Serena flung her racquet at the ball... and missed! ‘Yes! Yes! YES!’ I roared, as I sank to my knees
FRIDAY, APRIL 27
Serena Williams is terrifying. I once watched her destroy a young, tiny European waif so brutally on Centre Court at Wimbledon that I wanted to run out and protect her poor victim with a shield. Yet away from the court, she’s a delight: funny, warm, and quite stunningly beautiful.
Today, I interviewed her and for fun she agreed to take me on at a single game of tennis at a private club inside the bowels of New York’s Grand Central Station. When I say ‘fun’, I don’t really mean it, of course. Professional athletes don’t play anything for ‘ fun’ — not even tiddlywinks. But I had a trump card to play.
‘Let’s use these,’ I said, as we walked on court, presenting two of the small wooden racquets of the type that Billie Jean King used in the Seventies. Serena wasn’t happy. ‘But I’ve never used them,’ she moaned loudly. ‘No excuses. If it was good enough for Billie Jean, it’s good enough for you, young lady.’
In the warm-up before Serena arrived, I’d been atrocious, spraying balls all over the place to the alarm of my camera team. But once the real game star ted, I suddenly discovered some form, banging a couple of serves that caused a startled Ms Williams to exclaim (on camera), ‘Oh my God... you’re GOOD.’
Admittedly, an embarrassing airshot followed. But then I pulled out a blistering return of her best serve, which she netted. And followed up with a whip- hot serve that rocketed past her outstretched hand. ‘ I can’t use these racquets!’ she squealed.
There was something pitiful about seeing a four- t imes Wimbledon singles champion blaming her tools, but I acquiesced and we swapped for her own racquets.
I slammed a forehand deep to her back line. ‘OUT!’ she cried, exultantly.
‘You CANNOT BE SERIOUS!!!’ I retorted. (I was wearing a Mcenroe-style headband at the time.)
Serena began to take it ever more seriously, suddenly aware that our exchanges would be broadcast to 300 million viewers in over 180 countries – and it wasn’t quite the walkover she’d expected. Her grunts got louder, her shots harder. After 10 minutes, last point came. ‘Winner takes all,’ I announced. Serena nodded gravely.
It was a frantic rally, culminating in me unleashing a backhand drop- shot volley of such majestic perfection that I couldn’t execute it again if you paid me a billion dollars. Serena gasped and hurled herself towards the ball, arms and legs flailing like a harpooned tiger shark. She f lung her racquet at the ball — but missed! She screamed in the raw agony of shock defeat. ‘Oh, COME ON!!!’
I sank to my knees, punched the air with my fists and roared: ‘ YES, YES, YES!’ We hugged at the net. ‘
Don’t get down,’ I consoled her. ‘You’re still a good player, you’ll come again.’
(Since nobody’s going to believe any of this actually happened, here’s the CNN video link with highl ights: http:// bit.ly/ LAKKVA)
SUNDAY, MAY 13
Serena won the Madrid Open today. ‘ Glad to see you’re back winning again,’ I tweeted her, ‘ after your unfortunate loss to me...’ ‘ Ha!’ she repl ied. ‘ My loss to U motivated me!’
This episode has just, but only just, alleviated the humiliation of being beaten by Cliff Richard two years ago in our ITV1 showdown.
MONDAY, MAY 14
existing time short.’ Then he marched off to make-up.
It was a masterful exercise in power. Unlike all the others, Phelps knew he was the one doing ME the favour. He doesn’t need any media, his arms and legs do all the talking he needs in the pool.
Physically, he’s an extraordinary sight: 6ft 4in tall, but with a surprisingly skinny torso, especially his short, stick-like legs. Then you see these enormous size 14 feet, massive hands, and quite startlingly long arms, giving him a 6ft 7in albatrosslike ‘ wing- span’. Add double-jointed ankles, and you begin to understand why Phelps has been described as a ‘unique, physical freak’. He sat down and promptly delivered an enormous yawn. ‘Are you tired or bored?’ I asked. ‘Maybe both…’ he smirked again. ‘Do you enjoy doing interviews?’ ‘It’s okay, if I’m not in a grumpy mood.’ ‘Are you today?’ ‘Not yet.’ He stared at me, defiantly. And I saw in that moment just why Phelps is such a formidable competitor. He doesn’t even like losing at interviews. Fortunately, neither do I. ‘So, Michael, you didn’t want me to ask you the same old questions, so... how many times have you been properly in love?’ It’s my signature question for many guests and rarely fails to provoke a good reaction. ‘Whoa!’ he laughed. ‘Are you serious?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Okay, well I definitely haven’t been asked that before... erm... twice.’ The rest of the interview — in the end, he gave me 45 minutes — was just as combative, fascinating and enlightening. But really all you need to know about Phelps is something he confirmed to me halfway through our encounter: ‘I once trained for five years without a break — 365 days a year, at least 4/5 hours a day in the pool.’ ‘Why would anyone do that?’ I laughed. ‘Because I wanted to be the best there had ever been, and that’s what it takes.’
He’s right, it does. And that’s why he is. But I’ve got at least one thing over him. ‘You only have 174,000 followers on Twitter,’ I said at the end. ‘Yeah, I know, that sucks,’ he replied. ‘I’ve got 2.2 million.’ ‘REALLY?’ He look horrified. ‘Really. Which makes me over ten times as popular as you.’
He pierced me with those steely eyes again. ‘Let’s see where things stand after the Olympics...’ Staying on the sporting theme, I flew to Dallas to interview an array of American Olympic stars. And today, I came face to face with the man who is on the verge of becoming officially the greatest Olympian of them all — swimming phenomenon, Michael Phelps.
He needs just three gold medals in London to surpass former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina’s all-time record of 18 Olympic gongs.
And considering he won gold in all eight swimming events he competed in during the last Olympics in Beijing, this is almost a certainty.
Every other athlete I met today was unbelievably polite. Phelps, as I hoped, had a snarkier side to him.
‘We’ve been allotted 20 minutes for this interview,’ I said when he arrived. ‘But if it goes well and you’re enjoying it, I’d love to squeeze the time lemon a little harder...’ (Yes, I REALLY did say that.)
Phelps smirked, then shot back: ‘If you ask me the same old questions I’ve been getting all day, I’ll be cutting your
Below: Serena Williams, who was no match for Piers’ prodigious