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LaRosa's Sweet Spot: Sep 17th 2008

9/17/2008 2:48:00 PM


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"If you are what you say you are
A superstar
Then have no fear
The camera's here
and the microphones, and they wanna know..."


'Superstar' by Lupe Fiasco


It was just announced that, after a robust bidding war, Serena Williams signed a deal with Grand Central Publishing to release her memoir in 2009. According to editor Karen Kosztolnyik, Serena will detail her rise to No 1 "despite physical and emotional setbacks" and give her memoir "a strong motivational slant."

Upon hearing this news, my feelings are as conflicted as, well, my feelings about Serena Williams.

It's not that I don't like her. Far from it. No player lays herself out there on the court more than Serena. You see the anger, the aggression, the suffering, the joy. You saw it all just two weeks ago. She wanted that U.S. Open trophy badly and we were all along for the ride. I was along for the ride. 

But (ah, here's the rub) there are few players more closed off off the court. She gives interviews, sure. She'll smile for the cameras. But her responses to questions, to me, are either a) guarded to the nth degree, b) grandiose - "If I'm playing my best, I don't think anyone can beat me." - or c) just plain rote. 

There are, of course, reasons for all. a) Journalists can twist pretty much anything a player says into headline-making news, b) the woman's won nine more Grand Slam singles titles than I have so who am I to judge whether the Muhammad Ali speak is right or wrong (And frankly, is she wrong?) and c) my eyes glaze over when a child asks me the same question four times in a row. Try being asked the same questions over and over for a decade. It's a wonder she doesn't drop dead on the spot.

That said, other players - top players even - are able to reveal themselves without sacrificing their privacy, or their fear factor. Jelena Jankovic is fantastically honest in good times and in bad. Ditto fellow top-fivers Elena Dementieva and Dinara Safina. 

But Serena seems to refuse. Like someone equal parts beauty pageant contestant and pro wrestler, she'll say the lines and give you a big smile. And don't you dare ask her to ad lib or she will break this folding chair over your head.

Serena can emote off the court.
She can definitely emote off the court. When she's not Serena. Say what you will about her acting ambitions (and what hasn't been said about that already), she's actually got the goods. Youtube her 'ER' appearance. Actually, don't bother, I just checked, it's not on there. Catch it on TNT. That show is on like 19 times a day, you're bound to catch it at some point. When she's playing a role, she can hang. It's when she's called upon to be herself that she seems to have the most trouble letting go.

Uh-oh, do you smell that? Oh dear. This is becoming...wait for it...an Open Letter to Serena Williams. (Hit the dirt!)

Serena, unlike another Open Letter to you which shall remain nameless (mostly because the author's body has never been found), this one's not going to take you to task for anything (you know, besides what it's so gently taken you to task for already). On the contrary, I've never once joined the bandwagon questioning your dedication to the sport, your fitness, your choice of big dangly earring. It's your life. You live it however you choose.

But this book is your chance to set your own agenda. To ask yourself the questions you feel are most important. And to be as brutally honest with your responses. 

Who are you really as a person? What are your fears? Your story, from Compton to Wimbledon, is one of the most remarkable in tennis history. You'll tell it, I'm sure. But what about after you made it? What is it really like to be an African American woman on the world stage? And to have made it in a sport that (apologies to Sania Mirza and Ahsha Rolle) is not exactly teeming with women of color? What is it like to travel with a polarizing parent? How does the constant scrutiny about your weight feel? The mandate by the media to be Gossip Girl thin?

I'm not asking for you to cry like a baby. Or name names, Spadea-style. But, like once fellow closed-off uberchamp Pete Sampras showed in his autobiography, a little goes a long way in humanizing someone and connecting with fans in a deeper way.

It's in you. Before this year's Australian Open, you posted your feelings about your broken relationship and broken heart. It made headlines the world over, and you not only survived, you thrived. You even got back to #1. Coincidence? Maybe. But maybe not.

Do you owe it to me to open up a vein? Of course not. Really, all you owe anyone is the price of admission. But in this case, it's admission to your story. Will I buy it? That's up to you.

Your book will sell whatever you say because you are a champion. Because you are one of the most famous women in the world. Because even one tenth of your story is ten times more interesting than most anyone else's. But this is a chance to really show us the guts you freely put on display each and every time you step on the court. To show not just Serena the athlete, but Serena the woman.

If you are what you say you are, a superstar, then have no fear.