The sports world’s job-well-done salute to Serena Williams will be staged this week at the U.S. Open in New York, not far from Broadway’s mesmerizing theatre lights. Like the super-talented show folks, who routinely dazzle theatre goers with extraordinary performances night after night, it is fitting that Serena lowers the curtain on her extraordinary 21-year run at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, where it all began. Serena, who turns 41 next month, faces Danka Kovinic, of Montenegro, in the first round Monday night in Arthur Ashe stadium. Will it be Serena’s Swan Song in singles? Serena and her sister, Venus, will play doubles later in the week.
Serena’s run began with a rare battle between teenagers in the 1999 U.S. Open final. Unseeded Serena, 17, upset 18-year-old top-ranked Martina Hingis, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4). That made Serena only the second black female to win one of the four major titles (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open). Althea Gibson claimed her first of five major titles at the 1957 French Open.
In 2017, Serena set an Open Era (1968) record of 23 major titles after beating her big sister, Venus, 6-4, 6-4 in the final for her seventh Australian Open title. She has four French Opens, seven Wimbledon and ties Chris Evert with a record six U.S. Open titles. With a rare combination of powerful groundstrokes, unreturnable serves and singular focus, Serena was the most feared pro on the women’s tour for nearly 18 years. On several occasions, however, the extraordinary athleticism and skills of Serena and her sister, Venus, loosened the worst strands of racial animosity in some opponents, fans and media representatives. Still, the sisters prevailed
I always believe I can beat the best, achieve the best. I always see myself in the top position. — SW
A cadre of sports writers, including yours truly, predicted Venus, not Serena, would be Richard Williams’ rising superstar daughter. Two years before Serena’s breakthrough, then 17-years-old and unseeded, Venus captured the sports media attention by reaching the U.S. Open final in her debut. Venus’ race to stardom was slowed by Hingis, of Switzerland, 6-0, 6-4 in the final. Despite the loss, reporters praised Venus for her effort. During her press conference Venus backed away from their adulation saying, “Serena will be better than me.” A few minutes later, Richard confirmed his older daughter’s assessment. With a sneaky smile, Richard said, “Wait until they get a load of Serena. She’s going to be better than Venus and she’s not as nice as Venus. She’s really mean; sometimes I’m scared of her.”
Richard began teaching Venus to play tennis at age 4; Serena got started a year later when she turned four. They learned to play on a crummy court in a gang infested section of Compton, CA. At times, the sisters kept their cool, even when shots were fired in their neighborhood.
If you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that’s concentration — SW
From the beginning, Serena followed in her big sister’s footsteps. Without hesitation, Venus became Serena’s protector and favorite practice partner. “My first job is big sister and I take that very seriously,” said Venus, whose 49 career titles include seven majors (five Wimbledon, two U.S. Open).
Serena’s 1999 U.S. Open title gave her bragging rights over Venus but just for a while. A year later, Venus had 16 titles, including two majors – 2000 Wimbledon and the 2000 U.S. Open since turning pro and was ranked No. 2 in the world; Serena had nine titles, including a major and was ranked No. 7 in the world. In 2002 Serena bolted ahead of Venus and established herself as the women’s tour’s dominant force. She won two ‘Serena Slams’ ((2002-03 and 2014-15). That’s four major titles won consecutively but not in the same calendar year. Only five players have won tennis most prestigious prize: the Grand Slam (all four majors in the same calendar year): Don Budge, USA (1938), Maureen Connolly, USA (1953), Rod Laver Australia (1962 and 1969), Margaret Smith Court, Australia (1970) and Steffi Graf, Germany (1988).
I don’t like to lose at anything … Yet I’ve grown most, not from victories but setbacks. If winning is God’s reward, then losing is how he teaches us. — SW
As preteens, the sisters enjoyed playing tennis as they did other games but had no motive to fantasize about life as millionaire superstars. They did, however, latch on to the dreams of their father, who visualized them as teenagers running roughshod through the women’s pro tour. “When we were poor, we were very poor,” Richard once said. “I’ve always set goals much higher than I can reach and I did the same for my daughters. The one thing I will never understand is why people ask me why I tell my girls they can win Wimbledon. Should I tell them they’re no good and they’re going to lose in the first round? What parent would tell their kids to not believe in themselves?”
During a U.S. Open press conference one prominent sports journalist urged the sisters to dump Richard as their coach. Asking them to abandon their father, who played a key role in the family’s rags-to-riches saga seemed a harsh and insensitive step. Richard had assumed the role of the bad guy mainly to protect them from the hostility and nastiness that he knew they would face. Through his guidance, on and off the court, he fashioned them into superstar millionaires, proud role models, who often gave clinics, particularly in inner-city communities and sensitive sisters with unshakable love for each other despite the tensions associated with their high-profiled rivalry. He helped him open bank accounts as teens and urged them to pursue college educations.
As a teenager, the late Arthur Ashe, who became one of the world’s most admired sports celebrities, was barred from playing competitively against white juniors in Richmond, Va., his hometown. In his book, Days of Grace, Ashe wrote that many whites were surprised when he said racism, not AIDS, which took his life nearly 30 years ago, was the heaviest burden he had to bear.
“A pall of sadness hangs over my life and the lives of almost all African Americans because of what we as a people have experienced historically in America and what we as individuals experience each and every day of our lives,” Ashe wrote in his autobiography. “We African Americans are perceived as acceptable in a token amount, toxic beyond it. This is a devastating commentary on the majority’s perception of our nature.”
The Williams family endured a shameful level of verbal abuse at the 2001 Indian Wells, Calif., When Venus withdrew from a semifinal due to injury (knee). Richard was accused of forcing Venus to retire. He denied the charge. The next day, fans booed vociferously when Richard and Venus entered the stadium to watch Serena face Kim Clijsters in the final. They also booed Serena throughout her victory against Clijsters.
Tournament director Charlie Pasarell said, “I was cringing when all that stuff was going on. It was unfair for the crowd to do that.”
Said Serena: “The undercurrent of racism was painful, confusing and unfair. In a game I loved with all of my heart, at one of my most cherished tournaments, I suddenly felt unwelcomed, alone and afraid.” Serena boycotted the tournament for 14 years; Venus stayed away a year longer.
Since I don’t look like every other girl, it takes a while to be okay with that. To be different. But different is good. –SW
Racial injustices, however, haven’t prevented Serena from becoming one of tennis’ most marketable player. Over the years, her endorsements have included AbbVie, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Block Inc, DIRECTV, Inc., Ford Motor, Gatorade, Gucci, Hanesbrands, Nike, Subway, Tonal, Wilson Sporting Goods. She told Vogue magazine that she’ll soon be “evolving away” from her tennis career. What will she do?
Years ago, she mentioned fashion design as a possible after-tennis career, maybe modeling or acting. “I believe I’m a good actress and I have a lot of skill,” she said. I would like to challenge myself. Playing a part in a tennis movie isn’t challenging for me at all … I’d like to do something that would … get people to see the skills that I do have.”
Is Serena tennis’ Greatest of All Time (GOAT)? Fans of Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf say that’s debatable. Are Venus and Serena the game’s greatest sister duo? Right now, that’s not debatable.
Growing up, I wasn’t the richest, but I had a rich family in spirit. … I went on the court just with a ball and a racket and with a hope. –SW