BY HOWARD FENDRICH
AP Tennis Writer
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.
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 as much attention in the run-up to Wimbledon. That might change today, when play begins and four-time major champion Sharapova is among those scheduled to play, 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.
Others playing today include No. 2 Andy Murray, the runner-up a year ago; and No. 5 Rafael Nadal, whose 12 Grand Slam titles include two at Wimbledon. Federer could face Nadal in the quarterfinals, with the winner possibly meeting Murray in the semifinals.
No. 1 Novak Djokovic, is expected to have an easier path through the other half of the field and won’t get started until Tuesday. That’s also when Williams is scheduled to play.
By the sound of things Sunday, she might be pleased to be able to focus on tennis rather than talking.
“There’s one thing I’m really good at,” said the 31-year-old Williams, the oldest woman to top the WTA rankings, “and that’s hitting the ball over a net, in a box. I’m excellent.”
Certainly true. She won her 16th Grand Slam title by beating Sharapova 2 weeks ago at the French Open, and declared Sunday, “It’s great for women’s tennis when we play each other.” That might be because Williams has won their past 13 matches.
Williams is 74-3 overall and has collected three of the past four major titles since the start of Wimbledon in 2012. That, perhaps not coincidentally, is when she began working with French tennis coach Patrick Mouratoglou, to whom Williams has been linked romantically.
Neither has confirmed publicly whether they’re a couple, but Sharapova’s shot on Saturday was taken as a reference to Williams and Mouratoglou. Sharapova was responding to a question about the portion of the Rolling Stone story in which Williams spoke to her sister about what the reporter described as “a top-five player who is now in love.”
Williams lamented Sunday that “a private conversation” was reported about, but she also broke into peals of laughter when saying: “I’ve been in the business for a little over 200 years, so I should definitely, definitely know better. I should know better to always have my guard up.”
She is quoted in the article as saying: “She begins every interview with ‘I’m so happy. I’m so lucky’ – it’s so boring. She’s still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it.”
That is followed by these words in parentheses from the writer: “An educated guess is she’s talking about Sharapova, who is now dating Grigor Dimitrov, one of Serena’s rumored exes.”
On Sunday, Williams said: “I made it a point to reach out to Maria. ... I said, ‘Look, I want to personally apologize to you if you are offended by being brought into my situation. I want to take this moment to ... be open, say I’m very sorry.’”
Williams repeatedly used some version of the phrase “inadvertently brought into a situation” to describe the way Sharapova got involved.
“It’s important what I’ve learned this week – mostly that it’s so important to know all the facts before you make a comment or before you make an assumption,” Williams said. “That’s something I’m still learning.”
There were other subjects discussed Sunday, if only briefly.
Those included Williams’ first-round opponent (92nd-ranked Mandy Minella of Luxembourg).
And how Williams feels when she’s not the favorite to win a title [“Not so often,” she noted].
And what it’s like to be at Wimbledon without the 33-year-old Venus, who also is a five-time champion but is sidelined by a lower back injury and will sit out the tournament for the first time since 1996.
“I feel so lonely. I feel like something is missing. So I talk to her all the time —–more than usual,” the younger Williams said.
“Before I left, she said, ‘Snap out of it. It’s time for you to pass me.’ So that was really encouraging,” Williams continued. “Hopefully I’ll be able to do it.”