By John Huston
In just a few hours, Serena Williams will be playing for her third consecutive US Open women’s title and 18th Slam singles win. On the eve of the match, here’s a tour through 12 of the wackiest, wildest moments in Williams family lore. While Serena hasn’t won a Slam yet this year, she has added another vivid entry to this list, with her dazed and confused performance in women’s doubles at Wimbledon. Will Serena grab that elusive No. 18, or will this list grow in number to 13? Or both?
THE BIRTH OF AN IDEA: Richard Williams sees Virginia Ruzici win a tournament in Salt Lake City on TV, and when Bud Collins congratulates Ruzici for earning $40,000, Williams contemplates raising some money-making tennis champions. The rest is history.
THE BIRTH OF VENUS (ON THE TOUR): In 1994, 14-year-old Venus Williams makes her pro debut at the Bank of the West Classic in Oakland. “It was almost like Elvis arriving in the building,” then-coach Rick Macci observed afterward. Venus wins her first match and then races to a 6-3, 3-1 lead against world No. 1 Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario before Sanchez-Vicario rallies back to come out on top. Little sis Serena Williams watches from the stands. “I just lived and died every moment,” she said this year, when IT asked about watching Venus’s first-ever pro match.
THE SPIRLEA BUMP: In a 1997 US Open semi, Romania’s Irina Spirlea deliberately bumps into 17-year-old Venus during a changeover. Venus fights off two match points to win. In her post-match presser, Spirlea—the first WTA player ever disqualified from a match for misconduct—criticizes Venus, saying “She thinks she’s the —-ing Venus Williams.” Richard Williams later calls Spirlea “an ugly, white turkey.”
OUTRAGE AT INDIAN WELLS: In 2001 at Indian Wells, Venus withdraws from a semifinal against sister Serena, and the news is announced to a packed stadium shortly before the match. Two days later, Serena—along with Richard and Venus in the stands—is jeered by an angry crowd throughout the final against Kim Clijsters. Afterward, Richard states that he was subjected to racist insults. Serena wins the match, but the Williams’ begin a thirteen-years-and-counting boycott of the greatest tournament in the American West.
HENIN AND THE HAND: At the US Open, Serena’s foot sparked a Williams controversy. At the French Open in 2003, it was Justine Henin‘s hand. As Serena served up 4-2 up in the third set of a semifinal, Henin raised her hand to signal she wasn’t ready. Serena—who netted the serve—saw Henin’s gesture, but the umpire didn’t. Serena was forced to hit a second serve, and Henin—with a highly partisan French crowd behind her—broke Serena and won the match. In 2011, Henin admitted, “It’s true that it is not the best memory.” In response, Serena tweeted, “I keep hearing about an admittance to someone cheating me and lying about it after at the French Open. Did she confess finally?” Well, Serena, not exactly.
THE FIRST WILLIAMS WIMBLEDON WOBBLE: The 2004 second-round match between Venus and Karolina Sprem at Wimbledon was a ferocious battle, with dynamic rallies. But ump Ted Watts, daydreaming during the crucial second-set tiebreak, awarded an extra point to Sprem when she hit an out-of-play ball for a “winner” after missing a first serve. Neither player recognized the decisive error, and after fighting off a set point, Sprem won the tiebreak to take the match. Watts was removed from his post.
THE MATCH THAT KICKSTARTED HAWK-EYE? In the history of late-stage Slam matches in the Open era, the worst officiating may have been during a 2004 US Open quarterfinal between Serena and Jennifer Capriati on Arthur Ashe. In the third set’s first game, after one botched call against Serena, umpire Mariana Alves overruled a line person to declare another one of Serena’s shots out, and TV replays quickly showed it landed well inside the line. In the final game, Serena was wronged by two more line calls. “Hawk-Eye, please,” John McEnroe exclaimed on TV after the final botched call. Alves was removed from the chair for the tournament, but still officiates today.
FOOT-FAULT FUROR: In a 2009 US Open semi, on a second serve while down 4-6, 5-6, Serena is called for a foot fault that gives opponent Kim Clijsters a match point. Serena erupts at line judge Shino Tsurubuchi, pointing her finger and saying, “I swear to —-ing god I’m —-ing going to take this —-ing ball and shove it down your —-ing throat, you hear me?” The chair ump gives Williams a point penalty and Clijsters the match. Afterward, Serena is fined $82,500 and placed on a two-year probation period at the Slams. (Commentator Mary Carillo asserts the punishment should be more severe.)
WALKING ON BROKEN GLASS: After winning Wimbledon in 2010, Serena steps on glass at a bar in Munich, severing a tendon and requiring 12 stitches on her right foot and six on her left. The injury forces her to miss the US Open and prompts a surgery. While recovering, she is hospitalized for a life-threatening pulmonary embolism the following March.
THE C’MON! HEARD ROUND THE WORLD: During the 2011 US Open final, a few days after her Slam probation is lifted, Serena loses her cool again. Down a set and break point to Sam Stosur, she yells “C’mon!” while an apparent winner is still in play, and umpire Eva Asderaki awards the point (for hindrance) and game to Stosur. Serena berates her during a changeover, saying, “If we’re ever walking down the street, stay on the other side. You’re totally out of control. You’re a hater and you’re unattractive inside. What a loser.” Stosur wins 6-2, 6-3, and Serena is fined $2,000 for the outburst. Ironically, Asderaki had called Serena for “C’mon” hindrance once before, in Doha in 2009. In that instance, Serena said “Sorry,” and she, Asderaki, and Svetlana Kuznetsova shared a laugh.
AN UPSET SERENA IS UPSET: Going into the 2011 French Open, Serena—who turned pro in 1995—had never been beaten in the first round of a Slam. That all changed when Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano, two years after losing her fiancé to cancer, rallied to overcome Serena in a drama-filled match marked by hindrance calls from umpire Eva Asderaki (this time directed at Razzano) and a crying spell from Serena after a disastrous second-set tiebreak.
THE SECOND WILLIAMS WIMBLEDON WOBBLE: After suffering a surprise loss in singles, Serena arrives for her second-round doubles match looking dazed and confused, netting volleys during the warmup and hitting four double-faults in a row before she and Venus retire from the match. “Viral illness” is the official reason given for her woozy state, but that doesn’t stop commentators Chris Evert, Pam Shriver, and Martina Navratilova from speculating, and asking how she even was allowed to step on court.