In my post “One Last Shot” about the 2011 NBA Championships, I reflected on aging players in professional sports, linking to Louisa Thomas’s beautiful, if premature, elegy to the tennis career of Roger Federer. Of course, thanks in large part to the absence of his injury-plagued rival, Rafael Nadal, and improvements in his own game, Federer put plans for his retirement party on hold by winning the 2012 Wimbledon men’s singles title and returning to Number One on the men’s tour. Although he failed to win the gold in the Olympics and lost in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open to Tomas Berdych, Federer’s play effectively silenced his critics and detractors. His Sampras moment still lies ahead.
A year ago, people were also wondering whether it was time for the Williams Sisters to exit stage left. No one was writing beautiful essays about what they’ve meant to tennis, although those essays deserve to be written. As recently as this spring, when Serena Williams lost in the first round of the French Open, some questioned whether it was time for both Serena and Venus to retire. It seemed tennis wanted its sport back, a sport that has been dominated by the Williams Sisters since they first came onto the scene in the late ’90s.
So much has changed in a few short months.
From talk of retirement, we instead had the “Summer of Serena,” in which she won the 2012 Wimbledon’s women’s singles title, the 2012 Wimbledon women’s doubles title (with Venus), two Olympic gold medals – one in women’s singles and another in women’s doubles (also with Venus), and the 2012 U.S. Open title – her 15th Grand Slam title and fourth U.S. Open title; prior to this win, she hadn’t won the U.S. Open since 2008. The commentators who still find much to dislike about Serena nonetheless concede that she has to be ranked among the all-time greats, and is making the case for consideration as the best woman to ever play the game.
A few days ago, Grantland published an appreciation of Serena Williams by Brian Phillips – specifically, Phillips’ candid reflections on race, tennis, and Serena’s dominance. I loved the piece for its honesty.
When the Williams Sisters first came on the scene, I, too, preferred Venus. Not because she was prettier, or more feminine, but because she seemed – and this is a word I hate when it’s applied to me – nicer. Women’s tennis is a game of false gentility, of vicious politeness, of double-speak and double standards. The Williams Sisters ushered power tennis into the women’s game, but when women are slugging it out on a tennis court, they’re not supposed to look like they’re enjoying it. In those early days, when Venus was blasting everyone off the court, she would giggle and jump up and down when she won, oblivious to the fact that she and her family seemed to be the only people in the stadium who were happy to see her win. It took time for the tennis establishment to realize there was no malice in her joy.
I hate to say this too, but back in 1997, when Venus Williams entered the U.S. Open for the first time and made it to the finals, all beads and braces and the ugliest tennis outfit Reebok has ever made – she seemed to be the better representative of black people playing all-white sports.
In that same year, Tiger Woods won his first major tournament – the Masters Championship – but was busy denying his blackness. He was so eager to be accepted in his all-white sport that he made up a word to define himself – Cablinasian, a word where “Caucasian” and “Asian” dominated, “Indian” got a brief nod, but “black” only rated a consonant blend, not even earning a full syllable of its own.
Tiger could tell our lying eyes he was Cablinasian, but Venus couldn’t pretend to be anything other than black. If you missed it somehow, her father made sure to point it out to you. Richard Williams was a visionary, but in those days, he was also a buffoon and an embarrassment. In press conferences, Venus would show poise beyond her years, deflecting questions about her father’s outrageous comments or behavior, saying gracious things about her opponents and the sport. She was fierce on the court, but gentle and thoughtful everywhere else.
Richard Williams was fond of reminding everyone that there was another Williams girl looming in the background who was even better than Venus, but no one believed him until Serena arrived on the scene. In 1999, when Serena won the Williams Family’s first Slam – her first U.S. Open, which she won at 17 – it was hard to believe she was real. Venus had the physique that was then and remains now in vogue for women tennis players – tall, slim, small-breasted, athletic but not chiseled. Serena was muscular, and she was all girl – all black girl – too, with those boobs and that butt and those thighs. She didn’t look like anyone else on a tennis court, and she didn’t play like anyone else, either. Venus seemed to have more of her mother’s quiet dignity and reserve, while Serena seemed to be daddy’s girl – for better and for worse – through and through.
