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Salute to serena

The cushions are four deep, plumped to perfection, and Serena Williams is perched against them, resting her feet beneath the adjacent glass table with Chip, her five-month-old Yorkshire terrier, nestled in her lap.

It is difficult to get the image of Mrs Potts and Chip, the animated teapot and chipped cup from Beauty and the Beast out of one’s head, the more so when Serena snuggles up to “my boy” and plants a smacker on the top of his head.

There had been times during the day — for a lot of the year and, indeed, through much of her career — when beauty and the beast was the perfect description of Serena’s double-edged contribution to the sport over which, once more, she is the dominant force. The rankings do not say it, even if she does not say it because of the deepening respect she has for her competitors, but you know that she believes that the rankings are phooey. She is the best and intends to remain so.

A few minutes alone in her company (minders and friends are never far away) have not been enough to discover the true extent of the person, but as these minutes have added up over the years, you gain an insight into the inner strength and certainty of purpose that, if she can betray it on the court sometimes, is what has kept her going and led to a gentle erosion of the antipathy that has accompanied much of what her family have done in women’s tennis and life.

Were it not for the 31-year-old Serena, where would the sport be? When she is thriving, tennis thrives; when she is hurting, tennis hurts. The rest are extraordinarily good and getting better all the time, which is a huge testament to their talents, but it is Serena and Venus, let us not forget, who have raised the bar for the past 15 years and continue to do so.

The Australian Open in January will be Serena’s 50th grand-slam tournament, of which she has won 15, including the past two, Wimbledon and the US Open, in between which she savaged the field to win the Olympic singles gold at the All England Club, teaming up with her elder sister to take the doubles as well.

These Williams girls are incredibly tough cookies, as their father, Richard — who became a father again last month at the age of 70, when his second wife gave birth — bred them to be. With the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championship in Istanbul, she has accumulated 46 singles titles in her career. Venus won the Luxembourg Open last weekend, her 44th. Who would bet against them making it a round 100 before they mothball their rackets?

It was after that staggering defeat by Virginie Razzano in the first round of the French Open in May, and a loss two days later in the mixed doubles with Bob Bryan, that Serena sent a message to Patrick Mouratoglou, the French coach whose Parisian academy is among the most noted in tennis, asking if he could recommend some courts on which she could vent her frustrations.

SERENA’S SLIDING DOORS

“Emotionally I was going through a lot and I guess I couldn’t pull myself together at the French,” she says. “I really tried, but I put too much pressure on myself. I had been playing so well and expected to win that tournament. I wanted to do great things and it all went down. Whenever I lose I hate it. I hate losing more than I like winning.

“It was an impulse thing. I didn’t want to go home. I had a flight and I sent a BBM to Patrick asking are there any courts in Paris I can work on and he said, ‘Come to the academy’, but I said, ‘It’s a bit far, I don’t want to go.’ He said, ‘We will figure something out.’ And I just decided to cancel the flight and went and trained there. It’s funny how one little thing can change everything. I was packed and I was in that ‘I want to go, I don’t want to go’ dilemma and one little BBM text totally changed my path.

“It happens in everyone’s life. Did you ever see the movie Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow, where she misses the train and the story unfolds about the differences that would happen in her life if she caught the train and missed it? Her life would have been so different.

“My life could have been different — maybe better, maybe not. But it would have been completely, completely different. I’m happy and really excited about what the future holds.”

Having been around many courts of the world where the prospect of watching Serena play and Serena win evoked a marked sense of comme ci, comme ca, there has been a shift in emphasis. Serena is unmissable at the moment, and there is an increasing warmth and respect for her that you can feel.

“I hope so. I can only say I am who I am, and as time goes on you gain fans and you grow older and you learn and you gain respect. I understand that not everyone is going to like me. I like singers more than other singers and actors more than others — it’s the same. I don’t take anything personally, but the rewards I’m getting [in fan support] is awesome.”

But you accept that you have polarised opinion in the past, don’t you? “Oh yes, I know there has been [those who didn’t like her at all].”

There is no debate that, as Serena has raised her playing standards — a style of play that is based round an indefinable will and a serve that would dent rock — so the rest have had to step it up. As they have improved, so she has had to get better. It is a virtuous cycle.

“I don’t know if I’m a part of achieving that [a rise in standards], but we are playing more consistently and playing really hard and going for absolutely everything. I had a conversation with my dad recently about how I need to improve. With players like myself, Victoria [Azarenka] and Maria [Sharapova], we bring a lot for people to watch. A lot of people tell me they watch because I’m playing, and I’m sure the other ladies get it as well.

“We work really hard and play hard, and we play so many weeks out of the year, I think the conversation [about the lack of quality in the women’s game] is outrageous. If there is any sport today a female athlete should think about it is tennis — it is the No.1 sport for a female. For men it may be soccer, basketball, [American] football, but for women it is tennis.

“Next year will be really exciting for me. I didn’t have a fabulous start to 2012, so there’s a lot to play for, and I want to take my game to another level. If I relax and enjoy myself I can have fun, enjoy it, not get so uptight. I want to play well. I want to win, like everybody. I’m smiling, even if I wasn’t always today. I’m smiling.”

With that, she cradles Chip in her arms and wanders off to plan the next conquest. And there will be one, somewhere, believe me.