London • As her agent nodded along approvingly from a front-row seat, Serena Williams sounded contrite and composed. Well-rehearsed, too.
Williams even managed to crack herself up with a couple of jokes during her news conference at Wimbledon as the defending champion, where the primary topic was hardly her 31-match winning streak or her bid for a sixth title at the All England Club or her injured sister Venus’ absence from the field.
Instead, more than half the questions at Sunday’s session revolved around themes generating the most buzz on the eve of tennis’ oldest and most prestigious Grand Slam tournament: what Williams was quoted as saying in a recent magazine article — and Maria Sharapova’s surprisingly forceful verbal swipe in reaction to that story.
“It definitely hasn’t been easy,” the No. 1-ranked Williams said about the stir created by a Rolling Stone profile posted online Tuesday. “And I feel like I really wanted to say: I apologize for everything that was said in that article.”
Williams already had issued a statement expressing regret for remarks about the 16-year-old victim in the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case.
On Sunday, Williams said she approached the No. 3-ranked Sharapova to try to smooth things over by extending an apology at a pre-tournament players’ party Thursday. The back-and-forth between two of the sport’s most popular and successful women can be traced to a passage where the story’s author surmised that something critical Williams said during a telephone conversation with her sister referred to Sharapova.
But Thursday’s interaction didn’t end the matter because Sharapova delivered this broadside at her news conference Saturday: “If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids.”
Given a chance to react directly to that swipe 24 hours later, Williams declined, saying: “I definitely was told of [Sharapova’s] comments. I definitely like to keep my personal life personal. I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment on it.”
All in all, nothing tennis related has drawn nearly as much attention in the run-up to Wimbledon. That might change Monday, when play begins and four-time major champion Sharapova is among those scheduled to be on court, facing 37th-ranked Kristina Mladenovic of France. Also on the schedule: two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, 2011 Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova, and a matchup between up-and-coming Americans Sloane Stephens and Jamie Hampton.
The honor of the year’s first match on Centre Court goes to the defending men’s champion, Roger Federer.
P Monday, 5 a.m.
TV • ESPN