What Serena will do for gold
KHARKIV, Ukraine -- It's a rare sighting to find Serena Williams on board two consecutive Fed Cup teams, but that's the way it is in 2012.
Be assured, it's not that Williams was determined to see Worcester, Mass., where the U.S. beat up on Belarus 5-0 in World Group II first-round action in February. Nor was she desperate to make the overnight transatlantic journey to Ukraine to play against a clear underdog.
But Williams is on a quest, one that would obviously send her to the ends of the earth to achieve.
She's passionate about the Olympics and has taken part in two previously (Sydney 2000 and Beijing 2008). With big sister Venus, she won Olympic gold in doubles on both occasions. Venus also scored a singles gold at Sydney.
Serena desires another Olympic opportunity at this summer's London Games. And she needs Fed Cup involvement to secure her place in the field.
"I love being able to participate in the Olympics," Williams told ESPN.com. "It's so cool. You get to play for your country. You get to see the athletes from other sports. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I'm trying to get my third-in-a-lifetime experience."
Here's the catch: In order to score an Olympic berth, players have to make themselves available for Fed Cup duty twice -- and in two separate years. Last year, a foot injury and then a life-threatening pulmonary embolism kept Williams sidelined most of the season. In order to sway an exception in her favor, she was required to show up at both Fed Cup ties.
Before this year, Williams, who holds a sparse 6-0 singles and 3-0 doubles record in the international competition, last played Fed Cup when the U.S. whipped Belgium 5-0 in the April 2007 quarterfinals at Delray Beach, Fla. Injuries, scheduling and disinterest have kept her away.
Williams, if not totally intent on what she's doing, can become easily distracted. How many have caught her reading emails or sending a text on her phone when she was supposed to be paying attention elsewhere? But when she is interested, she'll be diligent to the task at hand. Here in Kharkiv on her Olympic mission, Williams appears particularly focused.
Williams said she partakes in the most flagrant of Olympic activities: collecting the wide assortment of Olympic pins. They're a valuable commodity and almost all the athletes consider pin trading -- and the ones hanging from their Olympic badges -- an Olympic achievement as well.
"I've been meaning to put my pins in a frame with my medal in the middle, but I haven't done it yet," said Williams. "I figure now what I'll do is since I have two medals now I'll get a bigger frame and put both of them in it and all my pins from Sydney and Beijing. So then I might wait longer and do the London ones at the same time."
However, before she can worry about playing in the Olympics, there's this weekend's mission, and the Americans need a win to return to World Group action in 2013. Williams said she has little knowledge of the players she'll be going against but that she doesn't find that unusual.
Williams will play 171st-ranked Elina Svitolina in the second match Saturday, following the encounter between 36th-ranked Christina McHale and 110th-ranked Lesia Tsurenko. On Sunday, Williams is first on against Tsurenko, with McHale and Svitolina playing the fourth match. The doubles is last with top-ranked Liezel Huber and Sloane Stephens scheduled against Ukrainian twins Lyudmyla and Nadiya Kichenok.
"I never know any of the players," Williams said. "Usually, a lot of the players I play these days, in general, are so new on the tour that I don't really know them."
It seems like only yesterday that Serena and Venus, hair beads flapping with every movement, were young teens carving out their dominance on the women's tour. But Serena is right to feel like most of her opponents these days are newbies to her veteran status. She's already 30 and into her 17th year of playing, while Venus, who didn't make the trip to Kharkiv, will be 32 in June and is on career year 18.
"We've been around for just about ever," Serena said.
Williams says she has more appreciation for tennis since last year's scare. She also insists that if she can stay healthy, she already has her retirement strategy set.
"Just ask Roger [Federer], and whatever Roger says, I'm going to have two years after him," said Williams, laughing. "Of course, that guy is never going to retire. He's amazing."
And in case Federer is wondering on the time frame, Williams contends she's already looking beyond the London Games to the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
But no matter how long Serena plays, she's made it perfectly clear that nothing will stop her quest to win more gold.