PARIS, France — For as long as I have been aware of Serena Williams, she has always been either six inches or twenty feet tall — a figure on a screen, slamming a ball down a line, or a giant billboard exhorting all who gaze upon her to feel inspired and reject defeat.
And then, wandering down a street just off the radiant but clogged Champs-Élysées, as I had my head down in my phone checking in with my editors to let them know that I was still alive and not in French jail, I felt a nudge from one of my friends. I looked up, prepared to apologize for being a stupid American who wasn’t looking where she was going, but instead the entire group subtly pointed behind me, down the sidewalk from where we came.
“That’s Serena Williams,” one of them mouthed at me.
“No effing way,” I did not scream out loud, while my brain stomping on the brakes and fishtailing inside of my skull. I did what everyone always does when your friend hisses at you don’t look: I swiveled 180 degrees and gawked.
There was a woman there, a little taller than average from my perspective, holding the hand of a small toddler. Her other hand held a shopping bag, and she was walking along with a parent’s patient pace for their child. She indulged the toddler, letting her turn around and run towards us for a few steps before course correcting. And then they were gone, I swear to God, in the time it took to look at my friends again and look back. It was Serena, just wandering around the Champs-Élysées with her daughter, probably trying to enjoy the city and the midday sunshine after going out in the third round of the French Open. There was no entourage, no minders nor handlers nor attendants. She wasn’t 20 feet tall, or a distant figure. She was a woman spending the afternoon with her daughter.
It reminded me of cooling my heels in the mixed zone after France had just crafted an ebullient four-goal win over South Korea to open the World Cup. The players trickled through, and they were barely taller than me in their cleats. They looked tired, dirty, ready to drink some water and have a lie down instead of dutifully answer questions from the gathered media. Wendie Renard didn’t even break her stride as she passed the hopeful American contingent tentatively asking “Wendie, English?”
“Non,” she answered, and swept away, although it only made me like Big Wendie even more – after all, players aren’t obligated to stop in the mixed zone, just to walk through it. And that non was more than she owed us, particularly with no apparent translator on hand. It certainly didn’t stop me from delightedly customizing a French jersey with a big “RENARD 3” at the Nike store a few days later. The Nike store on the Champs-Élysées, in fact, which is how we got to Serena Williams and the point of this dispatch from Paris, written the night before the United States opens their account against Thailand.
I know that after the game, both the Thai and American players will trudge through the mixed zone and I’ll probably be surprised all over again that they are human-sized, with dirt rubbed into the wrinkles on their faces, some of them still hyped from the action, some of them gliding through without a word, and some politely replying that there are no easy games, it’s a long tournament, etc. Whether you’re press or a fan, you usually watch these players from a bird’s-eye view, or on a monitor, desperately hoping for a close-up replay to clear up what the hell just happened on the field. And then, suddenly, they’re right in front of you — just about eye level despite having seemed seven feet tall a few minutes ago — and for a moment your lives and their lives veer into each other as you search for the quotes you need and they try to guide the narrative a little.
They’d probably rather be doing something else — recuperating, reviewing game footage, maybe even wandering the shops of Paris with their families. They’re just people, being asked to do something extraordinary for several weeks in the summer. For 90 minutes, they’re superhuman, monuments of pathos whether in triumph or defeat.
And then they’re human again, waiting for the press officer to run interference for them so they can go take a shower and go to bed, fall asleep like anyone else, in anticipation of the next day.