We may never know what happened to Serena Williams in Paris, nor is there much to be learned from a routine first-round victory at Wimbledon. If competitive spirit is the issue, though, she appears to be back in character.
Resplendent in an all-white warmup ensemble that could pass for fashionable dinner wear in the tropics, Serena walked onto Court 2 on Tuesday with a look of grim-faced determination. She almost looked bitter, perhaps a bit resentful that she wasn't playing on Centre Court. Then again, Court 2 was the site of Venus Williams' lamentable exit on Monday, so there was no better site for some family redemption.
In a 6-2, 6-4 dismissal of Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, the world's 62nd-ranked player and the subject of a spelling test later, Serena looked as if she intended to make amends for that shocking first-round loss to Virginie Razzano at the French Open, where she had a one-set advantage and a 5-1 lead in the second-set tiebreaker. Something seemed decidedly wrong with Serena that day, especially as she appeared so powerless to stifle her French opponent's resolve.
There was no real reason for stress this time, under the cloudy skies of Wimbledon's second day, but Serena's movement and reactions were often exceptional, right along with her tops-in-the-game serve. She was unusually animated for such an early stage of a major, undoubtedly intent on resurrecting her reputation as a fighter, and she didn't let good manners get in the way.
Who was the first player to shout "Come on!" after an opponent's mistake? It wasn't Arthur Ashe, I'm certain of that, or Steffi Graf or Stefan Edberg. That's something you let fly after ending a 44-shot point with a blazing winner down the line -- or maybe you don't react that way at all. Lleyon Hewitt is the first player I can recall doing it, a dozen or more years ago. Although it struck seasoned observers as both rude and obnoxious, it spread like a virus on both tours. I don't know Strycova well enough to know if she's joined the brigade, but she responded to a couple of Serena's errors with a "Come on!" of her own.
Or to put it another way: "Bad shot there! Awful! Come on, me!"
Asked later about her first-round exuberance, Serena said, "Just a little relief. I was lettin' out a lot of cries, just to help me get through it. What I learned in Paris is that you have to keep going. I was playing so well going into that tournament, and...I was so disappointed. Extremely disappointed. But as Kelly Clarkson says, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. You try not to lose confidence and appreciate the good moments a little more."
Serena barely acknowledged a reporter's question about playing on Court 2. "I can't even talk about it," she said, sullen and glancing downward. "So I don't care to talk about Court 2. I'm not in the mood."
What she took out of Venus' defeat wasn't the setting, but her sister's indomitable will. "I don't even know how she does it," Serena said, "with everything she's going through (in dealing with Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disorder), to still run her business, go out there and still play pretty darn good tennis, and still be so positive -- that's just the ultimate to me.
"I'm naturally negative," she went on. "I'm a glass-is-always-half-empty kind of girl. I have to force myself to be positive. With Venus, what she's dealing with, she never knows each day how she's gonna feel. I don't think I could be so tough, to just continue the way she is. But I've learned that whatever I may be going through, I can try to stay positive and upbeat."
It should be noted, for the unaware, that this isn't the old Court 2, the so-called "Graveyard" where the likes of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Serena herself (to Jill Craybas) endured shocking upsets over the years. That court was torn down, long gone.
Still with us are the Williams sisters, on this very day selected to the U.S. Olympic team, still giving it their best shot. There will never be another show quite like it.