MIAMI -- No one has had a more operatic tennis career than Serena Williams. From the moment she emerged in public consciousness as a young teenager with beads clacking in her braided hair, heralded by her father as the more gifted understudy to sister Venus, she has been the most compelling and confounding performer in the sport.
No one has dug more holes for herself -- over the course of a rally, a match, a season or in public perception -- only to scramble out of them, back to the top. Count her out, as observers did when she was ranked 81st before the 2007 Australian Open, and she wins. Bank on her to win, as many did before this year's French Open, and she loses, marring a heretofore perfect 46-0 sheet in the first round of Grand Slam events.
Question her ability to rebound, and she comes out of her corner, gloves up, to win her fifth Wimbledon -- and first Slam championship in two years -- this past weekend.
Serena has 14 Slam titles spread over 14 seasons. She has finished as the WTA's year-end No. 1 twice, in 2002 and 2009, seven years apart -- a record gap. She often starts slowly and plays her way into form in a tournament, a maddening habit that has become somehow endearing with time. She has alternately delighted fans with her competitive passion and alienated them with ill-timed words and gestures on court. She has survived her parents' divorce, the murder of a beloved half-sister, dozens of small injuries and a potentially life-threatening medical scare.
Perhaps the only consistent thread through all this turbulence is her aversion to revealing too much about herself, a trait she shares with her sibling. Serena and Venus are among the most recognizable athletes in the world and also among the most elusive.
So, when Serena sat down in a small, sterile interview room at the Sony Ericsson Open this past March for a 10-minute chat to talk about how the Olympics fit into the context of her richly layered saga, it was entirely in character for her to both charm and deflect.
"Growing up watching people like Greg Louganis, Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner, FloJo, they became so iconic," she said. "So, when you get there and you have all these wonderful athletes and you're all together on the same team, it's a whole different feeling. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and, fortunately enough, I've had two [Olympic experiences] and hopefully I'll have another."
It's already obvious the London 2012 tournament will be different from those of past Olympics because of its setting at the most revered of all tennis grounds. The moment the last spectator left the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club this past Sunday, workers descended to repair the famous courts that have been scuffed bare and brown from a fortnight's play, resowing them with pre-germinated grass seed and hoping favorable weather will make them green again.
A singles gold medal is the last title of any stature Williams doesn't have on her résumé. It's unclear how much of a summit it would represent to her. She and Venus won the Olympic doubles in 2000 and 2008, and Serena has repeatedly stressed what that means to her. "I love that my medals are in doubles because I can share the moment," she said. "I've had a lot of singles moments and history, but I love looking over at Venus and we both have that medal."
As Serena spoke, Venus' presence in London was far from certain. Sapped by an autoimmune disease known as Sjogren's syndrome, Venus has been able to play only sparingly the past year and at one point sank well out of the top 100 in the WTA rankings.
To make the Olympic roster, Venus had to claw her way back to being at least the fourth-highest-ranked American player, which she accomplished at the last possible moment at Roland Garros. Her first-round exit at Wimbledon once again raised the question of whether she would be fit to play. Looking drawn, Venus managed to hold up through the doubles competition despite a vulnerable air that even her mother, Oracene, commented on publicly.
"She's just happy to be on the court; she's had a really rough year, we both have," Serena had said in Miami months before. "But I was able to go from [No.] 180 to 16 in a matter of weeks [last year], so anything's doable."
Then, she abruptly burst into song. "Climb ev'ry mountain," Serena warbled. "Ford ev'ry stream until you find your dream."
And that was as deep as she was willing to go.
It might be as simple as this: The Olympic Summer Games are a mega-gathering of elite athletes, a celebration of excellence and celebrity where Williams believes she deserves to be. And she gets to go with her sister. "It's not all about tennis," Serena said. "The best of the best are at the Olympics."
The allure of the Olympics
Tennis was added to the Summer Games as a medal sport in 1988 after a 64-year absence. Its presence there is awkward in some ways. The Grand Slam tournaments rank ahead of the Olympics in prestige within the game, and traditionalists might argue that a Davis Cup championship does, too.
The Olympic tournament falls just after the most crowded, grueling part of the sport's 10-month campaign -- the long clay-court season followed by the quick visit to grass, with the French Open and Wimbledon a mere two weeks apart. In a normal season, most top players take a breather after Wimbledon and return sometime in August to tune up for the U.S. Open with a series of hard-court events.
Yet, over the years, few of the sport's luminaries have skipped the Olympics, and the singles draw has tended to favor them, especially on the women's side. The roll call of champions from 1988 through 2004 reads: Steffi Graf, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams and Justine Henin. Russia's Elena Dementieva, who won in 2008, told reporters that an Olympic medal was considered far more significant than a Grand Slam event in her home country.
The players' esteem for the Olympics is obvious not only in their elation at winning but also in their dismay at not being invited, or, in the case of doubles, their insistence on having a compatible partner. Players miffed at being left out of the selection have gone to arbitration or taken their cases to the public. Controversy over the men's doubles pairings for India -- roiled by the estrangement between former comrades Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi -- made national news.
