Tough few days for Serena Williams
WIMBLEDON, England -- Over the past year, after losing to Virginie Razzano in the first round of the French Open in 2012, there have been precious few moments on the court when Serena Williams hasn't been in control.
She is 74-3 since, with Wimbledon, US Open and French Open singles titles to her name. Add to that a Wimbledon doubles title, Olympic gold in singles and doubles, a year-end championship, a return to the world No. 1 ranking and a current 31-match winning streak, and there is no question who the overwhelming favorite is to win Wimbledon, the tournament Williams has already won five times.
Those numbers don't lie. If anything, they underserve the explanation of not only what Williams in the past year has done to the women's tour, because they don't measure intimidation and aura and intangibles. Williams is the best player on every surface in her sport. Her chief rivals are not named Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, but Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.
Control is the athlete's best friend, the security blanket, the domain where everything makes sense. It is the athlete's language. Whether it is controlling the point or controlling the line of scrimmage, the best players believe that control is always a choice. It is a mindset that works during a rally but not always in life. In her universe, Williams took control of Wimbledon a day before the tournament started by pouring a bucket of ice water on controversies that have overshadowed protecting her championship, hot coals of her own creation that have been roasting under her feet.
She was cornered by a dangerously naïve world view expressed in a now-infamous Rolling Stone article in which she implied the 16-year-old victim in the Steubenville rape case was partly responsible in the tragedy, which led to Williams' apology to the teenager and her family. In the same article, Williams commented, apparently without naming names, on Sharapova's romance with Grigor Dimitrov, a particularly hypocritical moment for someone who, as she said in her news conference Sunday, deeply values the privacy of her personal life. Williams has been linked romantically with her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, but neither has confirmed the extent of their relationship.
On Saturday, Sharapova responded very sharply.
"Obviously, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Serena and what she's achieved on the court. You can never take anything away from that. … I just think she should be talking about her accomplishments, her achievements, rather than everything else that's just getting attention and controversy.
"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. She has so much in her life, many positives, and I think that's what it should be about."
To add to Williams' trouble, she won't be defending her Wimbledon doubles crown because her sister Venus withdrew from the tournament with an injured back, making the last week a startlingly messy way to defend a title.
Control is to understand when it can be applied. Perhaps Sharapova didn't accept Williams' apology, but that isn't so important. Perhaps the damage is irreparable. Or maybe Sharapova needs time to recover from the insult. Or maybe there was never anything to the relationship worth saving. That part of the communication belongs to Sharapova.
"You know, I'm not really gonna comment on that, whether I'm disturbed or not," Williams said when asked if she was disturbed that Sharapova may not have accepted her apology. "I know she also said that I should definitely focus on the tennis here, and I feel like that is another thing I can definitely take her advice on."
The truth is that it doesn't matter if Sharapova accepted the apology. What matters is whether it was sincere (which is already being debated in the Sharapova camp) and whether she took some measure of responsibility for a thunderstorm that didn't need to be.
The real issue isn't whether Williams needs to be more careful with reporters, as she said. Nor is it whether Sharapova is upset or whether they meet in the final or whether Williams doesn't win and traces her defeat to the distractions of the past couple of weeks.
The real issue is Williams' comments regarding the Steubenville case, and the fact that her first instinct seemed to be to deny she had even said the quotes attributed to her. Williams, though, took the correct path and apologized last week.
There were even moments Sunday during her news conference in which the old Williams defiance and imposition of blame on others resurfaced. She talked about needing to have all the information on a subject before talking, but then said she also needs to have her "guard up at all times," convinced that the writer deceived her. Finally, she stood down to rise up by saying, "I take full responsibility," and the tone of the afternoon changed from defiant to someone who realized trying to assume a position of power did not work to her advantage.
When the Rolling Stone reporter, Stephen Rodrick, said he had the interview on tape, Williams regrouped. Sometimes the way to redemption is to be defiant -- in your retreat and contrition.
Not being in control is a foreign impulse to a professional athlete. They are trained that their superiority and preparation in pressure situations will provide its own solution, a position reinforced by the constant tripe on the sports pages. Williams, in her quotes, if not in her mind, applied sports thinking to real life: If the victim's parents had done more, and if the victim herself had acted differently and if she hadn't put herself in that position, the outcome would've been different.
It was the same Sunday, the alpha figure in control, the person in the position of power, even of her apology.
"For me, I always stand up, but I'm the first person to apologize," she said. "I'm the first person to reach out to individuals and people I feel that something may have hurt them or something may have been misconstrued."
Maybe it was just the fear talking, the fear that we all have, to make sense of the senseless and the senselessly violent, a self-defense to keep the horrible from happening to us, to say if we were ever in a violent, powerless situation we would, like athletes, find a way to survive. And if not, it was due to lack of preparation. That's the athlete's brain, but life isn't like that. Maybe it was fear of the reality that we all have far less control than we think we do.
In real life, these sports analogies are grotesque, naturally. Williams framed rape, a woman's worst nightmare, within a narrow athletic mindset. Williams intrinsically seemed incapable of understanding how a loss of control is possible, how it can be taken away, because it rarely happens to her in her occupation, which is still just a game with rules, and in the process fell into the pattern of blaming the victim.
Instead of choosing her words or her reporters more carefully, the real challenge for Williams is to make sure she's seeing the world through all of its shades of power, and that includes sometimes being powerless against violence.
"For me, I take full responsibility I definitely wanted to apologize to the family," she said. "They've been through so much. In talking to them and learning the whole story, you learn just how strong the young girl is, how strong she's been able to make me through this process, which I think is incredible."
There was no clean way out, except to stand down and admit she was wrong, and to be better for it. If she did, and was sincere, there is honor in that, too.