Serena Williams is weary, and fighting a cold.
I could hear it in her scratchy voice and see it in her eyes; it was noon but she looked like she was just waking up as she leaned back on a sofa in her Wilshire Boulevard condominium the other day.
"I always get tired after a Slam," she said. "And I've been so sick. . . . I came home and I was fighting it and fighting it, and then I just wiped out."
Understandable. Last Saturday, in Melbourne on a warm night, she finished off a daunting two-week run by smothering Dinara Safina and winning another Australian Open singles title.
Numbers don't lie. At 27 years old, she already lives in the neighborhood of the all-time greats. This was her 10th Grand Slam singles title, more than any woman but six retired Hall of Famers. Two more singles Slams and she will tie Billie Jean King. Eight more and she will sit beside Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.
Once again she has the No. 1 ranking. She now has career earnings of $23.5 million, a record.
As important, this last title added another layer to a stunning narrative. The fact that Serena and sister Venus, daughters of Compton, would spend much of the last decade dominating women's tennis is as mind-blowing a story as has ever graced the world of sport.
Yet sitting in her condo this week, casual and content, wearing a white Nike top and olive sweat pants, she made it clear she considers her part in that story something of a mental land mine.
"I don't want to think about it," she said, a sudden liveliness to her voice. "I am going to save that for my retirement. I might become complacent if I think how far I've come. Anyone can be happy with 10, anyone can be complacent and just say, 'This has been a great journey, it is over.' But I don't want that. I don't want it to stop now."
Serena is extremely fit, the muscles on her arms and legs clasped together tightly. But as she sat there -- absent-mindedly petting one of her small dogs, comfortable in the two-bedroom condo she lives in on occasional trips back to L.A. -- she somehow seemed smaller than she had when I watched her play at the U.S. Open last summer. It's as if, on the grand stage, she becomes larger than normal, something common to actors.
She seemed smaller than I'd recalled but she certainly has large, strong, expressive hands, and as she spoke of fearing complacency she balled her right hand into a fist and hit it softly on the maroon sofa, for extra emphasis.
She said she's aiming for an 11th Slam, and many more. She said she's aiming for a new kind of consistency, since there have been too many periods when she has slipped in the rankings and had to regain ground.
And what of last week?
To hear her tell it, the road to the 2009 Australian Open was nearly a catastrophe. She'd prepared for the coming season as never before. But then the big tournament came and with it, trouble. "I was playing like garbage," she said.
Luckily, as the tournament wore on, something changed. Maybe, it was the advice she got from Venus, who lost early on: "Don't dwell on the past. Keep going. You got through that match, you're lucky . . . I didn't get through mine."
Suddenly, surprisingly . . . click . . . everything fell into perfect place. The championship match was a 6-0, 6-3 dismantling of Safina, who said after the 59-minute match that Williams had made her feel like a simple ball girl.
When I remarked that it was one of the fastest Grand Slam finals ever, she stopped me cold:
"Fastest in two years," she said, just in case I didn't know that two years ago she'd entered the Australian unseeded, only to overwhelm Maria Sharapova in the final before anyone watching that match could really settle in.
She moved on, telling me that unlike Roger Federer, who says when he is in top form he feels like he is flying, she had a sense of being completely "grounded" against Safina. She described it as being "robot-like," bent on total destruction.
"It feels good," she said. Then, for emphasis, smiling, but also a tint of competitive juice in her voice: "I did it in 2007 too."
Great champions, I thought, are truly a proud breed.
Where will that pride take her? For the fourth time in her career, Williams left Melbourne with the singles title. She again has a shot at capturing a true Grand Slam -- all four majors in one calendar year. No woman has done it since Steffi Graf in 1988. No man since Rod Laver in 1969. Her biggest hurdle will be winning on the red clay of Roland Garros this summer.
"I am going to try to capitalize this year," she said. "The key is not freaking out. Last year I put totally way too much pressure on myself. I couldn't play at the French. [She was an early-round upset victim.] You know, I have already won the French [in 2002]. I kind of have already done that. I need to have that attitude of just playing and have it be like, 'Hey, if I lose, I already have the trophy at home.' "
It was time to go. She walked me to the front door. Near it was a little table that held the tall U.S. Open chalice she won last summer and a glimmering Australian Open trophy -- from 2007.
The table was cramped with trophies, but there was certainly room for more.