NEW YORK -- Serena Williams lights up when she is fielding questions about fashion. She exuded enthusiasm when she described the creative process behind the dress she wore Wednesday as she cruised to a first-round U.S. Open win.
Her soliloquy on the garment, a vivid Asian-inspired print with a simple silhouette, was so detailed and rhapsodic that one reporter wondered whether design had supplanted sport as her true passion.
"Oh, God, no," Williams said, her eyebrows arching in mild surprise. "I love it, don't get me wrong. I love designing. I love wearing things that I sat down and had a part of and came up with the concepts for. It's exciting.
"But, you know, it's hard. It's a hard business to be in. Like Heidi Klum says, 'Some days you're in, the next you're out.'"
Williams, 24, dropped out of the tennis business for six months this season, an absence that knocked her from a 2005 year-end ranking of 11th down to 139th when she made her return in Cincinnati in early August. She accepted a wild-card invitation to the Open and is unseeded here for the first time since her Flushing Meadows debut in 1998, but she calmly insists she is fit, focused and dressed for success at this tournament.
"My desire is probably as high as it ever was," she said.
A little later, she was asked if she would be attending MTV's annual Video Music Awards extravaganza Thursday night at nearby Radio City Music Hall -- an event where she's made cameo appearances in the past.
"I'm going to be here, playing really tough tennis," Williams said, tapping her index finger on the dais for emphasis. "I won't be anywhere else but right here."
Actually, she could do both if she wanted. Williams' uncomplicated 6-2, 6-1 victory over Spain's Lourdes Dominguez Lino locked her into a Thursday afternoon match against 17th-seeded Danielle Hantuchova.
Williams is 4-1 lifetime against Hantuchova, the slender Slovak who beat her in the third round of the Australian Open -- the last match Williams played before she began pulling out of tournaments, citing her injured left knee. Williams returned the favor, ousting Hantuchova two weeks ago in Los Angeles.
The seven-time Grand Slam event winner clearly is more comfortable talking about the present than the layoff just past, when she pursued acting gigs and led an active social life. That busy hiatus triggered near-weekly speculation about whether Williams was sidelined by injury or indifference.
She seemed to answer part of that question by reaching the semifinals of both tournaments she entered earlier this summer. She alluded to yet another explanation in a recent New York Times interview, saying she had spent much of her time off processing suppressed grief about the violent death of her half-sister nearly three years ago.
"That's something I really don't talk about too much," she said Wednesday. "But I think in general, whether you're working or you're writing or whatever you are, you just kind of pour yourself into your work more and then, you know, keep your mind off of things."
Coaching guru Nick Bollettieri, who worked with Williams for a week this month at his Bradenton, Fla., tennis academy to help prepare her for the Open, said he thinks Williams needed to deal with the emotional fallout from her personal loss.
"I sincerely feel she was hurt very deeply by the death of her sister, but I think she's moving past it," Bollettieri said after taping a television standup in a light drizzle on the deserted grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Wednesday morning. "The one thing I noticed is that she really wants to play -- she really wants to do well. The hunger is always the question. She had so much success in her career, and then everything went wrong. She hurt her knee and everything else. She started focusing on some of those outside things.
"Has she got the focus back solely on tennis? Only Serena can answer that."
Bollettieri has been candid about wanting to continue to work with Williams. She was noncommittal on the subject.
"Nick and my dad work great together. They feed off each other. It's a great team," she said. "I love Nick. He's a great guy. You know, he always knows what to say to get me motivated."
Williams said she has been working out diligently and is close to the kind of conditioning level she wants. As for whether she can regain the No. 1 perch she occupied for 57 weeks from July 2002 to August 2003, Williams felt no need to embroider her answer.
"Absolutely," she said, leaning back in her chair.
Williams chose a royal purple fabric for her new dress. If she believes you are what you wear, perhaps it's meant to help her out of exile.
Frequent contributor Bonnie DeSimone is covering the U.S. Open for ESPN.com.