Serena Williams was asked last week about the U.S. Open, where she has experienced the full range of emotions and public appraisal. Twice the Open champion, 14 times the winner of a major title, widely regarded as the greatest living women's tennis player -- and possibly greatest living female athlete -- Williams, of course, also has provided some of the more controversial theater at Flushing Meadows.
"My mind frame this year," she said, "is that something is going to happen, for sure, because something always happens to me at the Open -- whether it's a horrendous line call that's two feet in, or whether it's a grunt and I get a point penalized. Or a foot fault when I actually don't foot fault."
She was referring, in order, to:
1) A missed line call against her in her 2004 quarterfinal loss to Jennifer Capriati that was so obviously flagrant it led to the introduction of the Hawk-Eye instant replay system.
2) Williams' shout of "Come on!" -- with the ball still in flight -- during last year's championship, prompting chair umpire Eva Asderski to award a game point to eventual winner Samantha Stosur and moving Williams to skip the post-match handshake with Asderski.
3) Williams' profane outburst in the 2009 semifinals, when she offered to shove the ball down a diminutive lineswoman's throat after being cited for a foot fault, triggering the loss of match point to eventual champion Kim Clijsters and ultimately a record fine and year's probation.
"I'm prepared," Williams said, "for something to happen. Hopefully, if I get to the semifinals or finals, I'm really prepared and really going to count -- I'm going to try to make it to 10. But if I don't, I don't, you know. Hey, I can't stop who I am. I'm definitely going to start one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight . . . and see how far I get."
It was Mark Twain who advised, "When angry, count to four. When very angry, swear." But those Williams' conniptions (although, in the Capriati match, she made no complaint) in such a public setting contributed to polarized fan reactions to her.
Williams does not apologize for her on-court intensity. (Asked, after last year's title match, if she regretted telling the umpire that "you're just unattractive inside; I truly despise you," Williams said only, "I regret losing.")
Furthermore, she repeatedly has expressed a sense of unfair treatment by tennis officials, reasonably citing less severe backlash to past misbehavior by male players.
Her defenders have suggested that some fans just aren't comfortable with a strong black woman reaching such heights of accomplishment and celebrity. Others have been exasperated by her certain lack of grace when she loses.
Just last week, at the pre-Open tuneup event in suburban Cincinnati, Williams blamed her error-filled play in one match on the fact that her rackets had not been properly strung, and descended into racket-throwing as she lost in the quarterfinals.
She occasionally has become defensive when asked about her ranking, which rarely reflects her accepted superiority because, throughout her career, she has tended to play fewer tournaments than most of her peers.
"I mean, I don't want to be No. 4 or 2 or 9," she said. "I'm not No. 1, but I still feel I'm a force to be reckoned with. I've accomplished a lot in my career."
At one point a few years ago, when asked if she feared any player on tour, she said, "Yeah. Roger Federer."
Over the past year and a half, various claims to elite status have been issued by Samantha Stosur, 2011 Open semifinalist Caroline Wozniacki, 2011 French champion Li Na, 2011 Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova, 2012 Australian champ Victoria Azarenka and resurgent 2012 French titlist Maria Sharapova.
Williams very likely could cause her rivals to count to 15 -- the number of Grand Slam titles for her that another Open victory would represent.