When in Rome, Serena Williams did as a visitor would. When she wasn't on the court at last week's Italian Open, she played the role of turista. She carried a turquoise cellphone that doubled as a digital camera and clicked away paparazzi-style at every monument in her path. She stayed in a suite in a grand hostelry on the edge of the city's lush botanical gardens. Flanked by her mother, trainer, bodyguard, driver, friends, friends' friends and assorted other mood-makers, she ate at quaint osterie, ordering her antipasto in broken Italian—"Mozzarella balls e pasta, per favore, and some of that turkey, grazie." Sitting in the back of a van, looking down at the Villa Borghese, the Vatican and Vespa Nation, she flashed a megawatt smile. "Man," she said, "the view from up here sure is nice." She has a similar vantage point in the tennis world. When the French Open kicks off in Paris next week, Williams will be the odds-on favorite to win her fifth straight Grand Slam tournament, further consolidating a dominance unseen in tennis since Steffi Graf ran roughshod over a vastly inferior women's field 15 years ago. It's not just that Williams is atop the rankings. It's that the next player down is scarcely visible. "It's the Serena Show," says Martina Navratilova. "Right now, she is tennis."
If so, the sport is the better for it. Williams restores integrity to the women's game after Anna Kournikova (remember her? Last week she lost to someone ranked No. 384 in the world) nearly hijacked the WTA's image and reduced the tour to a transoceanic modeling contest. What's more, unlike so many recent tennis champions who have shrunk from the spotlight (Graf, Pete Sampras, Lleyton Hewitt, even the latest incarnation of Andre Agassi), Williams is comfortable in her celebrity. Her sister Venus may have the astral name, but it is Serena who embraces stardom and all that comes with it. The acting cameos? The sponsor meet-and-greets? The blazing flashbulbs and klieg lights? Bring it on. "I like that stuff," she says. "How many 21-year-olds are making the living I'm making, getting to do the things I do? I don't look at it as 'I've blown up,' so to speak. It's just that I'm not afraid to be in the public eye. That's just me."
At last month's Federation Cup competition U.S. team captain Billie Jean King pulled Williams aside. King wanted to see how Serena was holding up and discuss with her what it means to be No. 1, what responsibilities go with it. After their talk King shook her head in amazement. "She's the player everyone else wants to beat, and there are a lot of outside pressures," says King. "But with Serena, it's as if she was made to be the queen. She's just having a ball."
Somewhere along the way she has also won over the hearts and minds of the critics in the tennis salon. As their sentiments have shifted, so has their vocabulary. Serena's "irreverence" has become her "taking the path less traveled." Her "arrogance" has been recast as "confidence." Her "brute force" has been upgraded to "sleek power." Outfits once described as "lapses in taste" are now "bold and provocative." The consummate tennis outsider has become the sport's figurehead. As Williams sees it, reality broke the serve of perception. "It's like Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'No lie can live forever,'" she says. "I was never that controversial."
The truth is, as the critics were starting to warm to Serena, she was sanding her rough edges. Oh, sure, she still bucks plenty of conventions: Suffice it to say she is the only pro whose regular hitting partner is Boris Kodjoe, best known for his role in the television show Soul Food. Her attire is as seam-straining as ever. She still refuses to traffic in false modesty: After Amelie Mauresmo dealt her only her second loss of the year, in the Italian Open semis last Saturday, Williams said, "There was nothing in particular she did. When I lose a match, it's usually because of how I played." But the brash and sometimes even hostile teenager who ridiculed opponents for "lacking a formal education," claimed she could beat male pros and sparred with reporters over the definitions of words has matured into someone far more, well, serene. While her father, Richard, continues his combative filibusters (the latest pertained to racism in tennis and his desire to see his daughters quit the sport to take up "sailing or ice skating"), Serena declares, "I'm not political"—a response, naturally, that suggests quite the opposite. Gone too are the days when she wouldn't deign to speak to her colleagues in the locker room. "The resentment has died down 100 percent," says veteran U.S. pro Lisa Raymond. "It goes both ways, but the respect level is so different from a few years ago."
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All that winning, of course, hasn't hurt Williams's image either. Hard as it is to believe, just one year ago Serena was, in her words, "a nobody," a player whose name ran in tandem with the term underachiever. Because of injury, indolence and, at times, indifference, she had gone nearly three years without building on her 1999 U.S. Open title. Last spring the estrangement between her father and her mother, Oracene, weighed heavily on her, and she suffered through what she calls "terrible times, a real low point in my life." Before she left for the tour's European swing, she gave herself a pep talk. "I had to stop feeling sorry for myself," she recalls. "Also, I had to realize that I wasn't Venus. I used to want to be her—not be like her, be her—and I think that held me back."
By the time she won the 2002 French Open, she was, unmistakably, her own woman. And, as so often happens in tennis, success begot success. Since her victory at Roland Garros her record is 57-4.
