WIMBLEDON, England – The request was made a few days before, and did Serena Williams really have to think? Michelle Obama wanted to sit in Serena's box for the tennis player's first London Olympic match. Would Williams mind?
Mind? Williams most certainly did not mind.
"I mean, I love Michelle," she said.
So much that she calls the first lady by her first name.
"Am I being rude?" Serena asked, hand clasped over her mouth, after she defeated Jelena Jankovic 6-3, 6-1 in her first-round Olympic match. She smiled sheepishly.
"She's so cool," Williams continued. "I met her several times. I feel comfortable with saying 'Michelle.' And I think she wants the people to feel that way as well. That's what was so great about that whole thing. You can feel comfortable. [The Obamas will] go to a basketball game or to the tennis. It's just unheard of for me."
[ Photos: Serena and Venus Williams at the Olympics ]
Williams has always been comfortable here. She has won Wimbledon five times now, the most recent earlier this month. There is something about the prestige of the place that seems to bring out the best in her game. Her 12 titles in singles and doubles here are the most she has in any Grand Slam.
But as comfortable as she normally is at Wimbledon, Saturday afternoon was a strange experience. The stoic charm that makes Wimbledon feel like Wimbledon was gone. Because this was the Olympics and not under the control of Wimbledon's rules, there was no mandate that the players had to wear white. This brought the jarring sight of Roger Federer and Caroline Wozniacki clad in bright red, glowing like tiny fire trucks on the Wimbledon lawn.
Willliams noticed the change immediately as she stepped onto the court. How could she not? All the signs were different, and green backdrops had been replaced with garish pink banners. Even the big, fluffy Wimbledon towels were gone, replaced with something generic.
Yet more than anything, she was stunned by the noise around her.
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"The crowd," she said. "I mean, Wimbledon is so quiet, you know? You don't hear much talking. But here you do hear talking. It's a really big crowd. It's exciting. You really get to see the fans and you see the flags and you see whoever you're playing. It's awesome."
It's not like Williams hasn't played in the Olympics before. She has won two gold medals in doubles with her sister Venus. But those Olympics were played in makeshift venues, thrown together for the Games. They were disposable places. This is Wimbledon. Staid Wimbledon. Special Wimbledon.
And yet the detachment of most Wimbledon throngs was missing on Saturday. Fans cheered. Many shouted in between points. Such things would never happen at Wimbledon. But it wasn't Wimbledon anymore. In the background, you could clearly hear radio reporters from the hastily built press rows shouting updates into their phones.
"It's definitely weird," Williams said. "Definitely different. I have to say I love it. I absolutely love being here because I love playing Wimbledon. But this atmosphere -- I didn't expect it. It's bananas and I love it."
She was asked if she would prefer Wimbledon to always be this way, and a stricken look crossed her face.
"No. No. No. No," she said. "You're getting crazy now. We need to keep Wimbledon the way it is. Quiet. White clothes. It's different than any slam. If I want that feeling, I go play Roland Garros, Australia, or obviously New York."
Still, in all the strangeness, with Michelle Obama in her box, Serena Williams looked much like the Serena Williams of last month. She has embraced the Olympics, weeping on Friday night as she watched the Opening Ceremony – unable to participate because of her Saturday match. She has never won an Olympic singles title, essentially the only significant championship in tennis that has yet to belong to her.
Williams says this does not matter, that the pair of doubles titles she won with Venus mean plenty enough, and the joy of standing at the top of an Olympic podium with the person to whom she is closest means so much more than an elusive singles title.
"Gold is gold," she said.
Formality might be gone, both in the hallowed tennis hall and in the way to address the first lady of the United States. Somehow it didn't matter. Williams dominated on the Wimbledon grass as she has done so many times before.
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