Douglas Robson

Why so serious?

NEW YORK – Novak Djokovic has devoted his life to channeling positive energy. He does yoga. He meditates. He shuns cold water because it diverts blood from his muscles. A natural showman, he jokes and jabs and feeds off the spotlight.

This year, the top-ranked Serb and U.S. Open favorite, who often sounds like a self-help guru, has talked about how marriage and fatherhood in 2014 have brought holistic balance to his life. But so far at the U.S. Open, his mood has been downright cranky.

He’s disparaged his play, calling it “sloppy” and “frustrating.” He’s groused about tepid crowd support. He’s angrily removed clothing, screamed at his box, smashed rackets and incurred umpire warnings.

On Sunday, after dropping the second set during a tough 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 defeat of Roberto Bautista Agut in the round of 16, Djokovic went an ornery step further. He walked to the changeover chair and stomped on an innocent stick poking out of his on-court bag.

Brad Gilbert, the ESPN analyst, tried to gag with Djokovic in the on-court interview about the broken racket and subsequent warning, but the Serb dismissed his line of questioning. Gilbert moved on.

“He’s normally a little more jovial,” said Gilbert.

For all the talk of Serena Williams’ quest for the Grand Slam, Djokovic’s year has been nearly as spectacular. He has more wins (61-5 to 53-2) and more titles (6 to 5) than Williams. Were it not for a sizzling hot Stan Wawrinka in the French Open final, Djokovic would also be seeking a calendar year Grand Slam after sweeping majors at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Williams is 26-0 in Slams this season; Djokovic is 25-1.

MORE: Playing Serena creates conundrum for opponents

Djokovic, 28, also has been by far the ATP Tour’s best hard-court player for the past five years. He’s captured four Australian Opens on cement in that period, and five overall. On hard courts since 2011, he is 227-25 with 26 tournament wins — incredibly, more titles than losses. But despite reaching his ninth consecutive U.S. Open semifinal by defeating Feliciano Lopez of Spain in four sets on Tuesday, he has only one trophy to show for it, in 2011.

A popular theory is that his irascibility is due to the high stakes. Michael Chang, the 1989 French Open champion, said Djokovic is more tightly wound at the majors than lesser events generally. “Part of it is that he feels pressure and he wants to do well,” said Chang, who coaches 2014 U.S. Open runner-up Kei Nishikori of Japan. “There is more on the line.”

Another idea is that the Serb, who hasn’t played his best since winning a third Wimbledon in July, is anxious about his level. Before the U.S. Open, he lost to Andy Murray and Roger Federer in the finals of lead-up events at Montreal and Cincinnati. He even appeared irritated by the surprise ambush attack Federer pulled on him in the Cincinnati final. Federer deflected his second serve almost as a half volley and rushed the net.

Todd Martin, a 1999 U.S. Open finalist who co-coached Djokovic for several months in 2009-10, said the Serb is susceptible to ornery outbursts, but less so than his younger days. Djokovic has become a master at understanding and managing his moods. But he agreed that a U.S. Open win would take “a really good year and make it one that goes down for the ages.”

Martin thinks that Djokovic’s behavior might be rooted in an unconscious motive: steeling himself for a possible clash with No. 2 Federer in the final. The Swiss is a fan-favorite wherever he goes and enjoys almost universal home-court advantage. “Maybe subconsciously it’s almost a preparation,” said Martin.

Players, of course, deal with on-court emotions in different ways. John McEnroe, labeled “Super Brat” by the British press in his cantankerous heyday, would explode – and play better. Jimmy Connors whipped crowds into a frenzy and elevated his game. Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl betrayed few feelings at all. Federer operates on a wave of silky smooth joy. “I mean, I’m not the kind of guy who wakes up angry,” 17-time major winner Federer laughed after dispatching Richard Gasquet of France in the quarterfinals Wednesday.

Although nine-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic is no longer the court jester who entertained fans with spot-on player impersonations, he has always been an emotional competitor. After outlasting Wawrinka 12-10 in the fifth set in a 2013 Australian Open quarterfinal slug fest, Djokovic Hulk-ripped his shirt in half. He likewise has shown an ability to use controversy as motivational fuel and play with his back against the wall.  He has triumphed in hostile Davis Cup settings and led Serbia to its sole team title in 2010. Twice in the U.S. Open semifinals he staved off match points against Federer to reach the final.

“The last thing that’s good for him is to suppress emotion,” said Martin. “When he’s really calm, it’s not because he’s emotionless. It’s because he’s at peace. And he still lets the positive stuff show. It’s flushes right through the system. There’s a non-coagulant quality to it.”

But Djokovic doesn’t always play the New York crowd right. In 2008, stoked by quotes from Andy Roddick about his onetime penchant for injuries and retirements, Djokovic lashed out during the on-court interview after beating Roddick in the U.S. Open quarterfinals.

“You know, Andy was saying I have 16 injuries in the last match,” Djokovic said defiantly. “Obviously, I don’t — right?” Boos rained down from spectators at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Against Bautista Agut this week, Djokovic again wasn’t feeling the love. He put his finger to his ear to solicit the crowd’s support when he broke the Spaniard for a 3-2 lead in the fourth set.

MORE: Serena downed Venus on magical night in Flushing

Later, an irritated Djokovic said: “I understand also the crowd that likes to support the underdog. They want to see a good match. But, you know, it’s on you to focus on the support that you have. At the end of the day you’re alone on the court. You got to do your job regardless of who is cheering you on or not.”

