A few summers ago, Serena Williams was a part of an exhibition match on Randall's Island, and I went to see her play. The infamous Jason Whitlock column — the one that "seriously" asked, among other things, "how else can Serena fill out her size 16 shorts without grazing at her stall between matches?" — had been published just a few days before. I asked her how she felt about the column, especially after having spent the afternoon teaching forehands and volleys to self-conscious sixth-grade girls from around New York City. She gave it approximately two seconds of thought: "It doesn't bother me."
I thought of Serena's reply during the hubbub over her most recent round of medical woes — a hematoma caused by a pulmonary embolism, which required emergency medical treatment last Monday and which will sideline her indefinitely. (Williams, ranked No. 11 in the world even though she hasn't played in a WTA match since she won Wimbledon, hasn't competed since July, when she cut her foot on a broken glass in a Munich restaurant. She had just gotten out of her cast after seven months and a recent second surgery when the embolism was found.) The initial response to the injury was skepticism, with maybe a hint of the usual grievance that Serena is a malingerer who holds herself at a haughty remove from the sport and its press. Nothing that is said about her seems to bother her, and that bothers the media to no end. She has been covered in this vaguely petulant way for so long that, when news of the injury broke in People magazine, of all places, the first instinct for a lot of people was to roll their eyes. "More Serena drama," as one of L. Jon Wertheim's readers put it. It was as if she'd just blown off a date because she had to wash her hair.
Part of that may have had something to do with the way the story unfolded. Williams had previously been hospitalized the weekend of Feb. 19 for the embolism, but at her talent agency's pre-Oscars party on Sunday night, Williams told the New York Post that her foot felt "good"; she added that she was "starting to train right away" and "[intended] to be back for the French Open [in May]." She made no mention of the embolism. On Wednesday, just two days after her hospitalization — and at a time when, according to her spokeswoman, Serena was still "recuperating at home under strict medical supervision" — Williams made it to Las Vegas to speak at an Autodesk conference. A Deadspin reader saw her there. He doubted the seriousness of the medical scare:
If she was laid up by a pulmonary embolism, why was she speaking at a business conference in Vegas today?... She spoke about "Winning" at the Autodesk sales conference. She didn't cancel. I saw her in person... they weren't allowing any photography and she didn't mention anything about the hospitalization.
A conference representative at the Sands Expo & Convention Center confirmed that Williams had spoken that day, apparently about using Autodesk for her own fashion line and for her Nike tennis rackets, but had no comment on her well-being. The reader diagnosed the emphasis on the hospitalization as "total PR bullshit." Maybe there's an element of exaggeration on the part of the Williams camp, but there's no doubting the fundamental seriousness of the injury. This is a familiar cycle by now. Any time Williams shows up in the public eye — whether because she's sidelined by injury, or because she's suspiciously slow in recovering from injury and personal trauma, or because she's wearing a nice dress to a nice event, something she does quite often — she inevitably faces a backlash from colleagues and media alike.
Williams, along with her sister Venus, has always been subject to intense media scrutiny — not least because she is a muscular black woman who has once or twice let her emotions overrun tennis's conventions, but also because the only time she will not regard the sport with a cool detachment is when she is playing. Because of this, people in media have attempted to engage Williams over the years — sometimes with thoughtful commentary, but mostly with what amounts to public taunting. It is said that she's too focused on fashion. That her clothes are distracting. That she grunts too loudly in matches. That her ass is too big. That she should really play in more meaningless matches for cash and publicity. That she's not properly dedicated to the cause of American tennis or of tennis in general, as if 13 Grand Slam titles weren't commitment enough. That her injuries "need explanation," as if seven months in a cast weren't explanation enough. That she cares too much about fame, as if the press weren't the machine that made her fame possible in the first place.
With any luck, the next few months will provide a brief reprieve from that scrutiny. Maybe the initial skepticism will pass, the rhetoric will shift, and Williams will settle into the unlikely role of victim in the case of Tennis v. Serena. You can see that happening in places. She faces her "toughest battle yet," according to The New York Times, and there's a mounting fear that tennis will lose her for good to something beyond anyone's critical control. A pulmonary embolism and a hematoma represent an entirely different kind of distraction than, say, a new fashion line.
Of course, the Times also wonders if, in the event of a full recovery, Serena will "lack the drive to make another push toward the sport's summit." We're now questioning her commitment to tennis in the subjunctive. So it goes with Serena, whose relationship with the tennis world will always be something like a middle-school courtship. Tennis perpetually craves a heart-laced note stuffed in a locker to prove that Serena has a real "crush" on it. If she recovers and comes back this summer, she'll get her standing ovations and her SportsCenter tributes, because she deserves it — and because, in the end, tennis will be really sad if Serena doesn't like it as much as tennis secretly likes her.