Serena Unplugged: ‘I’m Just Different – Sorry About that’

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Bill Simons

DEAFENING SILENCE: After five days of raucous fans, the lack of fans at the Australian Open is devastating. “It’s like giving a child candy and then taking it away,” said Radio Australia. The fan ban is just the latest in a pandemic that has been filled with starts, stops and continual uncertainty. The “new normal” still feels abnormal.

WIDE RIGHT: When your dad owns an NFL team there’s no escaping certain realities. Jessie Pegula’s dad, Terry Pegula, is the boss of the Buffalo Bills. The team is infamous for failing to win the Super Bowl when in 1991 their field goal kicker Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal, wide right, three years before Pegula was born. Nonetheless, broadcaster Brett Haber couldn’t resist a devastating quip. He said, “The next time Jessie misses a backhand I won’t say wide right.”

WELCOME TO THE CLUB: Some were shocked that an Aussie fan flipped off gentleman Rafael Nadal. But broadcaster Stephanie Myles simply said, “Welcome to the club.”

UNFAIR CRITICISM: The other day the buzz was all about an alcoholic fan. Today Renae Stubbs was criticized for explaining to ESPN’s American audience the meaning of the Aussie phrase “booze bus.”

HOW ‘BOUT ‘DEM BRUINS? Within minutes of each other UCLA products Mackie McDonald and Jen Brady advanced to the fourth round. McDonald’s 7-6, 6-1, 6-4 win over South African Lloyd Harris was amazing. He is coming back from serious hamstring surgery. The Piedmont native, a product of Oakland’s Claremont Country Club who beat Borna Coric the other day, reached the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2018. Another Bruin, US Open semi-finalist Jen Brady, used her astounding power and notable focus to dismiss Slovenian Kaja Juvan 6-1, 6-3. These results brought smiles to many a California coach. Think Billy Martin, Stella Sampras and Mackie’s first teacher, Rosie Bareis.

NICK’S PRIDE: After his extraordinary five-set loss to No. 3 Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgrios said the electric battle “was almost like the last hurrah [before the new lockdown].” Kyrgios couldn’t hold onto his two-set lead. Afterwards he expressed what seemed like a new maturity:I’m still proud of myself. I took 13 months away…[So] to produce that level and go toe-to-toe with one of the best players in the world – I’m pretty proud. I left it all out there.” During the match Nick gave us his usual mix: underarm serves, rants against the clock, unnecessary tweeners, and balls blasted high into the arena. His drew raves and ecstatic cheers. Commentator Chris Bowers noted, “Everything he’s touching is turning into gold. He’s an alchemist. This is otherworldly.” ESPN’s Chris McKendry stated the conventional wisdom, “We’d love to see Nick play that way 12 months of the year…When you look at him you think, ‘Why isn’t there a Grand Slam with this man?’”

ONE HECK OF A PEGULA: Jessie Pegula is just 5’7”. She’s fond of taking small steps. But her career has been hammered by huge injuries. Fortunately she has a big heart. The daughter of Buffalo Bills’ and Buffalo Sabres’ owner Terry Pegula, Jessie used her speed and guile to plunge a saber (so to speak) into the hopes of France’s Kiki Mladenovic. She was playing in just her second Australian Open and she’d never gotten beyond the first round of a major outside America. The 27-year-old, who won in Washington, DC and reached last year’s Auckland final, where she fell to Serena, beat her French foe 6-2, 6-1 to reach the fourth round, where she’ll play Ukrainian Elina Svitolina. The No. 5 seed, who took out Coco Gauff in the second round, has impressed.   

SERENA UNPLUGGED – ‘I’M JUST DIFFERENT – SORRY ABOUT THAT:’ One of the sweetest feelings in tennis is the relief one feels after surviving a hefty scare. Serena Wiliams seemed on the ropes against a fearless 19-year-old, Anastasia Potapova, but the Russian imploded and Serena prevailed. She was elated and offered one forthcoming interview after another. She told ESPN, “I was just not striking the ball. I was slow. Everything I practiced wasn’t happening. It was just a weird day. Sometimes matches are just about getting through, forgetting it and moving forward. In the past I wasn’t able to do that. I was so hard on myself.” 

