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The uniqueness of Serena Williams

Serena Williams is one of a kind, even in a sport that's been fueled by complicated stars.

NEW YORK -- It’s not clear when, exactly, Serena Williams decided to create a grown human being. But for some five weeks, a period that encompassed a disastrous loss at the French Open and her bizarre breakdown during a Wimbledon doubles match in July, Williams kept herself busy assembling a woman. Gorgeous. Tan. Part Latina, maybe. She named her Heidi. Williams worked up a Facebook page, complete with bio and photos, and even provided Heidi with her own French phone number.

Then she attacked. Carefully. Knowing that her hitting partner and “brother” of eight years, Sascha Bajin, would recognize her texting style, Williams made sure to tap out flirty messages with non-Serena-like spelling and phrases. And suddenly Bajin’s phone was filling up with texts from “Heidi,” who somehow got his number from “a friend” and yearned to meet him, go to dinner, anything. “Oh, my God. This went on for almost a month and a half. It was so detailed,” Bajin says. “I mean, there was some serious master planning.”

He told Williams about this new woman, the texts, the Facebook page. Serena never cracked. And Heidi looked good. If Bajin hadn’t dialed Heidi’s phone and heard it vibrate in Serena's bag, his catfishing might have never ended. Williams had planned a fake rendezvous, more trickery. “Take pictures of him and then I was going to send them to him,” Serena laughs. “It was getting really sick, dangerous.”

And well out of character -- or at least the public character that we’ve come to believe we know. Serena’s image, after all, boils down to the simplest of complexities: She’s a walking contradiction. Her features alternate between curvaceously feminine and fiercely macho. One minute she’s playing with a visceral “hate,” the next she’s sweetly telling a crowd how much she loves it. One day she’s an unstoppable physical force, glowering, screaming and rolling opponents like a cyclone, the next Williams’ body betrays her in some new, befuddling way.

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On the face of it, so jarring a mix undermines the perception of Williams’ public regard. Though she entered Friday's U.S. Open semifinal against Ekaterina Makarova just two victories from tying Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova with 18 major titles, the sense remains that she inspires more respect than love. On Thursday a reporter asked the 32-year-old lone American hope, “Do you feel you are as appreciated in this game for all these Grand Slam titles -- or is there a sense of being underappreciated to some degree?” That a Brit would ask the same of Andy Murray at Wimbledon is unthinkable.

It’s even more curious when you consider that Williams is only the latest in a long line. Vexing contradictions have long fueled the Open era; polarizing personalities fill seats and juice ratings. The tension between John McEnroe’s beauteous game and ugly antics, between Andre Agassi’s punkish and near-saintly sensibilities, between Justine Henin's gamine appearance and titanic backhand, made them compelling in a way monochromes like Michael Chang, Ivan Lendl or Kim Clijsters could never be. Federer fans, wallowing as they do in Roger’s “class,” turn a blind eye to his flashes of temper or arrogance, but those qualities best reveal the roiling competitor within.

Still, Serena remains a unique case, even after accounting for her Hall of Fame sister, Venus, and the thought that a longtime “white” sport may still be coming to terms with the most dominant black player in history. Because while McEnroe, say, unspooled his neuroses before thousands, Williams' soft side has never been as obvious as her hard. Reflex volleys like Wednesday’s quip, when asked what the number 18 means to her (“It means legal to do some things,” Williams said. “It also means legendary”), pass largely unnoticed. But no one forgets her disingenuous offer, after threatening to shove a ball down a lineswoman’s throat following a foot-fault call in the 2009 U.S. Open semis, of “a big old hug,” and her off-court, freak injuries and illnesses sparked as much speculation as sympathy.

Yet all that will begin to fade -- and faster than you can imagine if Williams starts, as early as Sunday, piling up Grand Slam titles again. And if her “viral illness” at Wimbledon proves to be a one-off, if her body only breaks down from here on out in conventional fashion, Serena might yet be appreciated as a champion with nuance. “She’s very complicated,” says Patrick Mouratoglou, whose presence in her camp as reportedly her former paramour and current coach alone proves the point. “She really has some extra in different areas that makes her who she is, for sure. She thinks different.”

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