Serena Williams says she is lonely. She doesn’t much like it, either, a long way from home with nothing to do but deliver serial beatings to lesser players at the Australian Open and walk the very pleasant streets of Wimbledon.
The most famous player in women’s tennis, who arrived in poor spirits, has carved her way through the top half of the draw in defence of her title with much of her old swagger but goes into her 21st match against Maria Sharapova strangely muted, despite having won 18 of their previous encounters.
But that is the way it is with Serena. That’s the deal: anomalies, awkwardness, mood swings, generosity, compassion … murderous serve and forehand. She is the polar opposite to the cool Russian, although it is highly likely (and simultaneously improbable) that, if they ever sat down for a lengthy chat they would have much in common apart from tennis.
They share a past romantic interest in Grigor Dimitrov and they both are deep-down sensitive away from the court, ruthless when let loose on it – especially when playing each other. It is one of the great match-ups in sport, all the more intriguing for its regularity and one-sidedness, which Sharapova has the blessed knack of ignoring altogether.
Asked how she has been spending her time when not walking through Camila Giorgi, Hsieh Su-wei, Daria Kasatkina and, on Sunday in just 55 minutes, the Russian Margarita Gasparyan (one of only two debutants left in the draw, the other being Johanna Konta), Serena gave her trademark sigh, and smiled lightly.
“I went to the botanical gardens, just walking, one day. I went to a costume shop the other day. I found a sword that looked like He Man’s sword. I tried to post on my Snap Chat. I didn’t have service.
“I have been spending a lot of time learning about myself this trip. It’s been kind of sad. I have been, like, alone a lot. It’s been kind of like boring. But …”
What did she think about on her own? She chuckled: “I think I hate being by myself. As much as I always want to be alone, I don’t think I like it so much. It’s just been … it’s been long! I feel like I have been here for three months. No, I love it here in Australia. I was thinking Florida has to be cold because of that storm that’s hitting on the east coast. It was, like, we are in really nice weather right now. I don’t want to be a part of that blizzard.
“I love how it’s just this little world here that no one can discover or appreciate unless you come. They have the best cafes; they have the best restaurants. I learned a couple years ago that Melbourne is famous for its coffee, which I would have never even known.
“I love discovering those little places. I love, like, the organic shops that are around town that are really cool. I just love this little … this world. It’s so many wonderful things that I’m always discovering every time I come here.”
As for her quick win on Sunday, she said: “I made a few errors, but it was a different game [to the previous ones]. There was definitely room for improvement. My serve wasn’t as good today.”
Asked (not for the first time) about her first match against Sharapova, a 6-4, 6-3 win in the fourth round of the Miami Masters in 2004, she said: “I just remember hitting an inside out forehand when I was down match point. I remember hitting it as hard as I could. I would give it in the top 10 or top five of my career.
“But every match is new. She always brings something new and something special. She’s very consistent, as well. She is one player that’s always training and working hard and winning matches.”
On the subject of winning and losing, ever-present experiences in their sport, she said: “When you win, you’re obviously excited and happy, and when you lose you’re not excited. I think that’s something that happens all across the spectrum in life, even outside of tennis.
“My whole career I have been motivated by losses. When I lose, I just get better. I don’t have anything to lose because I’m just here. Every tournament for me is a bonus at this point in my career. It’s an interesting place to be at.”
Sharapova had a tougher time subduing the rising 12th seed, Belinda Bencic, 7-5, 7-5 in two hours and five minutes, and said: “There were a few ups and downs in the beginning after not taking some of my chances. I was definitely hesitant on some of those points. But overall it felt like a quality match. I thought I served quite well [a career-high 21 aces, after 16 earlier in the tournament]; I found my spots; hit the line many times.
“My serve is something I have been working on a lot since I had shoulder surgery. I have gone through many different motions to try to find my groove again and something that would hold up over many matches.
“It was really difficult to find a rhythm and a balance between keeping the shoulder not going back so much – because I’m quite loose – and a motion that gave me the chance to play many matches, and to feel like I was still not able not to be tired after three, four tough matches.”
Asked about putting defeats to Williams out of her mind while also trying to improve on past performances against her, she said, “Absolutely. It’s not like I think about what I can do worse. You’re always trying to improve. I got myself into the quarter-final of a grand slam. There is no reason I shouldn’t be looking to improve and to getting my game in a better position than any other previous round. It’s only going to be tougher – especially against Serena.”
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