SERENA Williams thought she had put the lid on the prospect of a Wimbledon feud with Maria Sharapova when they held face-to-face talks at the pre-tournament party.
But yesterday Williams was driven to publicly repeat an apology she says was first given to the Russian and attempted to defuse their conflict, which became apparent after Sharapova, still incensed by words from the world No 1 in a magazine article, returned fire.
Williams, in a Rolling Stone magazine feature, was quoted as taking a swipe at a rival player while in conversation with sister Venus. Sharapova believed Williams was talking about her, as the article’s author speculated.
In the American magazine, Williams said of the unnamed player: “She begins every interview with ‘I’m so happy. I’m so lucky’ – it’s so boring. She’s still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it.”
The latter reference has been widely taken to be aimed at Grigor Dimitrov, the Bulgarian player who is dating Sharapova and had previously been close to Williams.
Williams is now said to be an item with her French coach Patrick Mouratoglou, and the nature of that relationship came under scrutiny both in Sharapova’s press conference at Wimbledon on Saturday, and yesterday when defending champion Williams spoke.
Williams did not confirm they are a couple, and gave assured if not revealing responses to a range of questions surrounding her comments that may have alluded to Sharapova.
It was revealed the two most celebrated players in women’s tennis discussed the Rolling Stone article when attending Thursday night’s WTA Tour party in Kensington.
“I made it a point to reach out to Maria. She was inadvertently brought into the situation by assumptions made by the [Rolling Stone] reporter,” Williams said.
“I personally talked to Maria at the player party. I said, ‘Look, I want to personally apologise to you if you are offended by being brought into my situation. I want to take this moment to just pour myself, be open, say I’m very sorry for this whole situation’.
“We always have great conversations, so I believe that she definitely did accept it. I have the most respect for Maria on and off the court. I just feel like she was brought into the situation, inadvertently, a situation she never should have been brought into.”
Williams added: “I know she also said that I should definitely focus on the tennis here, and I feel like that is another thing I can definitely take her advice on. “Maybe I wasn’t focused enough in the past on tennis. I’m definitely going to try to focus on that for the next two weeks.”
Williams is clearly affronted that a conversation with Venus, that she believed would remain private, has reached the public domain.
But she said: “I’ve been in the business for a little over 20 years, so I should definitely, definitely know better. I should know better to always have my guard up.”
Sharapova said on Saturday that, if Williams wished to speak of personal issues, “maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids”.
Mouratoglou and Williams have not spoken about the nature of their relationship, and there has been no confirmation that his marriage has ended.
Williams said yesterday: “I definitely like to keep my personal life personal. I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment on it. In the past I’ve kept my personal and professional life very private. I’m going to continue to do that.”
Williams added that Mouratoglou “means a lot to me” on a personal and professional basis, but went no further.
The 31-year-old American starts her campaign tomorrow against 92nd-ranked Mandy Minella, a 26-year-old from Luxembourg who will be making just her second Wimbledon appearance, having lost in the first round last year to unheralded Belarus player Anastasiya Yakimova.
The tournament offers Williams the chance to land a sixth Wimbledon title, which would move her one ahead of Venus, who is absent due to a back injury. And the younger sister has revealed Venus told her to go to London and bring back the trophy. “For me there is no family competition,” Williams said yesterday, “but this is the first year I believe I’ve played Wimbledon and Venus hasn’t been here.
“So I feel so lonely. I feel like something is missing. So I talk to her all the time – more than usual.
“We [normally] stay together and I’m still staying in the small room because she always had the bigger room. I just can’t imagine being in the bigger room.
“So she told me before I left: ‘Snap out of it. It’s time for you to pass me’.
“That was really encouraging. So, hopefully, I’ll be able to do it.”
Williams reported that Venus is recovering well from her setback, and her absence will be felt not only by her sister but by the tournament she has contested for each of the last 16 years.
“It’s incredibly disappointing,” Williams said. “It’s like a little cloud. I feel every time I walk into the home I’m a little sad.
“I look in her room. She always had music in the morning. We kind of always dance in the morning.
“She’s definitely really missed.”