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.
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.”
Classic Photos of Serena Williams
From her humble beginnings, Serena Williams has climbed to the top of the tennis world. Here are some rare photos of the woman Billie Jean King says is the best player in tennis history.
Serena Williams playing tennis in Florida in 1992.
Growing up in Compton, Calif., Serena worked tirelessly with Venus and their father to hone her skills.
Their California roots got Serena and Venus a photo op with President Ronald Reagan and wife, Nancy.
All five of the Williams sisters were exposed to tennis at an early age, but Serena and Venus seemed to display the most interest and strongest prospects.
In 1992, Serena, then 10, and Venus, then 12, stunned the tennis world when they each won their single divisions in the Southern California Junior Sectional Championships.
After several years living in Compton, Richard Williams relocated the family to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., to enroll Serena and Venus in Rick Macci's renown tennis academy.
Serena was on hand for Venus's pro debut at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena in October 1994. The family, including mom Oracene, are pictured here before that event.
Serena was in Venus's shadow for several years, but has matured into the more accomplished player.
At 17, Serena became the first African-American woman since Althea Gibson to win a Grand Slam title.
Venus and Serena, pictured here with Lindsay Davenport and Monica Seles, helped lead the U.S. in its 4-1 Federation Cup victory against Russia in 1999.
The sisters got in touch with their patriotic side during a 2000 photo shoot for SI. Serena has won four Olympic medals while representing the U.S., three in doubles and the other in singles.
Despite their undeniable skills and stockpile of titles, the Williams sisters have been accused of slacking off when pitted against each other in competition. Venus and Serena have vehemently denied those claims. Serena leads the head-to-head series 14-11 through August 2014.
Serena lost in hair-raising fashion in the quarterfinals of the first three majors in 2001, but made the final of the U.S. Open, which she lost to Venus.
Serena capped off a busy 2001 by carrying the Olympic torch in the leadup to the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.
Julie Foudy, Summer Sanders and Serena appeared with Ronald McDonald at the World Children's Day Event in New York City in November 2002.
Serena created a stir when she competed in this cat suit at the 2002 U.S. Open.
Serena's appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno coincided with her inclusion in the SI Swimsuit issue.
Serena's swimsuit poses didn't stop with SI. Here she poses during a December shoot.
Serena had a clothing line with Puma in the early years, but signed with Nike in 2004.
Serena in action at Fairmont Stadium in Arizona, where she had won the State Farm Classic the year before.
Serena's victory over Venus in the 2003 Australian Open made her the fifth woman to hold all four Grand Slam singles titles simultaneously. The media dubbed it the Serena Slam.
Seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty showed Serena around the garage area when she attended the Ford 400 in Homestead, Fla.
Pictured with Laura Harring and David Coulthard, Serena helped present the 2003 Comeback of the Year Award to soccer phenom Ronaldo at the Laureus World Sports awards.
Serena turned heads again at the 2004 U.S. Open, when she took to the court in this outfit. Officials told her to ditch the knee-high boots.
Serena's 2005 Australian outfit wasn't quite as flamboyant, but reinforced that she does have a fashion sense about her.
Seen here playing with her two dogs, Bambi and Jackie, Serena struggled through 2005 as a variety of injuries caused her to have her first non-Top 10 finish since 1998.
Recovering from a knee injury, Serena didn't win a single tournament in 2006 and finished the year ranked 95th in the world.
Serena celebrates a point during the 2007 Australian Open finals against Maria Sharapova. Williams, who was unseeded because of her World No. 81 ranking, continued on to beat Sharapova and win the tournament.
Serena made it to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in 2007, where she lost to world No. 1 Justine Henin.
Serena unveiled her trench coat look at Wimbledon in 2008.
Serena lost 7-5, 6-4 to Venus in the finals at Wimbledon in 2008.
Serena and Venus rejoice after they beat Anabel Medina Garrigues and Virginia Ruano Pascual of Spain during the gold medal match at the Beijing Olympics.
The victory was their second consecutive gold medal in doubles.
Serena reacts after defeating Jelena Jankovic to win the 2008 U.S. Open title.