The Czechoslovakian-born Martina Navratilova said it wasn’t until she was on the downside of her career that the New York fans warmed up to her. It didn’t help that her main rival, Chris Evert, was dubbed “America’s Sweetheart.”

“I can relate to that because I was in that boat a long time ago,” said the 18-time Grand Slam champion, who became a U.S. citizen in 1981.

Navratilova, who wore her emotions on her sleeve, said pandering too much to New York fans could backfire. “It can come off as whiny,” she said. But a cranky Djokovic could win the title. She expects him to tone it down now that he is within sniffing distance of the championship. “He needs to calm down a little bit because otherwise it’s too much energy wasted,” Navratilova said.

Despite his sour mood, Djokovic is where he wants to be: Six sets from the hardware. In Friday’s semifinals, he meets last year’s champion, No. 9 seed Marin Cilic of Croatia. Federer faces No. 5 seed Wawrinka in the other all-Swiss semifinal.

Djokovic is 13-0 against the 6-foot-6 Cilic, including a straight-set defeat in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. He will be a big favorite. He knows he can play better than he has so far.

His mood may not matter. And maybe there’s a simpler explanation: lack of sleep.

“Maybe it’s because of kids,” laughed Chang, who has two young daughters.

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    Spoiler conundrum

    NEW YORK — “Even if I play her, I almost want her to win,” Genie Bouchard said on Thursday following a first-round doubles win at the U.S. Open.

    Last year’s Wimbledon finalist from Canada, who advanced to the last 16 in singles on Friday, added with a chuckle: “I’m joking, but …”

    Bouchard’s sentiment is not uncommon on the grounds in Queens, where No. 1 Serena Williams is now four matches away from the first season sweep of all four majors in 27 years.

    Williams fought nerves and a plucky Bethanie Mattek-Sands to power into the fourth round 3-6, 7-5, 6-0 on Friday night — the eighth time she’s won after dropping the opening set at a major this year.

    Even No. 2 Simona Halep of Romania said on the eve of the Open that she wouldn’t mind seeing Williams become the fourth woman in history and first since Steffi Graf in 1988 to complete the Grand Slam.

    “If I will not be in the finals, I want her to win,” Halep said. “If I will be in the finals with her, I want to win.”

    With history on the line, potential spoilers walk a fine psychological line — akin to the complex feelings that arise when playing a friend.

    Williams’ opponents want to win, but caught in the super charged media maelstrom of New York, they could feel an unconscious desire not to disappoint public sentiment.

    “It’s like spoiling the perfect game with two out in the ninth,” says 1978 U.S. Open finalist Pam Shriver.

    Plus, Williams is on home soil. The 33-year-old is almost sure to play her remaining matches on 23,771-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, as she did Friday evening in front of a packed house. Her New York embrace will be full throttle, and full throat.

    “You don’t want to be the one,” said No. 18 seed Andrea Petkovic of Germany after beating Elena Vesnina of Russia to reach the third round Thursday.

    Petkovic, one of the WTA’s most outspoken and articulate players, described the phenomenon as a kind of psychological osmosis.

    “It’s something that the media creates and it settles into the players subconsciously,” the former French Open semifinalist said. “If you ask me, of course I will tell you I believe in beating her, right? But everybody is asking about the Grand Slam and you feel like that’s a huge piece of history. And also she has reached so much you kind of want her to reach that goal. That’s the problem. It’s so weird.”

    Shriver, an analyst for ESPN, recalls internal discomfort when she upset Martina Navratilova, her good friend and doubles partner, in the quarterfinals at the 1982 U.S. Open.

    Navratilova had defected from Czechoslovakia and become a naturalized U.S. citizen the year before. It was the one major the eventual 18-time Grand Slam champion had yet to win.

     “I definitely felt some conflict in the middle of the match, but not for long,” said Shriver.

    Tennis is an individual sport with an entrenched me-first culture. So the flip side is extra incentive. Toppling 21-time major winner Williams on the cusp of cementing her status as the greatest of all time? That could redefine a career.

    “You would be world-famous if you stop her,” said 1988 U.S. Open winner Mats Wilander, who comments for Eurosport.

    Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands lost to Williams 7-6 (5), 6-3 on Wednesday night in her first match on Ashe.

    She said history, or thwarting it, never entered her mind.

    “That is not really bothering me at all,” she said. “I’m just thinking about the match and how I want to play.”

    Some other players echoed that mindset when asked about the possibility of facing Williams with so much at stake.

    “I wanted to win the match,” said Spain’s Garbine Muguruza, referring to her runner-up finish to Williams at Wimbledon. “I don’t care if it has to do with history.”

    American veteran Bethanie Mattek-Sands said she relished the chance to “mess up the draw a little bit” before facing Williams. She seemed uncowed on Friday. Her aggressive game plan flustered Williams, who finally pulled away and rolled off the final eight games.

    At the net, Mattek-Sands told Williams she would be cheering for her to win the tournament. Whether that slipped into her psyche during the match is impossible to say.

    Swede Wilander predicted that the tricky psychological pressure would mount as Williams moved through the draw. He said it could be hard to embrace the challenge in the atmosphere on Ashe.

    “The problem is that I don’t think anyone is going to go out there and give it the fist pump,” he said. “I don’t think anyone dares do that.”

    Then there is most awkward scenario of all: a potential all-Williams clash in the quarterfinals. Venus Williams remained on course Friday by ousting teenager Belinda Bencic of Switzerland 6-3, 6-4. Bencic is one of only two women to beat Serena in 53 matches this season.

