LONDON — As her agent nodded along approvingly from a front-row seat, Serena Williams sounded contrite and composed. Well-rehearsed, too.
Williams even managed to crack herself up with a couple of jokes during her news conference at Wimbledon as the defending champion, where the primary topic was hardly her 31-match winning streak or her bid for a sixth title at the All England Club or her injured sister Venus' absence from the field.
Instead, more than half the questions at Sunday's session revolved around themes generating the most buzz on the eve of tennis' oldest and most prestigious Grand Slam tournament: what Williams was quoted as saying in a recent magazine article — and Maria Sharapova's surprisingly forceful verbal swipe in reaction to that story.
"It definitely hasn't been easy," the No. 1-ranked Williams said about the stir created by a Rolling Stone profile posted online Tuesday. "And I feel like I really wanted to say: I apologize for everything that was said in that article."
Williams already had issued a statement expressing regret for remarks about the 16-year-old victim in the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case.
On Sunday, Williams said 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 back-and-forth between two of the sport's most popular and successful women 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.
But Thursday's interaction didn't end the matter because Sharapova delivered this broadside at her news conference Saturday: "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."
Given a chance to react directly to that swipe 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."
All in all, nothing tennis related has drawn nearly as much attention in the run-up to Wimbledon. That might change Monday, when play begins and four-time major champion Sharapova is among those scheduled to be on court, facing 37th-ranked Kristina Mladenovic of France. Also on the schedule: two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, 2011 Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova, and a matchup between up-and-coming Americans Sloane Stephens and Jamie Hampton.
The honor of the year's first match on Centre Court goes to the defending men's champion, Roger Federer.
"You feel very unique, clearly, because you are the one opening the court," said Federer, who will be bidding for a record eighth Wimbledon championship. "I think it's a big deal for, also, the players I've played, who got the 'unluck' or luck of the draw to play me in that first round."
This time, the recipient of that "unluck" was Victor Hanescu of Romania, who's never made it past the third round in seven previous Wimbledon appearances.
Others playing Monday include No. 2 Andy Murray, the runner-up a year ago; and No. 5 Rafael Nadal, whose 12 Grand Slam titles include two at Wimbledon. Federer could face Nadal in the quarterfinals, with the winner possibly meeting Murray in the semifinals.
"I'd rather Rafa and Roger were on the other side of the draw," said Murray, aiming to give Britain its first male champion at Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936, "but they're not."
No. 1 Novak Djokovic, meanwhile, is expected to have an easier path through other half of the field and won't get started until Tuesday. That's also when Williams is scheduled to play.
By the sound of things Sunday, she might be pleased to be able to focus on tennis rather than talking.
"There's one thing I'm really good at," said the 31-year-old Williams, the oldest woman to top the WTA rankings, "and that's hitting the ball over a net, in a box. I'm excellent."
Certainly true. She won her 16th Grand Slam title by beating Sharapova two weeks ago at the French Open, and declared Sunday, "It's great for women's tennis when we play each other." (That might be because Williams has won their past 13 matches.)