Keeping Score: Serena Williams is number one – and she knows it

When Serena Williams won the Australian Open last week, she not only recaptured the number 1 ranking, she broke Annika Sorenstam‘s record for career prize money won by a female athlete. Excluding endorsements, Williams has earned $23.5 million in 14 years of professional tennis. NBC suggested she should just go ahead and change her name to “$erena.”

Despite her phenomenal success — two more singles Slams will tie her with Billie Jean King — Serena Williams is a polarizing figure.

She is nearly universally loved in the American press. Sports journalists climb all over each other like puppies to interview her, and when in press conferences she says stuff like, “I can do it all: I cook, I clean, I write, I make jokes, I tape my own ankles. You know, I just pretty much do everything,” they giggle and applaud.

The foreign press isn’t quite as indulgent. After her fourth-round match in the Australian Open, in which Williams’ opponent succumbed to the stomach flu, a journalist from a New South Wales newspaper wrote, “The harsh critic might suggest this was not the first time Williams had made someone sick. Particularly anyone who has endured the press conference pantomime in which she makes a game of talking herself up.”

I’m trying to think of a better word than “cocksure” to describe Serena Williams’ way with reporters, but that just seems like the most accurate description.

If you mention that her victory in the 2009 Australian Open was one of the fastest Slam matches ever played, she notes that she actually won the 2007 Open even faster. If you ask her how she plans not to choke in this year’s French Open, she says she’ll just tell herself, “Hey, if I lose, I already have that trophy at home.”

On paper it looks arrogant, but in real life, there is a certain charm to the way Williams speaks about herself. Last week she appeared on The Tonight Show, and when Jay Leno said that she was smokin ‘ hot, and that is the reason it was 20 degrees warmer on the court when she was playing than when Venus was playing, she smiled and said, “The sun wanted to come closer to get a look, maybe.”

When I think about Serena Williams talking herself up, I always hear The Office‘s Kelly Kapoor in my head: “I don’t talk trash; I talk smack. They’re totally different. Trash talk is all hypothetical, like ‘Your mama’s so fat she could eat the internet,’ but smack talk is happening like right now, like ‘you’re ugly and I know it for a fact ’cause I got the evidence right there.’”

Serena Williams isn’t talking trash, really. She’s just telling the truth. When you combine her singles and doubles victories, she’s got 20 Grand Slam titles. She’s got an Olympic gold medal. She’s got a lucrative endorsement deal from Nike. And yeah, she can tape her own ankles. (You try it sometime if you think it’s so easy.) She’s one of the greatest female athletes to ever live, and I know for a fact because I’ve got the evidence right there.

Do you think Serena Williams deserves her own hype, or do you think she’d do well to learn some humility?

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