Serena still the talk of Wimbledon

WIMBLEDON, England -- Having to face Serena Williams on court is intimidating. Having to face her off it might be just as much so.

Players have made a few attempts recently to call her out, but just like on the court, they usually wilted under the strength of Williams' steely presence.

Sloane Stephens started it, sort of.

"They think she's so friendly and she's so this and she's so that -- no, that's not reality," Stephens said in an interview with ESPN The Magazine a couple of months after she defeated Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals. "She's not said one word to me, not spoken to me, not said hi, not looked my way, not been in the same room with me since I played her in Australia."

Maria Sharapova approved of her moxie. "[I]t was nice to see that she spoke honestly about it," she said shortly after Stephens' comments were published. "I think people have different perceptions of different athletes. It's nice that someone spoke up about how they feel."

But Stephens didn't mean it -- didn't mean to say it in print, anyway.

"I understood the fact that those things weren't going to be written in the article and I was just saying whatever," Stephens said in her first news conference after the comments were printed.

Still, it might have started something. Even as Stephens backed away from her comments, Virginie Razzano talked to The New York Times about the way Williams would react when they saw each other at tournaments following her upset of Williams in the first round of the French Open last year. "It's true that she looked at me with far from friendly eyes," Razzano said.

Still, Razzano refused to condemn Williams, saying she had been kind after Razzano's fiancé died of cancer. "In 2011, she came up to me in the gym at Wimbledon after I lost Stephane and she gave me her condolences and we talked for five or 10 minutes," Razzano said.

Such conversations may be things of the past, however.

"If she wants to talk to me again one day, I'd be open to it, but that will depend only on her," Razzano said.

It's rare for players to say much about Williams off the court -- they usually stick to generic, positive adjectives such as "nice" or "very nice."

"We don't talk a lot," Mallory Burdette said at the French Open, adding, "Yeah, she's always been very, very nice to me."

So leave it to Sharapova to decide she had had enough after seeing the much-publicized Rolling Stone interview in which Williams, among other things, made a comment about "a top-five player who is now in love," apparently referring to Sharapova.

"Hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it," Williams was quoted as saying, which was interpreted as a reference to Sharapova's boyfriend, Grigor Dimitrov, a fellow pro.

"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," Sharapova shot back, a provocative announcement of the still-unofficially known relationship between Williams and coach Patrick Mouratoglou. "She has so much in her life, many positives, and I think that's what it should be about."

Williams didn't react publicly, making only a sardonic comment that maybe she hadn't been focusing enough on her tennis -- a jab about her 15-2 record against Sharapova, including a win in the French Open final this month.

Williams may rule on the court, but the two are much more evenly matched when it comes to verbal volleys. But even Sharapova didn't want to take on Williams while dealing with the early rounds at Wimbledon.

"Honestly, I've said everything that I wanted to say about the issue," she said. "You know, Wimbledon started. This is my work. This is my job. I'd really appreciate it if we move on."

Others are starting to speak out. "Especially the top three and four in the world won't talk to anybody," rising British player Heather Watson said. "Victoria Azarenka does say hello, but the other three [Williams, Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska] make an effort not to.

"Fair enough; don't talk while you're playing. But off the court we're still human beings. You do need to be ruthless [to win], but I don't think you need to blank everybody."

Former player Tatiana Golovin told ESPN that a top player "can't be normal," and is expected to have a different personality and character, someone who also has to keep some distance from other players.

"But I think what matters is what she does on the court and the way she handles the press and the role model she is to girls and athletes around the world," Golovin said. "I think she's done a great job, especially for women's tennis. A lot of people go to watch her because she's impressive, just how much she's dominated but also with her personality. Some people like it, some people don't, but people talk. You don't want someone regular, you want someone with attitude."

What about her icy reactions to players after losses?

"I don't know: I never beat her, so I can't tell," Golovin said, joking. "We shared the same agent, so she was always a bit nicer to me."

But Golovin, who works for French television, did mention that she didn't think such behavior was necessary. "You have to have the respect, no matter who you are. You see how the guys -- [Roger] Federer, [Rafael] Nadal -- they don't act that way, so maybe Serena does go overboard with her reaction, but I think [it's] just because she takes everything so personally, too.

"I think she's always been very nice, but I do think sometimes she comes off as a little bit cold. I have seen her do some interviews and she doesn't answer any of the questions.

"So maybe this is just the fact that she's that good and she knows that tennis can't go without her. So she does become a little bit arrogant sometimes. But overall, to me, she's done incredible things for tennis."

Williams is a heavy favorite as she begins her Wimbledon campaign Tuesday, and the players know that as tough as she'll be to beat the next two weeks, she'll be equally tough on them if someone actually does it.