Even though she’s been away from the tennis courts and the public eye for almost a year, Serena Williams has been on something of a media and playing whirlwind since her return to the sport a month ago. And even though plenty of intriguing storylines and players are already capturing attention before the U.S. Open, don’t be surprised if at the end of it, we only remember what could simply be called the summer of Serena.
It feels like Serena’s been everywhere since she got off the plane from her still inspiring run to the fourth round at this year’s Wimbledon. From showing up in a revealing dress at the ESPY awards that earned her more press than if she had won an award to being back on the Home Shopping Network pitching her latest line of handbags from her fashion collection, Serena’s recent public appearances almost felt routine, as if Serena had never suffered an almost life threatening pulmonary embolism a few months ago, leaving many to wonder if she would ever step back on a tennis court again. Throw in a busy schedule playing World Team Tennis, and Serena has been the go to player for news in what is usually a slow time in the season.
How Serena, who occupies a unique place in American sports in that she is one of the few female athletes most everyone here knows (even if they’ve never watched a tennis match), will be covered by the media here in the U.S. as well as received by fans after her long absence will be interesting to follow. Serena, in various points of her career, has inspired, delighted, confused and polarized both her fans and detractors, keeping all of them guessing as to who is the real Serena – from the tenacious and intimidating player on the tennis court to the giggly and often coy woman present during interviews or events outside of tennis like at the recent ESPY awards. Any lingering concern that her incident with a lineswoman at the 2009 U.S. Open might affect her image or popularity appears to be mute, especially since Serena was voted America’s favorite female athlete a third year in a row by the Harris Poll. What may draw even more fans to Serena may not be her potential return to the top ten or even possibly winning another Major title, but her recent candid comments about her life and recent health battle, revealing more about herself than maybe she is even comfortable doing.
Last night, Serena 3.0 (if you want to call it that) was on display on and off the court. Her 47 minute 6-0, 6-0 demolition of Anastasia Rodionova in the first round of the Bank of the West Classic had many using the word “statement” to describe her performance, some even suggesting she was now the clear favorite to win the U.S. Open. Plenty of fans love to watch Serena dominate in her matches. But afterwards in her press conference, it was the more open Serena, discussing her practice sessions and, to the surprise of some, being very complimentary to Maria Sharapova, her potential quarterfinal opponent on Friday. It’s this side of Serena that could well be on display more often this summer, even more so than her fans, who proudly call her a “diva”, may be ready for.
With a plethora of intriguing storylines and players emerging this summer including Novak Djokovic’s quest to win a third Major title this year and Kim Clijsters possibly (emphasis on the possibly) playing in her last U.S. Open, don’t be surprised if Serena is the one who gets the most attention. Serena has been away far too long more than she or the sport would have liked. And now that she’s back, Serena will no doubt do her very best to make sure she, and tennis fans everywhere, have a summer to remember.