    “I think playing her sister is so difficult even though they’ve done it for so long now,” said U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez during Friday’s ESPN telecast.

    Asked about it Friday, Venus told reporters: “Of course I have thought about it, and I would like us to have that moment so we can see how it is. We both have to get there. I think we both have a great opportunity to do so, but there are no givens. So the whole focus is, win your match one by one.”

    Petkovic, who is in the opposite side of the draw, wasn’t overly concerned about how she would deal with the psychological tug-of-war if she played Serena. They can only meet in the final.

    “I hope I can talk to you about that on Friday next week, and we can discuss it further more,” she laughed.

    This one’s for dad

    MASON, Ohio – By now, the record books are riddled with figures attached to Serena Williams – what’s she’s done, what she’s doing, what she might do. So many, in fact, that the WTA’s web wizards felt it necessary to compile a unique page dedicated to her progress at the U.S. Open. It’s called “The Serena Williams Stats You Need.”

    Williams, 33, is playing for so much. History. Records. Recognition. Some kind of über cultural significance that is hard to wrap one’s head around.

    What the numbers won’t tell you: She’s playing for something closer to home – and heart. She’s playing for dad.

    As top-ranked Williams launches her quest Monday night in New York to become the first player in 27 years to sweep all four Grand Slams in a season, she will do so with countless friends and family at her side.

    Not Richard Williams.

    Richard, the colorful and controversial architect of the most improbable sports story around – the George S. Patton of the Williams invasion — will be watching from Florida, where he lives with his new wife and child.

    “He’s been the most important person in my career,” Williams said in an interview this month at her final U.S. Open tune-up near Cincinnati. “I do miss my dad obviously. I miss him all the time. I call him. I try to reach out to him a lot. He calls me. He watches my matches. He still tells me things that I’m not doing right.”

    With little training or knowledge, Richard raised two African-American outsiders from gritty Compton, Calif., to be world-beating, transformative figures. When Serena and Venus Williams retire, they will have left a white-dominated sport, and the cultural landscape, forever altered.

    “It all started with an idea,” said Serena. “It was his idea. It’s changed sports. It’s changed history.”

    Richard is 73. He is getting on. The family does not speak much about his health. Once a fixture at tournaments — snapping pictures of his daughters, holding court with reporters, relaxing with his trademark cigarillo — Richard travels little.

    During the Sony Open in Miami this spring, the family patriarch was rushed to the hospital for an undisclosed problem.

    A few days later after Serena won the Miami title for a record eighth time, she said on court: “I would like to dedicate this to my dad. He’s not here. I miss him. Dad, I hope you’re watching. I love you daddy. This one’s for you.”

    This was not unusual. Increasingly, Serena acknowledges her father in her post-match comments.

    Serena says what Richard did for her and Venus is a motivating factor in all they do. But she shies away from making it a public crusade. She feels no particular urgency to honor his role in her success.

    “If I think like that, I might feel stress,” said Williams, who is gunning for her fourth consecutive U.S. Open and seventh overall. “And he doesn’t think of it like that. I don’t think he would ever want me to think of anything like that.”

    The numbers will tell you this: They will tell you that this is a moment in Serena’s career, a culmination of hard work, hype and outsized resonance. The stakes are high. Serena is seven matches away from the first calendar year Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988. A win on home soil, where she won her maiden Grand Slam title, would also tie Graf’s post-1968 Open era mark of 22 majors. It would leave her within sniffing distance of Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24. A victory would cement – hermetically – her status as the greatest female player of all.

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    It’s a moment Richard Williams would likely be pained to miss in person. Remember when Venus won her first of five Wimbledons in 2000? Richard danced atop a television booth and held up a handwritten sign that said: “It’s Venus’ Party and No One Else was Invited.” It was a crude but telling attempt to say, Hey, we did it our way.

    Serena’s 2015 season has been difficult to classify. She has run roughshod over her competitors. She has just two losses in 50 matches. She is undefeated in her last 15 finals, including eight at majors. She carries a 52-5 record versus the top 10 since Wimbledon of 2012.

    And yet she has looked vulnerable. She survived spotty play, sickness and drama-filled episodes at the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon before lifting to another level and sealing victory.

    “I don’t really know how this all came about,” she said.

    Serena downplays the moment. She says winning the Grand Slam won’t define her. She resists attempts to pigeonhole her accomplishments. She’s not done.

    “I think my tennis speaks for itself,” she explained. “I don’t need any definition. I don’t need anyone explaining me a certain way or by a certain thing. I go on the court. I work hard. I do the best that I can to be the best that I can be. I go out and I win.”

    Deep down this moment isn’t just for her.

    Isha Price, Serena’s half-sister, said Saturday in New York that Richard’s absence is likely stirring Serena. (They share a mother, Oracene Price, who is divorced from Richard).

    “I think that’s accurate,” Price said. “You definitely do get the sense based on the things that she’s said historically that that’s how she feels.”

    Richard is doing fine, Price added, “but obviously it’s something that we’re all concerned about.”

    Serena marvels at the journey initiated by their father.

    “Who would have thought that he could have raised two black girls to play a sport that African Americans haven’t typically done well in?” she said in an interview earlier this year. “Every time I stand out there, I think that I wouldn’t be here if somebody didn’t have that vision for me. I don’t know if I would have a vision like that for my kids.”

    The time has come. Serena knows everyone will be gunning for her. They always do.

    “Serena doesn’t get easy matches ever,” said seven-time major winner Venus, 15 months her elder. “Ever.”

