For a player who has never needed to apologize for her dominance on the tennis court, Serena Williams certainly seems to be apologizing for her mouth a lot lately.
For someone so great at winning, Williams comes off like a loser time and time again.
Williams was recently featured in Rolling Stone magazine and managed to turn a fluff piece about the world's greatest female athlete (ever?) into her latest public relations tour of contrition.
Most notably, Williams has apologized on multiple occasions for her on-the-record comments about the victim in the Steubenville rape case, telling the article's author, Stephen Rodrick, "I'm not blaming the girl," before ostensibly blaming the girl, going so far as to call her "lucky" that worse didn't happen to her.
Williams quickly apologized after the story came out, with someone in her camp realizing a little too late what kind of a disaster those comments would be. Yet even in her first statement of apology, she hedged, suggesting she may have been misquoted in the magazine article:
I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written – what I supposedly said – is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.
Nearly a week later, the day of her first-round match at Wimbledon, Williams clarified her apology on her website, which reads in part:
I am deeply sorry for my insensitive and misinformed comments. It was not my intention to cause the victim and her family any additional pain. But I did, and I am sorry. I am grateful to them for the opportunity to personally apologize, and I am humbled by their strength, grace, and forgiveness.
She also publicly apologized again, through assembled media at the All England Tennis Club, for her original comments and said she personally reached out to the victim and her family to apologize as well.
If you are keeping score at home, that's four apologies for one asinine comment.
Even if Williams thought the Steubenville victim did make a series of poor decisions that put herself in a bad situation—a prevailing belief for many people who followed the polarizing case—why in the world would she share those thoughts with a reporter writing a story about her for a national magazine?!?!
How can anyone be that dumb? How can someone who has been in the public spotlight since she was 14 years old be that incredibly dumb? Of course, that's not the only headline-grabbing gaffe from the Rolling Stone story. Not with Serena.
There were parts of the profile piece that Williams and her PR team should have wanted to be the focus heading into Wimbledon, like the tennis star's thoughts on body image, being—as she called it—one of the more bodacious players in a game that features a lot of tall, leggy stick figures:
"I had to get comfortable with knowing that one of my weaknesses was my weight," says Serena, eating a sandwich with no cinnamon-bun chaser. "Especially growing up with Venus, who's so tall and slim and model-like, and me, I'm thick and hips and everything." A teenager comes over for a picture with her, and Serena poses and then continues. "I used to feel like I wanted to be her. I wanted to be thin, but it wasn't me, so I had to learn that I'm going to have larger boobs. I'm going to be bigger, and just enjoy that. So I think it's good for a lot of other girls who are curvy or more bodacious to be confident in themselves."
Had that graph from the Rolling Stone story been the takeaway, Williams wouldn't have to apologize for anything.
She wouldn't be publicly and privately apologizing to Maria Sharapova—the second-best player in the world who can't hold a candle to the dominance Williams exudes on the court—for gossiping about her on the phone during the interview either, ripping Sharapova's personal life and the way she handles herself in press conferences:
"She begins every interview with 'I'm so happy. I'm so lucky' – it's so boring," says Serena in a loud voice. "She's still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it." (An educated guess is she's talking about Sharapova, who is now dating Grigor Dimitrov, one of Serena's rumored exes.)
That guess seemed very educated, considering the subsequent comments (and apologies) between Williams and Sharapova.
And yet, much like she originally hedged on her apology to a rape victim, Williams also took the opportunity in her initial apology to Sharapova to accuse Rodrick of "eavesdropping."
Of course the writer was eavesdropping! That's what the story was about…a day in the life…So when Serena was talking to her sister Venus on the phone—something she admits she does every day at that time—the topic of conversation (especially if it's about another star in the game) is certainly going to be part of the story.
What grade should Serena Williams get for how she handles herself off the court?
Seriously, after more than a decade-and-a-half in the game, does Williams still not know how this works?
The great irony of the entire Rolling Stone piece is that, somehow, when you read the entire article, Williams comes off worse throughout the rest of the feature than in either of the pull-out quotes for which she felt the need to apologize.
Williams may end her career as quite possibly the greatest female athlete in history—she is certainly in the conversation, as the most dominant force in one of the most popular women's sports in the world—and yet she comes off in this feature story as an overgrown child.
The nonsense with Sharapova is really nothing more than teenage gossip, which one might expect from, you know, a teenager and not a 31-year-old sports icon.
The entire article paints her as a child. She complains about practicing and training. She tries to get her playing partner to kiss her dog with tongue. She only seems happy when she talks about going to get her nails done. She gets excited when a new batch of Green Day T-shirts arrive.
You almost have to feel sorry for Williams, in a way. It's as if her maturity was stunted at 14 years old when she turned pro. Try to read that feature story without the name Serena Williams and without all the talk of her dominance on the tennis court. Read the events of that day in one person's life and try to come away from it with any other conclusion.
With so many athletes and celebrities who burn out after a few years in the spotlight, it's a tribute to both Williams sisters they have been able to sustain their level of excellence for so long.
For Serena, she has put in the time and effort throughout her career to get to the point where she can act like an overgrown child. She has earned that right, hasn't she?
And yet, it's really hard to feel sorry for her or excuse the juvenile petulance when she says the things she says and does the things she does. It's really hard to feel sorry for Williams when she berates officials during matches or repeatedly finds herself in catty spats with other players, freezing out younger players who happened to beat her on the court.
For a player so far and above her competition that dropping a service game, let alone a set, seems like breaking news in the tennis world, Williams has an uncanny ability to come off like a contemptuous loser.
Do a search for "Serena Williams apology" from before this Rolling Stone interview came out, and you will find a comical collection of previous apologies and non-apologies throughout her career.
Williams apologized after her 2009 outburst at the U.S. Open when she threatened to shove a ball down a linesperson's throat. Until, years later, she said she wasn't sorry for it.
She apologized after yelling at a chair umpire in 2011...until she tried to justify that tirade as well.
Why has she been able to get away with that kind of behavior? Her talent, really. She is just so good that the sport would be decimated without her. She hasn't been painted a villain because nobody wants to see the villain win time and time again.
Look at Serena Williams and some might see tennis' anti-hero, while others see a great player, and deep down a good person, who just says a lot of stupid things.
Maybe she's all of that, and more. In the Rolling Stone article, Williams rather flippantly mentions her multiple personalities, naming them different names and talking about how each comes out at certain times in her day:
I wait until Serena is in a trancelike state before asking her about her anger issues. In the recent documentary Venus and Serena, Serena listed her different personas: Summer, the one who writes thank-you notes; Psycho Serena, the tennis player; and Taquanda, whom Serena describes simply as "not a Christian." It was Taquanda, according to Serena's mom, who threw the tantrum at the U.S. Open in 2009. "Taquanda got loose," Oracene says.
Perhaps this is how Williams has been able to wriggle out of all the player spats and aggressive behavior on the court and asinine comments off the court. And nothing seems to stick to her, because she's just so damn talented at her craft.
We watch sports to witness greatness, and there haven't been many—perhaps any—as great as Serena. At some point, maybe after all the tennis is done and she doesn't have another trophy to smile behind, she will realize how important it can be to act great, not just be great.