Serena Williams’ relationship with tennis? It’s about as complicated as she is, which is to say, “very.”
The Internet is abuzz after Williams was told the world that she doesn’t love tennis and actually never liked sports at all. The lady doth protest too much, me thinks. And if I’m going to keep quoting Shakespeare, this is all much ado about nothing. Oh, and something about brief candles being “out, out.”
“I don’t love tennis today, but I’m here, and I can’t live without it,” Williams said after her first-round victory against Chanelle Scheepers at the Brisbane International. “So I’m still here and I don’t want to go anywhere anytime soon. It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love; I’ve actually never liked sports, and I never understood how I became an athlete. I don’t like working out. I don’t like anything that has to do with working physically.”
Look, Williams tends to say things. Sometimes those things are profound, sometimes they’re revealing and other times they’re just empty and meant to send everyone on a wild goosechase. After all, this is the woman who confessed last year, “Sometimes I lie just to lie.” That might explain why the reactions to these comments range from hand-wringing to exasperation to laughter. How you react depends on your perception and your general sense of Williams. In short, it depends on how well you think you know Serena.
So who is the real Serena Williams? None of us has any insight into her mind — all we have is a history book of achievements, a binder of quotes and a flash drive of quizzical tweets. Parsing through all of it to construct the “true” Serena is a maddening exercise in conjecture.
The fact is, they are all the true Serena Williams. The Serena who cried on the court after her first-round win at Wimbledon last year is the same one telling us six months later that she’s never liked sports and has never loved tennis. The Serena who took shots at Dinara Safina’s position as a Slam-less No. 1 is the same one palling around with Caroline Wozniacki. And the Serena who lets out furious primal screams during matches and whose physique is the epitome of a jock is the same one who sits at home painting her nails and wallowing in boy drama. She is a girlie girl trapped in the body that makes everyone think she’s some impervious, unflappable, intense athlete, and that cognitive dissonance is what creates so many image problems for her. Inconsistency follows her wherever she goes, both on the court and off, and it is that unpredictability that makes her such a compelling athlete and personality. We tune in because we just never know what to expect.
But Serena must love the sport sometimes. A player doesn’t win 13 Grand Slam titles on the way to becoming a multimillionaire, turn 30, endure a life-threatening illness and then scratch and claw her way back into the game — all the while seemingly committing to her fitness more than ever — if she doesn’t love the game.
So she doesn’t love tennis today (emphasis on her use of “today,” which seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle). So what? Even if you take that line at face value, what does it really mean? Best-case scenario, Williams woke up on the wrong side of the bed and just wasn’t feeling it that day. Worst-case scenario, she’s just like everyone else: stuck in a job she doesn’t love, doing the best she can and trying to find her happiness elsewhere. Is there really anything wrong with that?
Having said all that, I think there’s another, more obvious motivation for Williams’ comments, and it has everything to do with her very real desire to get back to the top of the game. Want to get Serena motivated? Tell her she can’t. Tell her she’s the underdog, write her off, discount her, overlook her, say she’s too old to win, too out of shape, too inconsistent, too distracted. And if you don’t have any fuel to add to her fire, Williams has never been one to shy away from freely giving you some.
So, while story after story hits the wire with fans and pundits questioning whether Williams has the motivation to win another major this year, she is sitting in a hotel room in Brisbane icing her sprained ankle (which is a bigger impediment to her Australian Open campaign than her passion for the sport, if you ask me) and taking it all in. “Oh, now you don’t think I have what it takes to win anymore? We’ll see about that.”
When the odds are stacked against her, Williams lets the mountainous chip on her shoulder fly, hell-bent on proving “the haters” wrong. We can’t be shocked at this recent press tour, where she said she skipped the Asian swing because she just didn’t feel like playing, revealed she’s playing a limited schedule this year and discussed a lack of passion for the game. She’s done it time and time again, and she uses it all as a way of taking the pressure off herself and giving everyone a reason to dismiss her. Tell Serena Williams there are 5,000 reasons why she can’t dominate the game or win seven straight matches over a two-week period and she’ll go out of her way to give you one reason why she can: She’s Serena Williams.
Whatever that means, it’s been working for 17 years.