Golden girl

Suppose you were arguably the world's best - oh, I don't know - underwater basket weaver. But suppose, for various reasons - including the fact that you once, not that long ago, really and truly almost died - you didn't get to underwater basket weave more than 10 or 15 times a year. 

Suppose that, notwithstanding the fact that all the other underwater basket weavers in the world were grinding away every day, weaving baskets in second-tier and qualifying tournaments until their fingers developed callouses the size of diver scallops, or that they put all their effort, desire and focus into beating you and only you, when it came down to a Very Important underwater basket weaving tournament, one where princes are in the stands or you get some impressive jewelry afterwards, they couldn't touch you.

Serena Williams isn't an underwater basket weaver. She's a tennis player whom I would not want to see on the other side of the net at a Grand Slam, the Olympics, or a pickup match at the local YMCA. She demolished Maria Sharapova, who was playing some pretty impressive tennis of her own, 6-0, 6-1 to win the gold medal on Saturday, and I wouldn't bet against her winning the gold in doubles with her sister Venus. In fact, I'd bet on it. They usually only play doubles together in Grand Slams, and they usually only win elaborately carved trophies. 

I used to cover tennis fairly frequently when I worked on Hilton Head Island and in Myrtle Beach, S.C. There is a Tier I tournament, the Family Circle Cup, which had been on Hilton Head for many years before moving to Charleston, S.C., in 2001. Venus played the tournament first, I believe in Charleston, and Serena followed her the next year.  (Serena's win there in April was her 40th career singles title.)

There was a media event the day before Serena's first Family Circle appearance, sort of a meet-and-greet with the players before the only contact with them would be behind rows of post-match microphones. Imagine a roomful of 6-foot-something, well-muscled women wearing designer denim instead of tennis skirts and perfectly applied mascara. It made an aesthetic impression.

Serena was, of course, the brightest star in the room, from her blinding smile to her oversized red bag that no doubt cost more than the downpayment on my first house. She was a little reserved at first, until the conversation turned to the clothing line she'd just launched, and she lit up like the hot sign at Krispy Kreme. An animated Serena is a force of nature. An animated, angry Serena beats former world No. 1's (former as in a few months ago) by a bagel and change.

Oh, and she's little more than year removed from emergency hospitalization with a pulmonary embolism, a serious blood clot that, if it reaches, say, your lungs, is how characters are killed off on medical dramas.

Venus and Serena didn't follow the typical path to tennis stardom - which is to say, practice, practice, practice until your pigtails fall off, immerse yourself in the sport to the exclusion of all other things, and then act surprised when, at age 22, you stab your racket stringer. They were both encouraged to have outside interests, a radical concept for which their father, Richard, received buckets of criticism. But lo and behold, here they are, at the ripe old age of 30 (Serena turns 31 on Sept. 26; Venus, who has battled medical troubles of her own caused by an autoimmune disorder, is 32), still playing and winning on their sport's biggest stages - and looking like well-adjusted women while doing it.

I, for one, have always known the Williams sisters were cool. At Venus' first Family Circle, reporters were asking Venus about her sometimes-contentious relationship with her occasionally volatile father. She laughed off the notion that there were some deep-seeded problems there that carried over onto the court.

"Life's too short," she said, or something to that effect. (It's been a year or 10). "It's like that song, the one about it being too late when you die ... "

She paused and looked at her audience for help. Blank looks met her open gaze. I screwed my courage to the sticking place and piped up, "In the Living Years, by Mike and the Mechanics?"

A smile like sunrise broke across  her face. "Yes!" She may have even smiled, for just a second, directly at me.

Venus used to tell people, when she was a gangly teenager dripping red-white-and-blue beads on the hardcourts of the U.S. Open, that we should wait until we saw her younger sister, whom she characterized as maybe even better, and meaner.

Serena has been mercurial. She's yelled at umpires and fumed and pouted and acted with less than perfect grace. She's also endured one of the worst line calls in recent memory, and who knows what all else.

She also seems refreshingly impervious to boneheaded attempts to pigeonhole her into some pointless standard of stereotypical beauty, remarking offhandedly to Sports Illustrated that people don't know what to make of her because she has "a big ass and a large bosom," and so f-in what?

The look in Serena's eyes as she glowered at  Sharapova across the net on Saturday, after Sharapova had the gall to force a break point on Serena's serve (she didn't convert; only one player did - once - in six matches at Wimbledon, where Serena won her fifth Venus Rosewater dish last month) may not have made Maria's knees weak, but I did see her newfound celebrity BFF, Chelsea Handler, swallow hard and order another vodka.

Williams lost just 17 games as she steamrolled to gold in a cute navy ensemble with red accents and a white stripe above the empire waist, sporting a gold scrunchie in her curly tresses that I would damn sure say looked good if she asked. Hell, she'll probably bring scrunchies back. It seems she can do everything else.

It was a dominating win for a intriguing athlete, and it would seem to signal, rather strongly, that there are a few more chapters left in a fascinating career.

Unfortunately for Sharapova and all the other underwater baskets weavers out there.