When asked about a critical timeout that Potapova took, Serena confided, “We get just 50 seconds in our breaks…[so] goodness gracious. I was elated. I said ‘Whew, I can reassess.’…It’s the thing that kept me in the match.” She said it was sad that fans won’t be on hand for five days. “Now I got to stick around…I’m okay without the crowd, it’s a lot less stress and pressure.” As for her upcoming match against Aryna Sabalenka, she said, “I’m going to have to play better and be ready for some big serves.”

Serena spoke of her love of Australia, the thrill of playing Monica Seles and Stefanie Graf for the first time, and her daughter. “I’ve been talking to Olympia about playing doubles here with her one day.” She recalled that she once said, “I would never put my daughter in tennis…[But] she has a coach now and it’s a lot of fun…Her coach is awesome, really rad, but she’s a lot of fun and I’m like, ‘My three-year-old has a coach! How ridiculous is that, right?’”

Serena was then asked about her art collection: “I love art, I love African American art and I love supporting some amazing artists…Titus Kaphar is amazing. You know I’m really different…if you can’t tell, I’m just different. Okay, I’m sorry. So I just wanted to create a whole space that was like this really cool gallery…I’m always looking at pieces and different art galleries…I’m the kind of girl that walks in a place and sees a canvas with a line on it and I’m like, ‘Oh, brilliant!’”

When a reporter noted that Valentine’s Day was coming and asked her to talk about the meaning of love in tennis, Serena said, “I love 6-love, as long as I have 6. As long as I have 40, I love 40-love…If I didn’t love, I wouldn’t be sitting here…Love is one of the single greatest things in the world that you can have.  It propels you to be your best in your job…It can make you be better at whatever you do.”

When asked about changing her stance on her return of serve, Serena confided, “Change is the single most difficult thing in my life. I don’t embrace change very well, but I know the importance of it. So I hate my new return – but it works.”

When asked about the beginning of her magical coaching relationship with Patrick Mouratoglou, she recalled, “I’d always been coached by my dad and mom. When I met Patrick, I wasn’t looking for a new coach. I was just looking for some advice…I loved what he said. He had a very similar coaching style to my dad. He didn’t try to change my game. He just enhanced things I already knew.  Sometimes you have to hear it from a different individual – things that you may have heard a million times.  Sometimes it just clicks differently. I just felt like I needed that. When he first started, it was him and my dad that were working together…I feel like he’s really a great coach. Every time I do something well, I unlock another level, and he tells me something else. I’m like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me this five years ago?’ ‘Well, you weren’t ready for it.’ I feel like every time I get to unlock a new level and it’s kind of fun.”

THE MOST INFAMOUS SIGN IN TENNIS? Years ago at the Aussie Open, Serena’s mom noticed that her daughter was playing too far back in a match – way behind the ‘Melbourne’ sign on Laver Arena. So she famously yelled, “Get out of Melbourne!” Serena promptly came closer to the baseline and won the match. We bring all this up because last night Djokovic suffered his potentially devastating injury when he slipped on Laver Arena’s Melbourne sign.

SAY IT ISN’T SO: The ever mysterious Karolina Pliskova was up 5-0 against her fellow  Czech, Karolina Muchova, but then lost 7 games in a row and fell 7-5, 7-5.

NOVAK’S SERIOUS INJURY IS NO DJOK-ING MATTER: Novak Djokovic was disqualified at the US Open and crushed in the French Open final. It would be a shame if he were now unable to play on in Melbourne due to the abdominal injury he suffered while playing Fritz Taylor. The Serb said the win was “one of the more special wins in my career…I’ll remember it forever.” Novak explained his injury: “At the beginning of the third set I made this quick move…I just felt a tear, I had huge pain. I took the highest dose of anti-inflammatories possible…Honestly I don’t know how I won…I’m very proud, at the same time, sad and worried, because it’s definitely something serious happening.” Commentator Chris Bowers said, “It’s 50-50 if he can even get to the court [in the next round]. An abdominal tear doesn’t repair in two days.” Still our money is on Novak, and we imagine he’ll be on court for his third-round match against Milos Raonic. He’s 11-0 against the Canadian. Speaking of Canadians, young Felix Auger-Aliassime upset his friend and countryman, No. 11 seed Denis Shapovalov, and will next face Russian qualifier Azlan Karatsev. 

BEST PRIMAL SCREAM IN TENNIS? Djokovic’s neck-bulging howls rattle the rafters.

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