The smirk began just after she started speaking, a little purse of the lips, eyebrows arching just so. Serena Williams had been asked, in her post-loss press conference Wednesday, whether winning her first Grand Slam title at this year's French Open would confirm current No. 1 Dinara Safina's place atop the women's game. "Well," Serena said -- knowing the question referred to her newsmaking insistence last month that she's the tour's "real No. 1" -- "I already think she's definitely authenticated as the world No. 1. She's there. She's won four tournaments."
You had to hand it to her: It took some real acting chops for Williams to raise her voice there, right at the end, to a perfectly pitched tone of mock-innocence. Four second-rate tournaments? was the implication, compared to the U.S. and Australian Opens I just won?
The questioner tried pressing. But now Safina will have won a Grand Slam title, went the follow-up. Won't that make a difference?
"Yeah, sure," Serena said. You half expected to see her wink. "But she's No. 1 already." Slight pause. "I mostly try to focus on me nowadays."
Nowadays? When has the Serena focus ever not been on Serena? Willed obliviousness to opponents' feelings, tennis custom, and that vague idea of sportsmanship has been a Williams' family trait since older sister Venus burst onto the tour way back in the 20th century -- and, let's be clear, it's precisely that quality that made their rise out of Compton one of the most miraculous events in sports history. They wouldn't be here, ruling the game in their distinctively off-hand fashion, if they had cared what people think. Still at 27, Serena has made enough money, more than $22,000,000, and won 10 major singles titles; there's something about that attitude now that feels reflexive, forced, a big schtick wielded just to keep things lively.
"Honestly, I think I lost because of me and not because of anything she did," Serena said after losing Wednesday's enthralling, quarterfinal operetta to Svetlana Kuznetsova, 7-6, 5-7, 7-5 -- absurdly refusing, once again, to give her opponent the least bit of credit. "I pretty much gave it to her. It was like, 'Here, do you want to go to the semis? Because I don't.'"
Yes, Kuznetsova, the noted Russian headcase who had so notoriously buckled in their three-set quarterfinal at the 2009 Australian Open, held 3-0 leads in the first and second sets Wednesday before Serena battled back with the usual flurry of crushing forehands, timely aces and even a gutsy forehand dropshot trailing at 6-7, 4-5, 15-all. But a twisted ankle during the seventh game of the second set left Kuznetsova covered in red dust and visibly shaken, and from there the momentum shifted back and forth as both probed for holes with percussive groundstrokes and heady play. It was riveting, unpredictable stuff, studded with enough odd touches to make it truly memorable.
A ballboy toweled off Kuznetsova's back like a manservant. The French crowd ringing Court Suzanne Lenglen kept oohing and ahhing -- and forced Kuznetsova to catch one service toss -- in response to roars from across the grounds, and the results flashing up on the scoreboard: Local hero Gael Monfils giving Roger Federer early trouble before losing, 7-6, 6-2, 6-4. Serena's father and coach, Richard, left the stadium with the tension at its height early in the third. "Serena didn't play well," he said, waiting for the car that would take him off the grounds. "She didn't do what we discussed to get her through this match."
And Williams never stopped charging. "I'm amazed that she came back," said 1977 Wimbledon champ Virginia Wade, late in the third set. "I thought it was all over."
Still, Kuznetsova fought just as hard, executed better when it mattered, and time and again applauded Williams' best shots. Serena's only tip of the hat was the sight, after she dropped a tight backhand approach into the net, of her clutching and shaking her own racket as if trying to strangle it.
It was Kuznetsova, of course, who had made that happen -- not that Williams could ever admit it. Maybe it was the career-high four straight losses she carried into Roland Garros this year, but Serena indulged one disingenuous moment after another during this tournament, seemingly bemoaning -- who, me? -- the controversies that have marked nearly each step of her career. "I don't want to be drama," said Serena, after accusing third-round opponent Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez of cheating after she refused to admit that the ball touched her arm. "I'm like one of those girls on a reality show that has all the drama, and everyone in the house hates them because no matter what they do, like, drama follows them. I don't want to be that girl."
But she gave the lie to that after her next win, declaring that women's tennis was better than men's because "it's way cattier, so it's way more exciting to watch." Serena then uncorked the kind of generalization that, for the amateur psychologist, seems a clear case of self-description. "Women are just cattier, in general," Serena says. "It's just the truth. We're so passionate about whatever we do, ladies are. Maybe that makes it way more intense."
But in the end, at 5-all in the third, it was Kuznetsova who proved more intense, holding her nerve and serve at love, then taking Serena apart on her final service game. "It was tough," Kuznetsova said after, "but still I [was] convinced I can make it." She hadn't beaten Williams since 2007 -- but plunged past that fact, and the harsh memory of Melbourne -- and at 15-40, on her third match point, watched Serena's final backhand fly wide to win at last. Serena hoisted her bags, waved once to the crowd and hurried herself away.
Her final words, at her press conference, were about Wimbledon, scheduled to start June 22. "I wish it were tomorrow," Williams said.
Presumably, she was talking about the competition, but who knows? Drama queens like a big stage, after all, and they don't get any bigger than that.