Wimbledon as the backdrop will further elevate the stakes for some players, especially the two Andys who have fallen to Roger Federer a total of four times in finals there -- Murray and Roddick. A gold medal wouldn't quite make up for those valiant losses, but it's significant that Roddick intends to play in London after passing on the last Olympics.
For whatever reason, tennis players care. And it appears their compatriots enjoy having them there. Novak Djokovic (Serbia) and Maria Sharapova (Russia) already have been selected to carry their countries' respective flags in the opening ceremonies.
In the lead-up to the Beijing Games, the International Tennis Federation asked stars to appear in a coffee-table book promoting the notion that tennis belongs in the Summer Games. The cooperation rate was high. Players chose another Olympic sport they loved and posed for a photo shoot in that gear: Djokovic as an alpine skier, Sharapova as a rhythmic gymnast, Rafael Nadal as a soccer player. Federer donned fencing garb. He has openly lusted after an Olympic singles title, and his celebration when he won the 2008 doubles gold with compatriot Stan Wawrinka was among the most emotional of his career.
Serena posed as a figure skater, wearing a sequined dress with one knee on the ice and one arm lifted above her head in a flourish as if she had just done the routine of her life. In a Q-and-A that accompanied the photo, she told the interviewer she kept her 2000 doubles gold medal at her house in Florida and added, "If my home were to catch on fire, there would be a few things I would grab, and that would be one of them." The medal she subsequently won in Beijing is in her Los Angeles-area home.
The Williams sisters have steamrolled to both their Olympic doubles titles, dropping only three sets in 10 total matches. The scores of their two gold-medal matches were 6-1, 6-1 and 6-2, 6-1. But that doesn't mean Serena took them for granted. In the interview room at Key Biscayne, she recalled her own ferocity after the sisters had dropped the first set of their 2008 semifinal match against the Bondarenko sisters of the Ukraine.
"I yelled, 'I am not playing for a bronze medal,'" Serena said. "'So we're gonna buckle up and we're gonna win this match right here.' It was not funny at the time, I was serious."
Driven as she is to win at the Olympics, Williams has been far less avid about playing for the U.S. in the Fed Cup, the women's equivalent of the Davis Cup that shares the same confusing format and often-demanding travel schedule. The catch for her is that the ITF requires Olympic hopefuls to have made themselves available to play in at least one "tie," or weekend of matches, in two different years in each quadrennial.
Williams met those criteria in the two years leading up to the Beijing Games, but did not play in a single Fed Cup match for the next four seasons and frequently kept the U.S. Tennis Association guessing about her intentions. This year, Serena has played twice for the U.S. team captained by former pro and current ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez, winning all four matches. Her nonparticipation last year could have theoretically kept her out of the pool for London, but the USTA requested a waiver based on Williams' litany of injuries in 2011, and the ITF granted it earlier this month.
Not that anyone really doubted she would be there. The addition of mixed doubles to the 2012 Olympic tennis program set off an amusing scuffle to be her prom date; among her most ardent pursuers was her childhood friend Roddick, but Williams elected to play the French Open with Bob Bryan, the left-hander who has steamed past nearly every mark in the sport with his twin brother, Mike. Williams and Bryan lost in the first round at Roland Garros. Teams don't have to commit until three days after the start of the Olympic tournament.
The mixed doubles competition, generally a goof-around afterthought at majors, has the potential to be something far sexier in London -- a nationalistic version of the beautiful-people pairings who present the Oscars. That buzz has not been lost on Serena, who is sure to play her part to the hilt. "A girl loves to have choices," she said at the Australian Open.
Of all the venues around the world where Serena has been center stage, Wimbledon might be the destination where her journey -- hand in hand with Venus from the public courts of Compton, Calif. -- stands out as most starkly improbable. Yet she couldn't have looked more at home there this year, walking on court in a stylish white trench coat and using more than 100 thunderous aces to carve up the draw. She strode around the grounds like the royalty she is, with a faraway cast to her eyes.
She appears to be back in vintage form at 30. The historic reality is that even the most resilient of tennis careers begin to decline at that age. Serena might be able to hike to the top again more than once; she certainly has proved how foolish it is to try to measure her by anyone else's experience. She has traveled through the past 14 years as if she had all the time in the world, but time will stare anyone down across the net.
Serena's voice, usually so polished and rehearsed, was uncharacteristically quavery when she thanked her family, friends and support team on the court after hoisting the Venus Rosewater Dish for a fifth time to equal -- What are the chances? -- her sister Venus. She seems to have fulfilled her father's old prophecy of being the superior talent. But Serena still defers to her older sibling, surely out of love, and also, perhaps, with a sense of how hard it is for Venus to be fading into twilight as Serena continues to blaze away.
"I had to copy you," Serena said. "Sorry."
Whether she'll admit to it or not, there's an urgency to this Olympic mission of Serena's, something more than trading pins or following in some other icon's footsteps. Who knows how long she can sustain this plateau of excellence? How many more curtain calls will she be able to take with her sister? She wants to sing their story from the hilltops as long as she can.