    Serena opens her campaign against Russia’s Vitalia Diatchenko. No one knows how the fortnight might unfold. She could win. She could lose.

    To prevail would be to honor her father on the grandest stage, his life’s work writ large under the electric lights of a stadium named for another black pioneer, Arthur Ashe.

    Either way, Serena is secure that her father has her back.

    “He always tells me I’m so good and he’s so proud of me and he can’t imagine how good I am,” she said. “He always says, ‘Don’t put pressure on yourself. Be happy with what you have.’ I’m always like, ‘Oh I could have done this better.’”

    She stopped and paused.

    “I think I should have a conversation with him right now,” she said.

    Perhaps the dialogue has already begun.

    Serenity now

    PARIS – “Anything is possible.”

    That was the takeaway, Serena Williams told me, from what might go down as her most arduous, and wackiest, Grand Slam title.

    Williams expressed this to me less 48 hours after battling the flu and holding off Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic in three tough sets to win her third French Open championship and 20th Grand Slam title.

    At 33, the age-defying American is halfway to a calendar year Grand Slam and closing in on Steffi Graf’s Open-era record of 22, which she could tie at the U.S. Open later this year. At this rate, Margaret Smith Court’s all-time mark of 24 appears in jeopardy, too.

    I met Williams on Monday at the newer of her two apartments in Paris. She traded up from a two-bedroom apartment a couple of years ago, which she says is “still on the market.”

    Her four-bedroom flat in the eighth arrondissement sits along the more residential section of Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, one of the city’s swankiest shopping streets and a short distance from landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe and the Élysée Palace.

    When I arrived, she was lounging on a couch in the living room of her apartment with her well-traveled Yorkshire terrier Chip, who was having the run of the place. She was dressed in an orange and white striped Nike top and short, gray athletic shorts. Her hair was pulled up into a ponytail.

    She apologized for the “mess” in the apartment (it wasn’t particularly) and the lack of food. She offered me a drink. “I make really good coffee,” she said, and then prepared me a mean double espresso.

    There were no handlers present. No agents. No bodyguards. No family except her half-sister, Lyndrea, and a male assistant who popped in and out.

    Williams, still coughing and sniffling, was fresh off a night of low-key revelry. She looked worn out. She had hosted a team dinner and then met up with men’s French Open winner Stan Wawrinka at the Le Royal Monceau hotel.

    She wanted to celebrate harder but wasn’t up to it yet, so they hung out for a couple of hours. “We’re good friends so I was happy for him and we both wear the same watch (Audemars Piguet),” she said.

    We sat in her kitchen and living room for the next hour and discussed injuries (I recently cut the same tendon in my foot that sidelined Williams in 2010-11), religion, family, and of course tennis.

    When we were done, this was my takeaway: Williams – the game’s most ruthless competitor — is mellowing. Here’s the crazier part: It’s not hurting her game. It might actually be helping.

    This will create cognitive dissonance for those that witnessed Williams the last two weeks. She dropped numerous F-bombs when she let a big lead go against Safarova. She bellowed C’mons. She screamed at the heavens. She fell behind in match after match and needed five three-setters to win the title, the most of her career.

    Williams has forged a legendary career by pushing herself to victory no matter the circumstances. She operates somewhere between force of will and rage. The fight is intact. But internally, Williams is not the same. Not exactly Zen, but swinging her samurai sword with more inner peace. Deadly, but calm.

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    As we chatted, Williams returned to the period four years ago when she was sidelined for 11 months. She severed a tendon in her right foot on glass after winning the 2010 Wimbledon and re-injured it by trying to come back too soon. Later, she developed blood clots and was rushed to the hospital for an emergency surgery to remove a hematoma in her abdomen.

    “I definitely think it reset how I feel and how I look at things,” Williams said. “Also how you appreciate things. I was knock, knock, knocking on the door. You just start to think, OK, this is the bigger picture. Different things are more important than winning a tennis match, and when you go out to play these people you realize I’m going to do the best I can, when I can, how I can, but it’s not the end of the world. I’m still going to go home. I have a supportive family. Great parents. Great sisters. Wonderful dogs.”

    Williams said she has started to see things outside the court in a less adversarial way. She mentioned the retired four-time Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters of Belgium, one of the tour’s most affable and popular players. “I could see she had that philosophy and it makes a lot of sense,” she said.

    There is no question Williams has been a more dominant player in the four years since her injury/illness absence. In the 61 tournaments since Williams returned to the WTA tour after 11 months in June 2011, she has won 30 titles, seven majors and owns a .924 winning percentage (242-20), according to the WTA. That compares to 11 titles and six majors at an .800 clip (180-45) in the 61 events prior to her extended layoff.

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    Some credit also must to go to her coach, the Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou. They teamed up three years ago when Serena was dumped out of the first round of the French Open (her only opening-round loss at a major to date). Their partnership has accounted for seven titles in the last 12 majors and his ability to consistently push her has hastened her ascent to the top at a time when most players are trailing off.

    “Not bad,” said Serena of the tally. She added: “What’s most impressive is that he really has a way to motivate me … He reminds me of the big picture. He’ll say like, ‘In a week you’ll be fine.’ Or ‘You’ll think about this in two years and you’ll be really happy that you were able to give it your all.’”

    Williams, who has owned an apartment in Paris since 2007 and speaks passable French, showed me around her place. It was a hodge-podge of period furniture, tennis gear and knick-knacks. A fan’s painting sat of Williams sat on the mantelpiece. The walls and shelves were decorated with family photographs and one of her own abstract creations, which she called “the last of my expressions.”

