PIERS MOR­GAN

Ser­ena flung her rac­quet at the ball... and missed! ‘Yes! Yes! YES!’ I roared, as I sank to my knees

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - PUZZLE TIME -

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

ten­nis tal­ent

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