Lisa Wilkinson and Serena Williams.
Lisa Wilkinson and Serena Williams.

Question stopped Serena interview

A PROTECTIVE publicist momentarily shut down Lisa Wilkinson's interview with tennis great Serena Williams after a curly question, can reveal in this exclusive sneak peek.

The Sunday Project host sat down in New York with Williams for an in-depth chat that will air on tonight's episode of the Network Ten panel show - and it was a question about Williams' infamous U.S. Open meltdown that saw things get "sticky," as Wilkinson put it.

Williams launched an astonishing verbal attack on chair umpire Carlos Ramos as she crashed to a shock 6-2, 6-4 defeat by Naomi Osaka in the women's final earlier this month.

The 23-time Grand Slam champion was given three code violations by Ramos, the first for receiving coaching, the second for racket abuse and the third for verbal abuse of the umpire.

The outburst made world headlines and sparked fierce debate about whether the tennis great's behaviour was justified.

An argument the whole world watched. Picture: AP
An argument the whole world watched. Picture: AP

In Wilkinson's interview, filmed just three days after the incident, it appears Williams' handlers had given the broadcaster a strict limit on the amount of questions she could ask about the unfolding scandal.

Publicist steps in: 'Change topic'

The interview was ostensibly for Williams to discuss a breast cancer awareness campaign she is fronting in association with her sponsor, Berlei, but Wilkinson had to tackle the elephant in the room.

"Your coach admitted that he was coaching from the sidelines. In retrospect, do you think that makes the violation warranted?" Wilkinson asked Williams of the umpire's decision she had so passionately disputed.

"I just don't understand what he was talking about, because we don't have signals, we've never had signals … and he said he 'made a motion,'" Williams said.

"So you had to have a fairly tough conversation with him afterwards?" asked Wilkinson.

"Yes, because we've never had this before. I was like 'It's OK, but don't … like … yeah,'" said Williams.

Wilkinson then asked the tennis champ whether she regretted smashing her racket during the outburst.

Williams hesitated, glancing off camera - and allowing her publicist to speak up on her behalf.

"Sorry, that's four questions about the U.S. Open, so …" came the off-camera voice.

Serena's publicist steps in mid-interview.
Serena's publicist steps in mid-interview.

Despite the publicist's interjections, Wilkinson instead continued to speak to Williams directly. "Are you comfortable or not?" she asked her, as the publicist instructed her to "change topic."

"I'm in your hands, Serena. Totally in your hands," Wilkinson told the tennis champ, who by this point appeared to give her interviewer quite the steely stare.

Lisa does battle with an overprotective publicist.
Lisa does battle with an overprotective publicist.

An 'uneasy' start

We'll have to wait until the full interview to see how Williams responds, but in an article published on Ten Daily, Wilkinson described her encounter with the tennis champ as "intense."

With a swath of media commitments cancelled in the wake of Williams' headline-making U.S. Open moment, Wilkinson revealed she had half-expected their interview not to go ahead.

When it did, she worked hard to establish a rapport with the sporting legend before cameras rolled - to no avail, she revealed.

Her attempts at small talk ("her incredible engagement ring, this stunning hotel room, her busy schedule, the picturesque view of Manhattan below") were met with little to no reaction from Williams, her eyes fixed on a "square inch or so of carpet" to her left.

She does not look happy.
She does not look happy.

"A deep sense of unease … is now here in the room with us," Wilkinson writes.

"Is she in fact getting ready to walk out after three pressure-filled days we mere mortals couldn't begin to know how to endure? Has she already decided she is going to hate my line of questioning? Is she sending me a message that she is not my friend, don't try and pretend I am your friend, and can everyone just hurry it the f**k up? Or am I just s**t at small talk?"

A 'broad-ranging' interview

In what is Serena's first television interview since the US Open, expect to see "the real Serena, a powerful role model completely at ease everywhere from home with a new baby to the glamorous spotlight of a Royal Wedding." Expect questions about her breast cancer awareness campaign with Berlei - it was likely her commitment to this cause that stopped her cancelling the interview when she'd nixed many others. Wilkinson revealed they'll also discuss how difficult it was for her return to tennis just six months after the birth of daughter Alexis last year, and her much-discussed friendship with Meghan Markle. But it was the topic of the US Open meltdown "when things got a little … sticky."

They played nice for a photo together.
They played nice for a photo together.

'Under pressure but not overwhelmed'

It's no wonder tensions were high. As Wilkinson and Williams spoke, the tennis star was arguably the most talked-about - and argued-about - woman in the world.

She had copped a $17,000 fine for her behaviour but said her argument was a gender issue, explaining that she is "fighting for women's rights and women's equality" and arguing that female tennis players should be treated the same as men in the game.

"I just don't understand … if you're a female you should be able to do even half of what a guy can do," she said.

Some of her contemporaries agreed: US great Billie Jean King tweeted "When a woman is emotional, she's 'hysterical' and she's penalised for it. When a man does the same, he's 'outspoken' & and there are no repercussions. Thank you, @serenawilliams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.'

National Organisation of Women president Toni Van Pelt weighed in with a statement calling for the USTA to sever any ties to Ramos for "a blatantly racist and sexist move".

Roger Federer suggested the now-infamous incident could be used as a catalyst for change. "I hope it's not the case (that there is gender bias) but I think what happened, obviously there were mistakes along the way and there should be more discretion sometimes," he said.

But others spoke out against Williams. 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Martina Navratilova said that, however justified, Williams was still wrong to lose her cool - and saying that "men do it" was no excuse.

"We cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with," Navratilova wrote. "In fact, this is the sort of behaviour that no one should be engaging in on the court."

- Lisa Wilkinson's full interview with Serena Williams airs on The Sunday Project, 6:30pm tonight on Ten.