking in her style, her size and power. But her website? Who proofs that stuff?
For celebrity shelf-life after tennis - and this is clearly what Serena has been working at for the last two years - you need a successful playing career - check; the ability to cope with life in the spotlight - check; and humility and charisma - which I think Serena will struggle with.
When she does retire, she will do so very comfortably, this is the lady who at last glance had won more career prize money than any other female athlete in history.
So can Serena maintain her form with so much to keep her busy aside from the professional tennis career? She's clearly had time to mull over her future in the game, some might say too much time... but would you ever find current world number one Caroline Wozniacki or last year's US Open winner Sam Stosur echoing Serena's comments last week? I think it just wouldn't even occur to them - they're too focussed, too caught up in competition - and even if injured the end game is to get back on the circuit, look ahead to the next tournament, their next chance to crack a major.
And so to this year's Australian Open. She has won five of the last nine tournaments in Melbourne Park - making her the holder of more Australian Open titles than any other women's tennis player since 1968. It's one we know she enjoys playing and with one eye on continued exposure this is a big one for the player seeded 12th. Last year the tournament recorded the highest ever single day/night attendance in Grand Slam history. Despite her low seeding, and having pulled out of the Brisbane warm-up event, Serena is pitched as one of the favourites. In spite of some stiff competition from the likes of Petra Kvitova and Caroline Wozniacki it's still hard to back against the American.