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Serena Williams tries to minimize verbal volleys at Wimbledon

Serena Williams apologizes after trading barbs with chief rival Maria Sharapova, and says she wants to focus on Wimbledon, where she is women's title favorite.

June 24, 2013|By Helene Elliott, Los Angeles Times
  • Serena Williams talks to the media during previews at Wimbledon.
Serena Williams talks to the media during previews at Wimbledon. (Jon Buckle / Getty Images )

Serena Williams' recent verbal shots have been as fierce as any she has unleashed on the court.

In the same profile in Rolling Stone magazine in which she seemed to blame the teenage victim in a rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, Williams took a swipe at a "top-five" rival widely believed to be Maria Sharapova by saying the player was dating a guy "with a black heart." Writer Stephen Rodrick took that to mean Grigor Dimitrov, a Bulgarian tennis pro and reportedly an ex-boyfriend of Williams.

Sharapova returned with a jab at Williams' conduct with coach Patrick Mouratoglou, saying, "Maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids."

Williams, ranked No. 1 in the world, attempted Sunday to calm this tempest in a Wimbledon teapot. Speaking at a pre-tournament news conference, Williams said she wanted to apologize "for everything that was said in that article," and said she had talked to Sharapova privately. Williams also said she'd take Sharapova's advice to focus on tennis.

"There's one thing I'm really good at," Williams said, "and that's hitting the ball over a net, in a box. I'm excellent."

No argument there.

Williams has won 31 consecutive matches and 74 of her last 77, including an Olympic gold medal and a decisive French Open victory over Sharapova two weeks ago for her 16th Grand Slam title.

Yet, Williams said she can improve.

"I always said that I felt like I have never played my best tennis," she said after becoming the oldest French Open women's champion in the Open era, at 31. "I feel like I can always do better and play better and I have always wanted to reach that level. . . . I have never felt so fit. I feel great. I look great."

Revived by a coaching change since her shocking first-round exit at last year's French Open, Williams is overwhelmingly favored to win her second straight Wimbledon singles title and sixth overall. Play starts Monday and Williams opens Tuesday against 92nd-ranked Mandy Minella of Luxembourg.

Williams' 31-match winning streak is the longest in one season in women's tennis since her older sister, Venus, won 35 straight in 2000. Venus, who has been slowed by an autoimmune disease, withdrew from Wimbledon because of a bad back. "I feel so lonely. I feel like something is missing," Serena said.

Three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe, now an ESPN commentator, said he would be "very surprised" if Serena Williams doesn't prevail at the All England Club this year.

"I think actually, in a way, what's happened with her sister, the difficulties she's had as she's gotten into the later stages of her career, actually in a way helped Serena because it made her realize she wanted to enjoy and take advantage of these last couple years," McEnroe said during a conference call with reporters.

"She realized and maybe appreciated a little bit more the talent that she has."

Three-time Wimbledon winner and 18-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert, also an ESPN commentator, said it will be difficult to beat Williams but said No. 3-seeded Sharapova "has about as good a chance as any" if the Russian can hold serve.

"I just think you can't really hit with her from the baseline. You've got to either hit short angles, drop shots, chip, do something to throw her timing off," Evert said of Williams. "Once she gets in a rhythm, she's deadly."

Although Evert cautioned that Williams' age might hurt her because "after so many years, there are days that it isn't there," few of Williams' rivals seem primed to beat her.

The best challenge might come from No. 2 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus. She's one of two women who have beaten Williams this year, having won in the final of the Qatar Open in February. (American Sloane Stephens inflicted the other loss, in the Australian Open quarterfinals.) Azarenka has won the last two Australian Open titles and reached the Wimbledon semifinals the last two years but has yet to win a singles tournament on grass.

No. 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland lost to Williams in three sets in last year's Wimbledon final. No. 8 Petra Kvitova, the Czech left-hander who won Wimbledon in 2011, has struggled this season and lost in the second round of a lead-up tournament in Eastbourne, England.

That leaves Williams the heavy favorite. She's comfortable with that. "As Billie Jean King said, 'Pressure's a privilege,'" Williams said, "and I take it as a privilege."

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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