TALES OF THE SERENA SELFIE MAN

0
1214
Photo by Tom Tebbett

Things had been getting far too heavy around Inside Tennis. When not coming up with deep-think reflections on Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, we were quoting philosophers – or resolving the problems of the world.

Enough already. – we needed to chill.

So we thought, Why not go deep-silly? Why not ask tennis people who they would want to take a selfie with – simple enough.

Right out of the gate, the idea got traction. The sweet-as-can-be Chris Evert said she’d like a selfie with the rather raunchy Madonna because, “She’s fearless and totally the opposite of me.”

But there were problems too. When Russian Svetlana Kuznetseva said Vladimir Putin, I thought, “Geez, maybe this isn’t such a swell idea.”

Mary Pierce, the former Aussie and French Open champion, seemed baffled by it all. “It depends on what a selfie is. Is that a picture of yourself, can it be with a group?” Her mind tossed, as she talked herself into a corner. I mumbled to myself, “Keep it simple, Mary.”

Michael Chang was straightforward. “I don’t do selfies,” he announced. Maybe, I thought, the deeply religious man thinks that taking a picture of yourself is too vain an act.

Things also got dicey when Dave Haggerty, who heads the International Tennis Federation, said “Winston Churchill,” and went on to describe what a great statesman Sir Winston (not Sir Andy) was, and how he used food and wine to problem solve. Yikes, I thought, this was supposed to be light.

But no worries, when we asked Kei Nishikori, he said “Mickey.”

Is there some Japanese superstar named Miki, we wondered.

“No,” Kei assured us, “Mickey – like Disney World.”

Over time we got plenty of dandy answers. It’s fun to ask the same question to everyone and see where it goes. “Muhammad Ali,” said Andy Roddick. Another Radek, Czech Radek Stepanek, said Bono. Without hesitation, Nicolle Gibbs chimed in, “Obama – he’s the man.” “For some reason,” said Mike Bryan, “Michael Jordan and Donald Trump come to mind.” Mary Carillo spoke poignantly about how Michelle Obama’s authenticity inspired her. Genie Bouchard chose LeBron James, while Sam Querrey quipped, “It’s a toss-up – Tom Brady or Justin Timberlake.” John Isner was defensive, explaining, “You’re going to laugh, but I’ve always been a big fan of the professional wrestler Shawn Michaels.”

All the while we were wrestling with a brutal truth. It was fine getting the selfie preferences of Sam Querrey and Genie Bouchard. But we needed some A-listers. Novak Djokovic already skipped town. Andy Murray was a bit too sullen. Venus Williams, we sensed, is not playful enough for this kind of banter, and Roger Federer was deeply immersed in his own kind of magical mystery tour here in Oz.

That meant just one thing. We would have to play our Serena card.

There was hope it might work. I’d been following her since she was a wide-eyed 12-year-old at Venus’ side. Okay, she and all of the “lifers” in the press corps knew well that I had pestered her with more unsparing questions (“Why the heck did you do that?” “Goodness Serena, when are you going to go back to Indian Wells and, by the way, what does it mean to be Serena?”) than any other journalist. But the wounds were skin-deep – they always healed. She knew I was just a daring tennis guy who loved the game – maybe foolish, certainly unafraid.

So I leapt in. “Hey, Serena, we’re asking players if they could take a selfie with anyone, who would it be?”

I held my breath.

She paused.

There was a glint in her eye.

I know Serena and I knew the playful star was cooking up something.

Now she was beaming.

“Uh, oh,” I thought.

She then asked with a mischievous smile, “Can I say you?”

The room burst into laughter. I was stunned.

“Can you say me?” I thought. “Girl, you’re Serena. You can say anything.”

So I told her “Sure,” and I knew instantly this was an opportunity of a lifetime. I bolted out of the interview room and retrieved my cell phone. But I had been working on a photo and video story all morning. My phone was unhappy, tired and jammed.

In my moment of glory, I couldn’t get my gadget in gear. Panic set in, but I didn’t give up. Fortunately I spotted my Canadian journalist friend Tom Tebbutt, who’s a fine photographer, and asked him if he could shoot me and Serena. So we returned to the interview room just as Serena was finishing her presser.

Williams generously smiled and we posed together. She is a big woman and this was a big moment, a moment that changed my life.

For over 50 years I have been pursuing serious tennis journalism – profiles, interviews, think pieces. But never mind, now, as my Serena story and the picture circulated, my colleagues began calling out, “Hey, you’re the ‘Serena Selfie Man,’ aren’t you?”

Well, I suppose so. And you can be called a lot worse.

So just etch it on my tombstone: “Bill Simons – The Serena Selfie Man.” And tell them if I could have a selfie with anyone it would be Nelson Mandela, or for that matter a lady they call Serena.