Lisa Wilkinson: My Interview With Serena Williams Was Intense To Say The Least

Serena Williams is one tough mother. In every, possible, way.

In fact, “tough” surely doesn’t even begin to describe what it must take to win 23 grand slams over an almost two-decade-long career -- 10 of which came after Serena turned 30.

Opponents have come and gone. Everyone from Maria Sharapova to Lindsay Davenport and even sister Venus have all tried to find that chink in Serena’s tennis armour, to no avail.

When Serena is down the other end of that court, nothing, and no-one has ever been good enough to knock her off that perch now reserved for “the greatest female tennis champion who ever lived”.

And “mother” because, well, now she is one. With the birth of baby daughter Alexis Olympia last year, and her re-emergence on the world tennis circuit just six months later, Serena is making it absolutely clear that, at 37, not even motherhood and the fact that she is nudging towards her fourth decade on the circuit -- she first emerged all the way back in 1999 -- is going to get in her way.

Serena Williams in action against Naomi Osaka in the Women's Singles Final  at the 2018 US Open Tennis Tournament, September 8, 2018. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

READ MORE: 'We Never Had Signals': Serena Williams Disputes Coaching Claims From US Open

READ MOREWilliams Loses It At Umpire: 'You're A Thief' 'You Owe Me An Apology'

That gutsy determination is all the more impressive when you remember Serena almost died after three separate surgeries resulting from complications after Alexis was born. But this woman has a physical strength and power we’ve never seen before in a female athlete . . . and a steely resolve that she still has plenty to prove.

And I can feel that steely resolve right now, from the moment Serena sits down just a metre or so directly opposite from me, in a whisper-quiet suite in the highest reaches of New York’s Lotte Palace Hotel for our Sunday Project interview which has been many months in the planning.

Serena is here to talk about the launch of a major Breast Cancer Awareness campaign she is fronting in association with her sponsor, Berlei.

It is September 11. And while each year this is a day when New York is always enveloped in a kind of menacing sense of unease -- marking as it does the horrific terror attacks on the twin towers in 2001 -- now, 18 years later, all the front pages are dominated by the woman opposite me. And a deep sense of unease, albeit of a completely different kind, is now here in the room with us.

Because just three days before at the Women’s US Open Women’s Final, Serena has had what the world is now describing as “a massive meltdown”.It means that, even as we speak, accusations of sexism, racism and poor sportsmanship which had started on court on that blisteringly hot Saturday evening, are burning up talkback lines, Twitter feeds, front pages, backyard barbecues and pub conversations around the globe. Right now, she is far and away the most talked-about woman in the world.

READ MORESorry, Serena, But An Umpire Enforcing The Rules Is Not Sexism

READ MORE: Did Serena Williams Fall Victim To Double Standards?

Sexism? You Be The Umpire

Seemingly everyone has a strong opinion and they aren’t afraid to share it. After three days of this, it looks to me that Serena’s on-court reaction to what she perceived to be unfair calls by the umpire, have literally split the world in two. And it is probably best summed up by the divide in opinion that now exists between two other female tennis greats.

Billie-Jean King saw Serena’s treatment by the umpire Carlos Ramos as double standards, pure and simple.

Yet Martina Navratilova declared that if she’d reacted the way Serena did on court, she would have expected exactly the same treatment.

And that 50/50 split pretty much summed up what we had thought were our chances of Serena turning up today, as agreed, for our interview. Had she cancelled, having turned down every one of the other TV requests which were now pouring in, we would not have been surprised.

But no, here she is, directly opposite me, eyes glued to the floor, while hair, lighting and camera people make sure to get all their checks done as quickly as possible.

These are always awkward moments just before an interview. As the interviewer, you want to try and establish a rapport, to ease any nerves your guest might be feeling. But you don’t want to chat too much when things aren’t yet fully set up, save that something might be said off the cuff that is television gold, but then wasted to the mists of cameras-not-rolling time. “Save it for the cameras!”, being one of TV’s most oft-quoted lines.

But right now, small talk is proving difficult. It seems my subject matter (her incredible engagement ring, this stunning hotel room, her busy schedule, the picturesque view of Manhattan below) simply cannot compete with that square inch or so of carpet to Serena’s left she has now so squarely set in her steely sights.

READ MORE: Let Me Count The Ways I 40-Love Serena Williams

READ MORE: Serena Williams' Husband Breaks Silence On 'Racist' Cartoon

Is this perhaps just an example of that same searing focus which has got her to the unimaginable sporting heights we have witnessed for two decades? Is she in fact getting ready to walk out after three pressure-filled days we mere mortals couldn’t begin to know how to endure? Has she already decided she is going to hate my line of questioning? Is she sending me a message that she is not my friend, don’t try and pretend I am your friend, and can everyone just hurry it the f*#% up? Or am I just shit at small talk?

But now the cameras roll.

What happens over the next 22 minutes is intense. And enlightening. It includes the first exclusive look at Serena’s Breast Cancer awareness campaign. We talk the difficulties of her return to tennis after the birth of Alexis. How she's had to work to accept her body. Her friendship with Meghan Markle. The US Open meltdown. And that was when things got a little... sticky.

To see the full interview, be watching The Sunday Project, 6.30pm on Channel Ten, Sunday 23rd September.