It is the power she generates with her spectacular muscles that leaves the strongest impression. Her ground strokes are struck so fiercely that they could leave exit wounds. When Lindsay Davenport recently rated Williams's serve as the best in the history of women's tennis, the remark stirred little debate. And Williams's service return—the most underrated part of her game—often comes back at an opponent with more pace than the serve that preceded it. "When she's on, it's scary," says Raymond. "No player hits the ball like she does."
But Williams plays with grace and nuance too. She can choreograph a point deftly. In her first match in Rome last week she pulled Klara Koukalova off the court with a series of heavy backhands. Williams set up for a final crosscourt rocket but at the last second unfurled a drop shot that died as it landed in the dirt—a shot that, she later admitted, gave her more satisfaction than any point-ending blast. "You don't get to where she is without knowing how to play tennis," says Jonathan Stark, a former top 50 pro who has practiced with Serena. "Yeah, she has the strength and the speed, but there's a lot more to her game."
How do you beat her? For her opponents and their coaches, that is a riddle worthy of the Sphinx. The template for playing Williams is essentially tennis's version of rope-a-dope. That is, let her tee off in the early going, then disrupt her rhythm and induce errors by varying the spin on your ball as well as the destination, depth and even height of your shots. Problem is, like all game plans, it's a lot easier to draw up than to execute. Also, it's a strategy predicated not on beating Serena but on making her lose. As Martina Hingis, who still follows the sport closely in retirement, puts it, "Serena Williams's most dangerous challenger is ... Serena Williams."
Indeed, in the face of Williams's supremacy, the rest of the field has beaten a hasty retreat. Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and Mauresmo, all charter members of the so-called Big Babe Brigade, are among the few players able to match Williams shot for shot. But they are a combined 1-11 against her over the past 18 months. Kim Clijsters beat Williams last November but then squandered a 5–1 third-set lead against her at the Australian Open in January, and now she appears completely cowed. Justine Henin-Hardenne, emboldened by her win over Williams in the final of the Family Circle Cup last month, has been talking tough—"I beat Serena, and I think you are going to see some changes," she crowed last week, which did not go over well in the Williams camp—but the diminutive Belgian rarely plays her best on the biggest stages.
Yet no player has been more profoundly affected by Serena's dominance than Venus has. Both sisters say adamantly that their reversal of tennis fortune hasn't affected their exceptional closeness. "It's not that we don't bring up tennis because it might cause tension," says Serena. "We don't mention it because it doesn't cross our minds." Still, when your younger sister has beaten you in the finals of four straight majors, how can it not exact a price? It's clear that Venus comes to Paris nursing not only a strained abdominal muscle but a wounded spirit as well. Currently ranked No. 3, behind Clijsters, Venus could land in Serena's half of the French Open draw, thus preventing a fifth straight Williams-Williams Grand Slam final. "I won't lie," says Oracene, "I think this hasn't been easy for Venus."
Regardless of whether they've grown apart merely in the rankings or emotionally as well, the sisters are no longer conflated. Once there was Venus and Serena. Now there is Venus. And Serena. Separate women with separate identities. "I think it's been good for both of us," says Serena, "because our personalities are totally different."
To recap: Venus is the one who wears a visor that recalls a Grosse Pointe country club ladies' scramble; Serena is the one with the navel rings who posed for a certain magazine's annual swimsuit issue. Venus is the one who won't use language stronger than "Oh, dear"; Serena is the one who was fined for uttering an "audible obscenity" (hint: It began with the letter f) during a match earlier this year. Venus is the one who opened her own interior design business and is usually home for the evening by eight; Serena is the one who bought a condo in Los Angeles, talks gleefully of having just "scored a movie" and employs an acting coach. "I'm not that outgoing," says Serena, "but compared to Venus I'm way more outgoing."
Perhaps more telling is the fact that when Venus had to go through Serena to win her titles, she was visibly ambivalent. At Wimbledon in 2000 she defeated Serena in an awkward, emotionally freighted semifinal match and then draped an arm around her tearful little sister as they left the court, an enduring image of sibling solicitude. Is Serena ambivalent about her accomplishments, coming as they have at Venus's expense? "I don't think that takes away from it at all," says Williams the Younger. "At the end of the day, I won. At the end of the day, I have the trophies." (And to think that we scoffed when Williams père predicted that Serena would ultimately be the better player because she's "meaner.")
When you're 21 years old and you've won every big tournament there is to win, you've held the top ranking for nearly a year and Puma and Nike are vying for the right to pay you millions to wear their shoes, motivation can be hard to come by. Even Serena concedes, "I don't get excited about much. Very rarely, anyway. I guess I have become really jaded, unfortunately."
But the more she talks—about her disdain for losing, her appreciation for the charmed life she leads, her fondness for the perks of the job—the more convinced you are that the Serena Show will play on for a good long while. "What can I say? I like being me," she says between bites of a mozzarella ball. "I'm really at a good place right now. I don't want to give any of this up."
Relinquish her spot in tennis's aerie? That would mean that someone else would get to have all the fun.