Tennis: At 33, gutsy Serena still loves to train, play, win

Tennis: At 33, gutsy Serena still loves to train, play, win

At the ArtScience Museum, the primary live exhibit arrives a trifle late. In checked skirt and white top. Just another press conference, but not just another player. A gent at the back quietly applauds over his notebook.

A fellow up front brandishes her autobiography and prefaces a question by saying: "On a lighter note, I'm a fan." Calm down, sir.

Camera flashes, in whose flickering light she's always lived, go off. Everyone wants a picture. Even the photographer Annie Leibovitz, whose exhibition is running a floor below, once froze her on film.

But really, you can't quite capture Serena Williams. She may not be everyone's favourite athlete, but she's an intriguing original. In this particular gallery, aptly named Expression, she belongs.

Serena, who plays first at the WTA Finals today, is different. She's not the only one but The One people will come to see.

"I've seen Serena," is what people will say, explains commentator Sam Smith, as if they've just come from Egypt and exclaimed they've seen the Sphinx.

There's no rush though, she's not mothballing her rackets yet. "I've entered in tons of events next year and obviously the year after is the Olympics."

She's doing what fascinates us: taking talent and stretching it like a rubber band till it comes apart one day.

Right now she may be held together by medical tape and ambition, an injured knee ensuring that she hasn't completed a tournament since the US Open.

Kept off court by her coach, she said: "I actually just started hitting on Monday. (But) I was surprised at how well I was able to kind of jump back into it."

We breathe normal air, but athletes seem to inhale an endless oxygen of optimism. Always there's something to grasp onto.

For her it's the fact that "this season has been a lot less stressful than last season".

In 2013, leading to the Finals she played 77 matches; this year 55. "I feel really more fresh than I have in the past of couple of years." Sounded like a warning.

"She's 33," says the announcer to start his introduction and even as sport turns into death by statistics, age - when you'll win, when you'll finish - isn't what it used to be.

Michael Phelps returned with quick times this year at 29 and Federer, 33, did fine impersonations of a fluent athlete in Shanghai. In a muscular era, they're redefining the boundaries on how long athletes can compete.

Desire and science, genes and genius, chasing history and the pure pleasure of chastising kids - who knows what specific alchemy propels athletes to push.

But Serena possibly relishes the confining lines of the court, as if it triggers a competitive instinct which we can't quite figure out but she can't get enough of. So she plays and says: "I love tennis and I love the sport.

I've been, especially lately, having so much fun just competing when normally people have retired and gone on with their lives."

She's different because she sweats.

Asked what separates talented players and champions, she insists: "I think being a champion is the one that works the hardest and maybe has to work harder than everyone else because they're not as good and things don't come as easy for them.

So for me, that's the difference."

And difference, in most forms, is beautiful, but not for some. Like Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpischev, member of some misogynistic mob, who referred to Serena and her sister as "the Williams brothers".

Serena's heard this sort of tripe before and responded strongly to the comments: "I thought they were very insensitive and extremely sexist as well as racist at the same time. I thought they were in a way bullying."

Right now, she's No. 1. You can reinterpret that number to mean the leading women's athlete of all sport. But in more prosaic terms she holds tennis' top spot, though Maria Sharapova is chasing her for that position.

It seems a pretty good reason to show up and as she says: "I love being No. 1. I love being the best."

So now, on wounded knee, aiming for her fifth Finals title, she looks to bury the field. Maybe if she does it'll make a chapter in a second book. Or a third. "I'm not planning a sequel," she laughs, "I'm planning a series, I guess."

Later she's asked if she might open herself up to the world in an Agassi-style memoir, all warts and furious angst, but she seemed unsure.

It might be a hell of a ride, but then again the extraordinary athlete is best left a mystery. Watched, enjoyed but never quite understood. Scrutinised, tweeted, Instagramed, yet forever enigmatic. Just different folk.

Indeed, as you enter the Expression gallery, where she spoke, this question is inscribed on a board on the wall: "How do artists transform their ideas into action?" It's possibly only rhetorical.

rohitb@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Oct 20, 2014.
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