Over the years, I came to appreciate Serena. I still liked Venus, but in a sport that is almost as much mental as physical, Serena had the clear edge. Despite the dignified veneer, tennis isn’t nice. It’s confrontational. It’s personal. Each player is playing to beat the person across the net. You may like that person off the court, but on the court, you aren’t friends, and you’re not family. Venus conquered all her other foes – Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport – but Serena was her biggest challenger, and the one she couldn’t overcome. When Venus played Serena, she couldn’t ever seem to regard her little sister wholly as a competitor. Serena was not similarly conflicted. Venus wanted Serena to be happy. Serena wanted to win. Game, set, match – Serena.
People still seem to want Serena to apologize for winning. After Serena beat Sara Errani 6-1, 6-2 in the U.S. Open semifinals, a reporter said, “Just three games to the poor Italian girl. Is not fair. Is not nice.” The Serena of old would have glowered at the reporter, and perhaps said something that the tennis elites wouldn’t have liked. Today’s Serena responded by speaking brightly of Errani’s future. She has learned to say the proper gracious things about her opponents, even though you sense she doesn’t always believe what she is saying. But Serena is not nice – not on a tennis court, and probably not off court, either.
Only now, in the wake of her comeback, do tennis commentators seem to understand the enormity of the psychological and physical problems that have interrupted and almost ended her career, not to mention her life: chronic knee and ankle issues; the murder of her sister Yetunde; the cut foot; the pulmonary embolism. Her health challenges have humanized her to the tennis world in a way her dominant, controlling personality never could.
Serena has had a few players get into her head over her career – notably Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters – but Serena remains Serena’s biggest threat. Sometimes, she goes on mental walkabouts on the court. She gets down on herself for no apparent reason. Her serve – arguably the best ever in the women’s game – can abandon her, as it did in the U.S. Open final. When Serena said in a press conference that she doesn’t think about who she’s playing, that if she’s playing well she believes she can win against anyone, her comments were derided as arrogant and disrespectful. But she was right. Serena’s unshakeable confidence in her ability to win under any circumstance is even more beautiful to watch than her serve.
In the 2012 U.S. Open final, Serena ran away with the first set and promptly lost serve to begin the second. She seemed to lose confidence in both her serve and her shotmaking. Victoria Azarenka stepped her game up big time, but Serena was losing more than Azarenka was winning.
And then – down 5-4, with Azarenka serving for the championship – Serena seemed to remember who she is.
Brian Phillips wrote for Grantland:
“But the thing I love, or admire, or am in awe of about [Serena], though it took me years to appreciate this, is that on the court, she makes everything except tennis appear not to matter. The sport is full of subtly prejudiced upper-class white people? Well, here is an F5 tornado. Katharine Hepburn said at Humphrey Bogart’s funeral that he liked to drink, so he drank; Serena likes to win tennis matches, so she wins tennis matches. It isn’t to make you like her, or prove you wrong, or sell you a sandwich. It isn’t to overcome the global history of race. It isn’t to expand our sense of the meaning of Americanness. It’s to do a thing she wants to do. And miraculously, she is herself such a force that all that other stuff scatters like paper.”
In the last three games of the championship, Serena wasn’t thinking that Azarenka, the current world number one, deserved to win her first U.S. Open title. She wasn’t thinking that she should be nice and let Azarenka win, because even if she lost, she’s had a good year and a good summer. She wanted to win. In that moment, Serena stopped defeating herself. If she was going to lose, Azarenka would have to beat her.
She broke Azarenka to tie the match at 5-5, then held serve to lead 6-5. Azarenka was thisclose to holding serve and forcing a tiebreak, but, having failed to seize break opportunities throughout the match – including at 30-40 in what proved to be the deciding game – Serena didn’t let it happen again. Azarenka blinked, and the match was over.
No matter how many more Grand Slam titles she wins, that, to me, is the legacy of Serena Williams, and the lesson for rising African-Americans players like Sloane Stephens and top girls’ player Taylor Townsend: win. Win without fear, without apology, and without permission. Win whether or not anyone wants you to win. Win when everyone in the stadium and in the broadcast booth is rooting against you. Win because you want to win. Because you’ve earned it. And because you deserve it.
Together, the Williams Sisters have reinvented women’s tennis. And whether the tennis powers that be care to admit it or not, tennis still needs them, and will miss them when they’re gone for good.