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Mike Rowbottom: Serena – Serener than Maria

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Serena Williams won her first-round match at Roland Garros. Photo: Michel Euler/AP Photo

By Mike Rowbottom |

Jimmy Connors, in his predictably chippy, feisty, unputdownable and aptly entitled 2013 autobiography The Outsider, describes tennis as “boxing at 90 feet.”

Not every tennis player would embrace that definition, but most would surely understand it. A tennis court can be as lonely and frightening a place for sportsmen and women as any boxing ring. And if the risk of physical injury is not the same, the potential for mental damage measures up.

Jimbo didn’t mess about in the glory years of the 70s and 80s as he accrued a record 109 men’s titles, including eight Grand Slams. Here’s how he describes his first meeting with the startling up-and-coming talent of fellow United States player John McEnroe in the Wimbledon locker room before their 1977 semi-final.

“He looked like the Pilsbury Doughboy with a headband,” Connors writes. “I had to ask myself, ‘How the hell did he even qualify?…’

“He came up to me and introduced himself. I grabbed my bag and rackets and walked right past him – no smile, no hello, no handshake, no acknowledgement of his existence. I’m nothing if not gracious.”

Connors won his semi – but McEnroe went on to land some serious blows on him in the following years, even if the ageing fighter of a player never threw in the towel.

Asked about his relationship with Connors shortly after beating him in the 1980 Wimbledon semi-final, McEnroe replied: “Well, we don’t go out to dinner together a lot.” More than 30 years later, Connors reveals that things have changed – a bit. “Even though we get along better than we used to – I’d go for a beer with him now – there’s still that edge.”

Memorably, the barnstorming Jimbo had been confounded in the Wimbledon final two years earlier by his antithesis, subtlety, as practiced with zen calm by the late Arthur Ashe. The older man – to employ Connors’ analogy – boxed clever, refusing to trade blows, ducking and diving and consistently jabbing at his opponent’s weak spots to earn a famous victory.

At Roland Garros this week there has been another masterly exhibition of sparring from a female player who, at the age of 36 has amassed 23 Grand Slam singles titles – a record in the Open era.

It is no doubt coincidental that one of the followers who has been spotted in Serena Williams’ corner at the current French Open Championships is the former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson.

On the eve of her eye-catching fourth round match today against Maria Sharapova today, Williams – playing her first major singles tournament in over a year having giving birth to daughter Olympia last September – produced some classic moves to counter claims made about her in her Russian rival’s recently published autobiography,  Unstoppable.

Unlike The Outsider, this title wasn’t strictly accurate. Sharapova served a 15-month ban from playing after testing positive at the Australian Open in January 2016 for meldonium, an artery-expanding drug which had been put on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list at the beginning of that year.

Asked to comment on some of the claims in Sharapova’s book at the press conference that followed her third round victory over Germany’s Julia Görges, Williams stayed on her toes.

Sharapova’s contention that Serena “hated” her for hearing her cry after she had beaten here in the 2004 Wimbledon final – one of only two defeats Sharapova had managed to inflict on the American in 21 matches before today’s meeting – prompted an unanswerable return.

Despite criticism from her opponents, Maria Sharapova received a positive reception from fans. Photo: ROBERT DEUTSCH/USA TODAY SPORTS

“I think the book was 100 per cent hearsay – at least all the stuff I read and the quotes that I read, which was a little bit disappointing. I have cried in the locker room many times after a loss. I think it’s normal. If anything, it shows the passion and the desire and the will that you have to want to go out there and do the best. It’s a Wimbledon final, you know?

“It would be more shocking if I wasn’t in tears. I do have emotions and I wear them on my sleeve. I’m human. What happens there should definitely maybe stay there and not necessarily talk about it in a not‑so‑positive way in a book.”

Williams added: “The book was a lot about me. I was surprised about that, to be honest. You know, I was, like, ‘Oh, OK.’ I didn’t expect to be reading a book about me, that wasn’t necessarily true,

“I didn’t know she looked up to me that much or was so involved in my career. I don’t have any negative feelings towards her, which again, was a little disappointing to see in that hearsay book.

“Especially having a daughter, I feel like negativity is taught. One of the things I always say, I feel like women, especially, should bring each other up.

“A lot of people always assume that I feel a different way and it’s not true.”

Williams added: “If anything, I feel like we should encourage each other, and the success of one female should be the inspiration to another, and I have said that 1,000 times.

“Before her incident of drugs or not, I just feel she was doing good. Now she’s doing well again, and I have never had any hard feelings toward her…

“When her whole drug incident [occurred], I was, like, she was brave to say something. I didn’t have anything negative to say about Maria…”

Regarding her impending match, Williams commented: “She’s probably a favourite for this match, for sure. She’s been playing for over a year now. I just started…

“We are both on a comeback for two totally different reasons. She’s been on her journey for over a year and I just started mine a couple months ago. It’s something new and different. I don’t know what else to say.”

As the final bell rang in this press conference, Williams was effectively standing in the centre of the ring with both arms raised, her opponent having been unable to lay a glove upon her.

Sharapova had been put straight on the veracity of her book,  on her relative lack of human feeling, on her apparent obsession with Williams,  on her misguided assumption that Williams hated her and on her unhelpful attitude to the cause of sisterhood. She had also been reminded that while Williams had been absent from the game in order to have a child, she had been banned for a doping offence.

However their impending match would go, there was really only one winner here.

Elsewhere in her book Sharapova writes: “Serena and I should be friends; we have the same passion. But we are not. I think, to some extent, we have driven each other. Maybe that’s what it takes.

“Only when you have that intense antagonism can you find the strength to finish her off. Who knows? Some day, when all this is in our past, maybe we’ll become friends.”

Yeah. Maybe.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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