LONDON - The next time Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova meet, it will likely be on a tennis court, with a net separating them — maybe even at Wimbledon, in the final, on the first Saturday in July.
"I think it's great for women's tennis when we play each other," Williams said.
Until then, fans and non-fans alike can keep picking apart the unexpected trade of verbal jousts between two of the sport's biggest stars — a back-and-forth that has turned the lead-up to Wimbledon into something much more than simple tennis talk.
The latest chapter came on the eve of the tournament, which starts Monday. Trying to set aside a number of awkward outcomes from a Rolling Stone profile of her posted online last week, Williams used her pre-tournament news conference Sunday to express her apologies.
— For comments that put both her and Sharapova's love lives on centre stage.
— For remarks she made about the 16-year-old victim in the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case.
— And, it seemed, every bit as much for letting the author of that story into her private world, thus turning the buildup to Wimbledon into a festival of dirty laundry that has the headline writers for the London tabloids drooling. ("This time it's personal" and "I'm sorry, Maria!" were among the lines used.)
"It definitely hasn't been easy," the No. 1-ranked Williams said about the stir created by the magazine's profile. "And I feel like I really wanted to say: I apologize for everything that was said in that article."
Earlier in the week, Williams had issued a statement expressing regret for remarks about the 16-year-old victim in the Steubenville case. On Sunday, she said she and the family "came to a wonderful understanding, and we're constantly in contact."
Also Sunday, Williams explained that 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 exchanges between the two 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.
Williams said Sharapova accepted her apology. If that was the case, however, it sure didn't show Saturday, when Sharapova delivered her own broadside during her news conference: "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."
Asked to respond to that dig 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."
With play beginning Monday — Roger Federer begins defence of his seventh title on Centre Court, with Sharapova playing her first-round match afterward — much of this talk is certain to die down. But it's just as certain to pick back up in about two weeks if the players, on opposite sides of the bracket, advance to the final.
"There's no guarantee that I'll be there," Williams said. "But I'm definitely hoping that I can play and win seven matches."
She's a heavy favourite to do so, going 74-3 and collecting three of 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 laughingly conceded: "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 rumoured 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."