Serena Williams is curled up on a chair in Paris, wearing a scarf indoors. She has a cold. No wonder, because she’s been busy lately. She’s written her memoirs. She’s becoming a Parisian. Oh, and just before we met she won the Australian Open tennis championship, though the memory is already fading.
“I barely had the trophy in my hands and I had to put it down,” she laments in a surprisingly girlish voice. “Then I got sick, and now I’m here. I think at the end I’ll cherish it. Maybe I’ll YouTube it.”
If Serena or her sister Venus win the French Open in her adopted home town next month, they will have completed what Serena calls the “Williams Slam” – holding all four women’s Grand Slam titles in the Sony Ericsson WTA tour simultaneously.
Yet the most extraordinary thing about the sisters isn’t their tennis. Rather, it’s that they do it on the side. In a sporting world of monomaniacs, only the Williamses embody the Victorian ideal of the dilettante athlete.
Catching up with Serena, 27, it’s sometimes hard to talk about tennis. Though as a Jehovah’s Witness she is supposed to shun politics, she wants to talk about the “goose bumps” she felt watching Barack Obama’s inauguration.
She wants to talk about writing. Rereading the proofs of her memoirs, she says: “I’m just laughing out loud.” Asked to name her role models, she begins with Jeffrey Archer, the much-derided British thriller novelist. “I think he’s a great writer,” she insists.
Meanwhile, she’s launching another fashion collection, taking acting classes, and dreaming of a part in the Desperate Housewives soap opera. Recently, she bought a flat in Paris, where she buys croissants and learns French.
All this irritates people who think athletes need to focus. At a press conference the day we met, a journalist asked her the ritual question: is there a danger of spreading herself too thin? “Yeah, there is a big danger of that,” Serena deadpanned, “so I guess I’d better be really careful.”
I asked whether she simply had more energy than normal people. “I think so, and I don’t sleep as much. When I was in Australia I was like OK, at night I’m gonna read my book, then I wrote blogs, then. . . ” she trails off in wonder. “I honestly don’t know how I did it all. I think when I’m done, I’m just gonna lay down for two years.
“I think there’s more to life than hitting a ball in a box. I would go nuts if that’s all I did. I need my spiritual food, I need to go to Kingdom Hall, which is where Jehovah’s Witnesses go for worship. Actually, I feel like I should be someone who performs more, because I spend a lot of downtime.”
But surely she’s better at tennis than at the other things? “Absolutely, but I put a ton of time into this that I don’t put in other things. I think if I was to dedicate some of that to other things, I would be just as good.”
Occasionally, Serena even gets round to watching tennis, particularly the men’s game. Rafael Nadal, she muses, “is my hero. James Blake is so fast. Wow, if I could run like him. . . And I’ve always liked Andre Agassi’s racket speed – my goodness. I look at the men players and I’m like, ‘If I could just play like the guy who’s number 50 in the world, I would be unstoppable.’ ”
Still, as a child, she once beat a little boy called Andy Roddick, who’s now sixth in the world. She chuckles. “He wants a rematch, but there’s no need for a rematch. Oh God, I couldn’t beat Andy Roddick if I wanted to. Are you kidding? But anyway, it doesn’t matter. I already beat him.”
Serena seems to fit tennis into her life with the ease of a retiree playing a regular Sunday morning game. Might she still be winning Grand Slams in her forties, like Martina Navratilova? “No I wouldn’t, it’s crazy. I’m going to have a life and a family.”
But the thought of a Serena unbound by the constraints of tennis is, frankly, terrifying.