    Much of the décor, in tones of black, white and gray, are exact copies of rooms she’s seen on Pinterest, the online social scrapbooking site. “I’m obsessed with it,” she said.

    Winning a true Grand Slam – last accomplished by Germany’s Graf in 1988 — would mean a lot. At this stage of her record-breaking career, Williams says it isn’t her top priority. With multiple Olympic gold medals and fistfuls of majors, it would no longer define her. In a way, it could hinder her.

    “Obviously I would love to do it,” she said. “But I feel like if I do it, I would want to retire. I don’t want to retire actually because I want to play Olympics and play Australia. I have a really cute outfit next year,” she laughed. “I can’t wait for that. I just want to keep going right now.”

    A Jehovah’s Witness, Williams rarely discusses her religion, though she regularly gives it a mention in post-victory speeches. She said she attends church regularly when at home and credits her faith for helping her stay centered when many other childhood prodigies burned out. “I’m not saying that’s what they needed,” she said. “I’m saying it kept me level-headed. It keeps me balanced.”

    Williams knows she can be a polarizing figure. Increasingly, she lets the criticism slide. Many fans on social media disparaged the American during her semifinal comeback win over Timea Bacsinszky. Williams appeared lethargic and troubled between points but found the energy to reel off the final 10 games of the 4-6, 6-3 6-0 victory. “Quite frankly it doesn’t bother me,” she said.

    Williams said she didn’t do anything special in the match and was unable to move for 45 minutes in the locker room afterwards, where retired 2013 Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli, now working for French TV, took off her shoes and unwrapped her ankle tape.

    “I guess people say I’m dramatic but I would like to see them play with the flu against a player who was having an amazing year and playing really well,” said Williams, sounding more weary than defensive. “I think it was courageous. I could have, and most people would have, pulled out before that semifinal or the final.”

    Are we really seeing a new, calmer, Williams?

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    It’s not only her words that point to a shift. In recent times, she befriended the likes of Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka, two of her fiercest rivals. She speaks more openly of her foibles. She is more willing to admit mistakes (and not with empty promises of a “big ‘ol hug”). Not least of all, this spring she returned to the tournament at Indian Wells, Calif., for the first time in 14 years following a racially tinged incident that shook Williams and her family to the core. “I never would have gone if they didn’t support it,” she said of her father, Richard, and her older sister, Venus.

    Serena said Venus might even be back next year. She didn’t want to put words in her mouth, but told me it was “definitely not” out of the question. “It just didn’t work out for her because she was playing all those other tournaments,” she said.

    Next up, of course, is Wimbledon. Grass is perfect for the American’s big serve and first-strike tennis, but she hasn’t gone past the fourth round since 2012 when she won her fifth London title. She said she was hoping to improve on recent results and is excited to try to equal her “Serena Slam” of 2002-03, when she won four consecutive majors at the age of 21.

    “People keep forgetting I’m holding three, which is pretty awesome,” the reigning U.S. Open, Australian Open and French Open winner said. The chance to replicate it again 12 years later proves her longevity. “Those kind of feats mean a lot to me,” she added.

    Her last and best chance for a calendar year Grand Slam or another Serena Slam could bite the dust.  She could lose at Wimbledon. She could falter later this summer at the U.S. Open. She could get injured, or sick. Graf and Court might never be caught. Then again, she might equal or surpass them, and more. Either way it might be OK.

    Anything is possible.


    There are moments in a career – after all the sweat, the sacrifice, the winning — when an athlete suddenly transports to a new level. And sometimes you can tell: Even they are slightly unprepared.

    This was Novak Djokovic in 2011. Once the perennial whipping boy to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Djokovic arrived at the French Open four years ago undefeated, brimming with confidence and in unfamiliar territory. “He was a little bit in a trance,” says his former assistant coach and close friend Dusan Vemic, who has known the Serb since he was six.

    What seemed like an inevitable collision with record-setting French Open champion Rafael Nadal never materialized. A vintage Federer snapped Djokovic’s 41-match winning streak in the semifinals. But Djokovic had played edgy tennis. He looked like a man still operating in a newfound haze of unlocked potential, a young Peter Parker still grasping his Spider Man powers.

    Djokovic went on to win three of four Grand Slam tournaments during the rest of his magical 2011. By every metric that matters in the last four-plus years – titles (35), Slams (7), year-end No. 1 finishes (3) – he has been the ATP Tour’s dominant force, with no signs of slowing. The French Open, mostly due to Nadal, is the one major he has yet to own.

    Djokovic will again alight at Roland Garros, which begins Sunday, on a similar opening-season tear. He is undefeated on clay and riding a 22-match winning streak, including his fifth title of the year at Rome on Sunday where he smothered No. 2 Federer 6-4, 6-3. It’s tempting to compare 2015 with 2011, to summon that very French feeling of déjà vu. This would be a disservice.

    It’s tempting also to heavily tilt towards top-ranked Djokovic, as the odds-makers have, because his closest rivals appear shaky, aging or untested. Nadal? With more losses on clay in 2015 than the entire five-year period from 2006 to 2010, he’s just not himself. Federer? He’s nearly 34 and four years past his most recent French Open final. Andy Murray? He captured his first two career claycourt titles this month.

    This, too, would be a disservice.

    MORE: 2015 French Open TV Schedule on NBC

    Djokovic could and should leave Paris with the Coupe des Mousquetaires – his professional holy grail — for only one reason. He is prepared. Uber-prepared. More prepared than perhaps any athlete roaming the planet. He leaves no rock, stone or pebble unturned.

