What a racket

By Josh Eboch

Yesterday, I went toe to toe with two of the biggest names in women’s tennis: Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Alas, I wasn’t the only reporter in the room, but the small crowd made for a great opportunity to ask the superstars a few personal questions.

When Sharapova entered the media tent, her celebrity status was immediately apparent. Those present seemed hesitant, almost deferential at first, unsure how to approach someone they were more used to seeing in commercials and on billboards. Once everyone got settled in around her table though, the standard softball questions began to fly. Somebody asked how she would like to spend her 21st birthday, which is this Saturday. Sharapova looked slightly amused, “What’s Saturday?” She asked. “It’s the semi-finals right? That’s where I’d like to be.”

I took advantage of a pause to ask Sharapova about how she handles the fact that, especially among young people, she has transcended the sport of tennis, and become someone just as likely to be found on the cover of Us Weekly as Sports Illustrated. She paused for a moment. “Tennis always comes first,” she said. “I am so thankful for the other opportunities that have come to me and my family because of tennis. I learn more about business every day than I did in two years of economics in school. But the thrill of competing in front of thousands of people and winning; that’s why I’m here. Everything else is just an added bonus.”

Williams, older and more experienced than Sharapova, actually seemed less at ease with reporters, but she did give us a few minutes. When I asked whether she was disappointed about the unexpected absence of number-one-ranked Justine Henin from the Family Circle Cup, Serena began to laugh. “Well I didn’t even know she wasn’t here until you told me, so no, I guess not,” she said. “Honestly, I don’t get concerned about who I’m going to play. I’ll go up against anybody. Except Federer or Nadal. Or Santoro. Anybody but them. Especially Santoro.”

After such a candid response I felt emboldened to ask the question on everybody’s mind about her sister Venus’ recent hiatus. “I have a rule that I don’t talk about Venus,” she said. Then she smiled conspiratorially, “But I don’t expect it to last very long. She’ll be back. She’s gonna be around Charleston this week, so you can ask her yourself.” Let’s hope I have the chance.

All in all, media day was an educational, even heady, experience for this intern. Many thanks to the Family Circle Cup organizers and the players themselves for making it possible.

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