Serena Williams sounds as if it’s a ‘go’

Times Staff Writer

She played against Steffi Graf and Monica Seles and engaged in a battle of wits with Martina Hingis, on and off the court, through both retirements.

Her peers Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin have settled into retirement, and this brings forth a sudden thought:

Serena Williams is middle-aged.

Of course, a qualifier is needed before that gets misconstrued about someone who is in her tennis prime at 26.


Middle-aged only in tennis terms.

Age came up during a media session Monday for the East West Bank Classic at the Home Depot Center because Williams is headed to Beijing and one of her fellow U.S. Olympians, swimmer Dara Torres, is 41.

Williams was asked, jokingly, if she still intended to be playing tennis at 41.

“Yeah,” she said, pausing for effect.

“But not professionally.”

Williams was in a better mood than one might expect for someone who is dealing with a potentially troublesome knee injury in the heart of the tennis season.

Among other things, she fielded questions about fellow tour player Ashley Harkleroad, who has created a stir by posing for Playboy. Williams, when asked, said that she too had been contacted by the magazine.

And her answer?

“I was busy,” Williams said, smiling.

This light moment came after Williams discussed her most recent injury. She hurt her left knee and pulled out during her semifinal match Saturday at the Bank of the West tournament at Stanford.

Williams said she had an MRI afterward and it showed an inflamed joint as a result of overwork, and she acknowledged that her father Richard and one of her doctors did not want her playing on it.

“He’s always really passive and I’m more aggressive,” Williams said of her father’s approach to injuries. Both her older sister, Venus, and Lindsay Davenport withdrew from the Carson tournament on Friday because of injured right knees.

“It’s the first time all year I pulled out with a knee injury and I’ve been doing really well all year,” she said. “Maybe it’s just saying, ‘Serena, take a three-day vacation.’ ”

When that knee talks, it’s good to listen, based on history.

Because Williams has a first-round bye at Carson she can give the knee an extra day of rest and start Wednesday.

Injuries and outside interests have cut into her tournament play over the years, and interestingly, the light playing schedule could extend the careers of Venus and Serena.

Serena, at least on this day, was sounding more committed than she has in some time, looking to add to her eight Grand Slam singles titles.

“I don’t feel like I’m making up for lost time,” she said. “I just feel like this is what I want to do. What I want to do is play tennis and just play tournaments for this year and several years.”

That does not include a return to Indian Wells. Though both sisters have emphatically said they will never play there again, the topic came up again because the WTA Tour has made the event a mandatory one, approved by the tour’s board at Wimbledon.

The breach with Indian Wells occurred at the 2001 tournament when Venus pulled out minutes before a scheduled semifinal against Serena because of an injured knee. Serena was then booed throughout the final against Clijsters.

Despite the specter of suspensions and fines, this is a sport of diplomacy. In this case, a player can mitigate the penalty by doing half a day of promotional activity within 125 miles from the tournament site and has a year to fulfill the obligation.

“I think it’s good because it works all the way around, if you can’t go to another tournament because of an injury,” Williams said.

Said the WTA’s Chief Executive Larry Scott: “We have to have a rule that applies to all players and all tournaments. But at the same time, we need to think about all types of circumstances. One of the positive things is that we’re getting out of the business of trying to decide what’s a legitimate injury and a legitimate reason. Because it’s very difficult.

“Trying to determine when a player could have played . . . you play God. No one can do that fairly.”