At this point, Serena still isn't really tuned in to the power she could wield. She's got a deep instinct for showmanship; has anyone else so thrived on drama, and so often proved critics and detractors of her game, or fitness, wrong? She did it once again at the 2010 Australian Open, laying to rest the notion that she was number 1 only because Justine Henin of Belgium had taken a surprise leave of absence in the spring of 2008. By surviving a few serious threats, and weathering a patch of brilliant play by Henin to end her comeback dreams in the final in Melbourne, Serena showed that nobody could claim that the best female player on the planet had taken a break.
Serena has a big, big game—she takes the WTA game to another level with her serve, bold returns, and steely nerves. And she has a personality as big as that game. She's like the young Muhammad Ali, convinced that she's "the greatest" and happy to let the world know.
But Serena is no folk hero, like Ali was for the baby boomers of the 1960s. And she's a tennis player, not a prize fighter; she's held to a different standard in a sport that still values grace and good manners. Serena often rubbed people the wrong way after suffering a loss, because her typical reaction precluded giving her opponent any credit. It was all about how badly Serena had played, how lucky the winner was, yadda-yadda-yadda. She's gotten a lot better about that lately; you can see her making an effort to be a gracious loser, so maybe she's figuring it out. The Fed Cup is the women's version of Davis Cup, and while it isn't nearly as popular, especially in the U.S., it's still an important event to most nations, and playing for your nation is always an honor. At the end of 2009, a surprisingly feisty U.S. team led by Mary Jo Fernandez clawed its way to the final with no help from Venus or Serena. Serena had agreed to play if the U.S. made the final; in fact, she said that Fed Cup was terribly important to her. Serena is especially prone to pledging her undying devotion to Fed Cup, and then reneging when it comes time to play. The lucrative and prestigious WTA year-end championships were played in Doha, Qatar, the week before the Fed Cup final. Not long before Doha, Jill Smoller, Serena's agent, called and asked if we would send a coach to the championships to work with Serena. She specifically requested Mike Szell, who worked mostly with our boys but had once been coach to Monica Seles.
Our USTA policy is to help any American player, male or female, famous or down on his luck, if it makes sense. I was happy to send Mike to work with Serena, with just one caveat: He would only go if his full services were needed. If Serena just wanted a hitting partner (many women hire male players with whom to hit), I didn't want to waste Mike's time or our resources.
Jill agreed, and Mike went with Serena. She had a great tournament, ultimately winning the title. The USTA and the Fed Cup team had been holding its collective breath, hoping that Serena would indeed make the trip to Italy as promised. But after her semifinal match in Doha, she abruptly announced that she wasn't going to travel to Italy to play Fed Cup. She was too banged up.