    He is fanatical about what he puts in his body and how he orders his life. He famously gave up gluten in 2011. He forgoes coffee for tea and mostly avoids his favorite indulgence, chocolate (though he likes to pass them out at press conferences). He drinks water only at certain temperatures and ingests exotic forms of honey, berries and grasses. He does yoga. He meditates. He stretches and stretches and stretches – fitting for the sport’s resident Gumby.

    His well-oiled entourage includes not one but two coaches, Marian Vajda and last year’s high-profile hire, Boris Becker; longtime trainer Gebhard Phil-Gritsch; PR manager Edoardo Artaldi; and at times his wife, Jelena, their son, Stefan, plus two miniature poodles, Pierre and Tesla. Every move is carefully orchestrated. “This is not someone who wants a passing grade,” says Tennis Channel commentator Justin Gimelstob. “This is someone who goes for extra credit.”

    Djokovic is not only an obsessive planner and strategist. He is a dreamer. A seeker. This is the other secret to his ascension, the spiritual ying to his determined yang. The boy who grew up near ski slopes in Serbia, the son of pizza restaurateurs, the kid that had no business imagining he could be the world’s best at anything – he never stopped striving and believing. The formula hasn’t changed, even when he reached the top in the best era men’s tennis has ever seen. “He is actually trying to become a better tennis player every moment,” says Vemic. “He is never in any comfort zone.”

    Djokovic speaks like a man whose destiny extends well beyond the confines of a tennis court. Sure, titles, money and fame fuel his desire. But as he said recently, his goal is to be something wholly more rounded, someone “grateful,” “humble,” and “aware.”

    “I don’t think a champion is defined only by results that he makes in his sport,” Djokovic told reporters following his fourth title in Rome Sunday. “To be called a champion, I think you need to be a complete person that has a strong character, that has a strong sense of compassion, a strong sense of intrinsic values that he nurtures and responsibility that he carries everywhere he goes on and off the court.”

    “I’d say it’s a very a holistic approach,” he added.

    Agrees Gimelstob: “He’s not just a guy holing up in a hotel room thinking about forehands and backhands. He’s doing other things that he believes will help him become a better tennis player even if they are not tennis related. He is a deep thinker. He wants to be a well-rounded person, loving deeply, being loved deeply, being open to influences but also having strong opinions. The guy is someone who really wants to leave his mark on the world beyond hitting tennis balls. He’s very enlightened.”

    Djokovic always sensed he was destined for greatness. As a child, he meticulously packed his racket bag as if preparing for Wimbledon. He declared on Serbian TV that he’d rather practice than play games in order to reach No. 1 in the world someday. As a teenager, he left his modest family behind in war-torn Serbia. At the German academy where he trained, fellow players remember him as earnest, acetic, resolute.

    Vemic, 38, a Davis Cup teammate who coached and traveled with Djokovic from mid-2011 through mid-2013, says his single-mindedness was almost a hindrance. He competed for only one thing: himself. Since getting married and becoming a father last year, the indisputable face of Serbia has added balance to his driven existence.

    “It’s like a person that has one love but then gets another hobby,” says Vemic. “You start to feel less overly emotional about the one thing and suddenly you are better and more productive. Novak is more in the moment. He brings a higher level of tennis because he plays more free.”

    Statistically, Djokovic is competing pretty much with the same offensive and defensive efficiency as his marquee 2011, with two notable exceptions: He’s serving slightly bigger (1.1 more aces per match) and has been less successful breaking opponents (35% in 2015 vs. 43% in 2011, but that’s still second best on tour).

    Those figures do not complete the picture. Djokovic is fitter, faster, and hitting the ball bigger. He has added dimensions, such as a reliable slice backhand and a deft drop shot. His flexibility, court coverage and return game remain the class of men’s tennis. And under the influence of six-time major winner Becker his transition game and volleys have improved.

    Mentally, he no longer needs to worry about staying in the bubble of momentum. He knows how good he is and what he needs to do to win – witness his near-perfect 10-1 record in deciding-set matches in 2015. At crunch time, he is tapping into his “database of excellence,” says Gimelstob.

    The numbers back this up. Djokovic last tasted defeat in February to Federer on a fast hardcourt. More impressively, the Serb, who captured the first of this year’s majors at the Australian Open, is riding a 37-match winning streak at the crème-de-la-crème tournaments: Grand Slams, the year-ending ATP World Tour Finals, and Masters 1000s dating back to November (Paris-Bercy, Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, Rome). Translation: He brings his best stuff for the most important events. “In 2011 he played great all the time,” says three-time French Open champion Mats Wilander of Sweden. “Now he can play 90 percent to his ability and he will likely win the next three Grand Slams.”

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    With eight majors, Djokovic is already tied for fifth place in the Open era with Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi. He recently eclipsed Nadal for total weeks at No. 1 (147 and counting, sixth place all time). If his greatness has been underappreciated, it’s easy to see why. He does not play with Federer’s artistic flair, Nadal’s bestial physicality, Murray’s entertaining angst. His methodical baseline style does not create stylistic contrasts. He is seamless. Economical. Stifling. Uncommonly stable. His excellence it tougher to grasp.

    If, as the bookies predict, he finally wins in Paris, fasten up. Djokovic is the defending champion at Wimbledon. He is without question the best hardcourt player in the world, which is the surface at the U.S. Open. Tennis could have one of the best storylines in all of sports this summer – the quest for a calendar-year Grand Slam, last achieved on the men’s side by Rod Laver in 1969. No man has won the first two legs since Jim Courier in 1992. Wilander believes Djokovic has the best chance of anyone he can remember. “I would be more surprised if he doesn’t than if he does at this moment,” he says.

    Overwhelming favorite? His tournament to lose? Not everyone agrees. Primarily, they point to Nadal, and rightly so. The 28-year-old Spaniard has beaten Djokovic all six times they have met in Paris, including the 2012 and 2014 finals. The nine-time French Open winner is still the King of Clay for good reason.

    Nadal is a different player in Paris. The wide-open spaces of Court Philippe Chatrier accentuate his defensive skills. The best-of-five format highlights his physical and mental superiority. With a 66-1 record, he will step on the grounds and instantly channel success. “Regardless of what anybody says to me,” Federer told reporters in Rome last week, “he is the favorite at the French Open. The guy’s only lost once in 10 years. I’m sorry.”

    No apologies necessary. But sorry, the crushed brick surface of Roland Garros is smoothed for Djokovic. He turns 28 on Friday. He is in his prime. He is clear of mind. He can balance tennis with family, country, and other “holistic” pursuits. He controls his fate as never before. Unlike 2011, he is not surfing a momentum-fueled run, discovering the depths of his talent or facing the pressure of a perfect season (though at 35-2, he’s darn close). He is Spidey, fully evolved and embracing the web-slinger’s credo: “With great power there must also come great responsibility.”

    As he said on Sunday: “I don’t think I need to go and do anything more special for Roland Garros.” That sounds like a self-possessed man that has harnessed his talent. That is what makes him more potent than ever.

    Her own path, her shared history

    INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – “At this point I would play Indian Wells — anything to get back!”

    It was March of 2011. Serena Williams called out these words from her front doorstep as I left her house in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. We had just concluded an interview, her first in months, since slashing her foot on glass after Wimbledon and suffering from a pulmonary embolism that traveled from her leg to her lungs. The month before, Williams had been rushed to the hospital to remove a grapefruit-sized hematoma from her stomach. She was rattled. She was desperate to rejoin the tour.

    Her unprompted remark was a joke, surely, and she laughed when she said it. It showed the American’s smart-aleck sense of irony. But it also revealed that Williams remained mindful of the uncompromising stance she and her older sister Venus Williams had adopted. Caught in the crossfire of a racially tinged incident, they would never return to the tournament at Indian Wells. In hindsight, a more serious internal debate, conscious or inchoate, was percolating.

    By now, everyone in the tennis universe and more remote sports galaxies knows that Serena will compete at the BNP Paribas Open this week for the first time since 2001. Her first match in 14 years will be under the lights on Friday night against Monica Niculescu. Venus — her blood, her protector, her confidante and tennis soul mate — will not. Neither will her father, Richard, the other protagonist in the ugly drama.

    On Feb. 4, shortly after winning her 19th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, top-ranked Serena announced on her decision to end the Williams family boycott and accept a wild card. Serena explained how the experience had left scars, but 13 years later she “felt different.” The overarching theme: forgiveness.

    “This haunted me for a long time,” she wrote. “It haunted Venus and our family as well. But most of all, it angered and saddened my father. He dedicated his whole life to prepping us for this incredible journey, and there he had to sit and watch his daughter being taunted, sparking cold memories of his experiences growing up in the South.”

    “There are some who say I should never go back,” she added. “There are others who say I should’ve returned years ago. I understand both perspectives very well and wrestled with them for a long time. I’m just following my heart on this one.”

    There are multiple versions of what happened at Indian Wells in 2001 (I did not attend). Joel Drucker, the longtime tennis writer, reported one of the most even-handed summaries here. This much is certain: Serena, then 19, advanced to the final when Venus withdrew from their semifinal with an injury, not long before match time. Fans were not pleased. Conspiracy theories of match fixing ensued, fueled by comments from Russia’s Elena Dementieva. At the final, fans booed Venus and her father, Richard Williams, as they took their seats. Richard later said he heard racial epithets from the mostly white crowd. Some spectators jeered Serena during the contest, which she won against Kim Clijsters. The family vowed never to set foot there again.

    Serena’s decision to return to the Southern California desert can, and will, be viewed from multiple lenses. Clemency? In a sports culture where payback and scandal rule – why not? Righteousness? On the 50th anniversary of the Selma march and ongoing divisive relations between law enforcement and minorities — absolutely. Homecoming? Indian Wells is a two-hour drive from Compton, Calif., where the sisters grew up. Opportunism? It wouldn’t be beyond Serena or her handlers to exploit a public-relations opening.

    I see it as through a different prism. I see it as the ultimate act of individuation.

    From their childhood in gang-scarred Compton to the hallowed lawns of Wimbledon, where each has won five singles championships, one constant has ruled the Williams sisters’ lives: family. Richard, the strict descendant of sharecroppers, instilled in his two youngest daughters a sense of duty, respect and most of all, filial loyalty.

    Tight-knit barely does justice to the family from Compton. No matter who coached Serena and Venus, or for how many years, credit for building their games always circled back to their parents, Richard and Oracene. No matter whom they tussled with on the court, from Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport to Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, their toughest opponent was always one another. If one retired, they have often said, the other would too. They only play doubles together. Their mutual devotion is beyond dispute.

    Family fealty never wavers. “They gave me everything,” Serena, now 33, gushed about her parents on ESPN shortly after defeating Maria Sharapova for her sixth Australian Open crown last month. Neither was in attendance. “They gave me the whole opportunity to be here….Growing up, I wasn’t the richest but I had a rich family in spirit and support.”

    The tribal quality is best expressed by the annual tournament the sisters host. The “Williams Invitational” is a private, hit-and-giggle tournament-cum-party in South Florida for family and close friends – invitation only, of course. Could anything say more about an us-versus-them worldview? “We were outsiders,” is how Serena begins her essay.

    On most fronts, the sisters, 15 months apart, have walked in near lock step. Of Indian Wells, Venus said it would take an “act of god” for her to return. Serena often swore the same. The sisters have been asked ad nauseum if they would end the ban. The party line has been consistent: Not in this lifetime.

    Compared to the more circumspect Venus, Serena has always been the live wire – “meaner,” her father once famously said, but also more raw, unpredictable, dangerous. Still, well into their pioneering careers, they were often lumped together as the “Williams sisters,” as if they were professional Siamese twins, conjoined by their tennis success. “They are very different people,” says Maiken Baird, one of the filmmakers of the 2013 documentary “Venus and Serena.”

    The sisters increasingly forged discrete identities as they grew from braided and beaded upstarts to giants of the game. They have different sponsors, different agents, and disparate outside business interests. They rarely enter the same lower-tier events. When not globetrotting, they had shared a house in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., but each is now building a separate home.

    When it came to Indian Wells, Serena showed signs of divergence. There was her offhand remark to me in 2011. At last year’s Australian Open, she told reporters the idea of returning crossed her mind after seeing the film “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” Not long after, her coach Patrick Mouratoglou let the cat out of the bag, saying Serena had considered a return the previous year. Then the American left her name on the 2014 tournament entry list, which she never had before. She later dismissed the whole incident as a clerical error.

    There is no mistake this time, and no going back. But why take a chance? Why risk disrupting family harmony? Why come back? Why come back without Venus? Serena doesn’t need to play. She doesn’t need the money or the title. She doesn’t need the positive P.R. Frankly, she couldn’t care less what others think.

    * * *

    [parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Venus and Richard Williams in the stands at Indian Wells in 2001. (Getty Images)”]

    Ultimately, only Serena knows the reasons for her return, apart from what she has said and written and what she will say in the days ahead. I am not part of her inner circle. I have not discussed it with her. However, for the past few years I have had a closer seat than many to her moods and motivations. I saw Serena, ripped and unflappable, defeat Venus in a fourth consecutive Grand Slam final to complete the 2002-03 “Serena Slam” in Melbourne. I spent time with her in L.A. at one of her most vulnerable moments. I sat courtside at the 2009 U.S. Open when the enraged American threatened to choke a lineswoman with a tennis ball. I visited the bleary-eyed star at her Paris pied-a-terre the morning after her second French Open title in 2013. I was at Wimbledon last year when she stumbled around the court in a daze before forfeiting a doubles match with what she later called a viral illness. I’ve seen some of her best and some of her worst.

    She inspires and repels in equal measure. She takes no prisoners and doesn’t pretend otherwise. Her champion’s heart is unquestioned. But she has long straddled the boundary between empowerment and entitlement, and not always with the same fluid grace of her service motion. Her motto is simply: “Play on and be damned! I’m here to win, and nothing else!”

    Serena is taking the same attitude to Indian Wells. Her return is a smash-mouth assertion of independence and individuality, now encompassing her closest and dearest. This is Serena proclaiming – not to the media, not to fans, not to sponsors – but to her family: I am my own person. I am an adult. I make my own decisions. Deal with it.

    Chris Evert believes this process accelerated when Serena joined forces in 2012 with Frenchman Mouratoglou, who runs a tennis academy outside Paris. “I think her independence started then for sure,” says 18-time major winner Evert, who also had a controlling father and older sister who played on the pro tour. “That was the first time she went to a resource outside of the family that her dad didn’t have control over. That goes with the evolution of her being her own person.”

    Venus, typically, has shed little light on her true feelings. Were there heated debates with her sister? Discussion of a joint return? Family powwows to hash it out? Asked in Dubai last month if she would also return to Indian Wells, the 34-year-old offered little. “I made my schedule up,” Venus said. “I think I’m entered in Miami, and that’s pretty much what it is. I haven’t really given a lot of thought to (playing Indian Wells). I have just been focusing on this year.”

    How did she receive Serena’s lightning-rod decision to return? “She just said, ‘I might be playing there,’” said Venus flatly. “I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ That’s pretty much the conversation. I just respect every decision she makes, pretty much. It’s nothing complicated about it.”

    We may never know what Serena and Venus think, or even Richard, whose fiery sense of racial injustice has always been front and center. “Silence in the face of fevered speculation is a Williams family trait,” Sports Illustrated’s S.L. Price penned in a trenchant Serena story last summer.

    So too, Price pointed out, are “mixed messages.” Among the many lessons Serena learned from her fanatical father is that words are weapons. They can be used to obfuscate. Serena can be charming, brutally honest and insightful, but she is no stranger to spin, expediency or utter nonsense. Parse her words carefully. The truth is more transparent in her body language. Posture, facial expression, footwork — that is where Serena will reveal her feelings.

    By her mere presence, this year’s Indian Wells tournament will be the Serena Show. We can applaud that because there is no show quite like it in women’s sports. “It’s great for her, it’s great for tennis, it’s great for fans,” says Martina Navratilova.

    Remember, too, that her participation in 2015 is not because she’ll “do anything to get back.” She wants to be here. That usually means get the hell out of the way.