A DAY THAT WAS ‘AMAZING, CULTURALLY, INTELLECTUALLY AND SPIRITUALLY’
Billie Jean King creates waves and gets mighty awards. She’s changed our landscape. But no other woman athlete – not even Sharapova or Venus – stirs the milkshake like Serena. She is the mother of the highest profile child in the history of American sport. We see her daughter Olympia up on freeway billboards, on magazine covers, or in the arms of her new pal Novak Djokovic. Still, for all her wonder, no other athlete attracts criticism like Serena. Even as an innocent teen, an entire stadium hooted at her over two hours.
John McEnroe offered some hefty shade with his out-of-nowhere-in-particular claim that if Serena were on the men’s tour, she’d be ranked only No. 700. The supposedly august New York Times body-shamed her in an article before 2015’s US Open and had to apologize. Russia’s recent tennis czar referred to Serena and her sister as the Williams brothers – ouch. And just this spring Ion Tiriac claimed Serena was old and fat and a poor leader for the WTA. Just like Rick – who in the classic movie “Casablanca” was told there were healing springs in town – we think Tiriac was misinformed. Serena responded, saying that women’s tennis is a lot more than her and that Tiriac’s silliness was “an ignorant comment.” She added that she would “have words for him.”
Days after the putdown by the Romanian billionaire, Serena was lifted to the stratosphere of world culture thanks to the pomp and ceremony of the mighty British aristocracy. Never mind that the English have never embraced Serena. With her big shoulders, all her big titles and her in-your-face papa, Richard, who once stood up on the Centre Court broadcast booth while showing off a self-serving sign, Serena gained few fans in the British Isles. Okay, she was accepted. But there was little love. In and about the UK, the fierce and fabulous woman warrior from the ‘hood was her own kind of island.
But back in tinsel town, it is quite a different movie. Hollywood loves her zest, her quirky spontaneity, her willingness to engage, her unblinking love of the battle and her imaginative, playful flare. She relishes the limelight, and drama comes her way as if it were a guided missile. To millions, she’s an inspiration. And it’s hardly surprising that years ago at a Super Bowl, she became a giddy gal pal with the African-American TV actress Meghan Markle. Serena recently told Vanity Fair, that Markle’s personality just dazzles and reported that Meghan came to her for advice on how to handle all the fame. “You just have to be yourself,” said Serena. CNN noted the obvious: “It’s not easy being yourself in this [Royal] system.”
So flash forward, and there was Serena, who had just had her own version of a royal wedding in New Orleans, front and center at the wedding of Ms. Markle and Prince Harry. In her stunning pale pink dress, she was some 20 yards away from the bride and groom, getting more air time on CNN than the Queen – go figure!
The wedding was nothing less than a stunning display of 21st-century diversity. The supposedly stiff and repressed royal family seemed to get it a bit. Forget the old TV show “Queen For A Day,” this was “the Queen gets with it for a day” – a glorious, celebratory day which gave us a fleeting vision of a better, or shall we say, a more connected future. The most eligible bachelor in the British empire would be wed while sporting a considerable beard – oh dear. In her vows Meghan wouldn’t have to state that she would obey her groom – “I say!” And, goodness, the lad wasn’t marrying some blue-blooded daughter of a regiment leader or a fair beauty who emerged from an ancient family with an imposing castle in the Midlands. Rather, Harry’s love was an African-American divorcée and TV star with a certain forward-leaning mindset, who emerged out of a scrappy LA family with a decent dose of dysfunction.
How enchanting. On hand there was not only Serena, but Oprah, and the kind of swaying gospel choir that rocks African-American churches from Harlem to Compton every Sunday (as well as every year at the opening of the US Open.)
Powerful and passionate, the gospel choir stunned the well-heeled Brits with a poignant version of “Stand By Me” and two anthems of the American Civil Rights movement – “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let it Shine” and “Amen.” Then it was Curry time. No it wasn’t Steph Curry draining threes, it was the prominent American Bishop, Dr. Micheal Curry, stirring the soul and draining the patience of his posh British audience with a kind of long, kind of wonderful sermon on the power of love. High Anglicans in their 17th century churches just don’t get animated, heartfelt, booming messages like this. In heaven, Martin Luther King must have been chuckling.
If, in the ’60s as part of the British Invasion, the Beatles came to America with their “All you need is love” message – this was a kind of momentary African-American invasion of Britain, with Rev. Curry providing a rousing call from the heart. In an era of fear and fury, his was a celebration of kindness. It resonated deep.
Martina Navratilova, who happened to watch the wedding from nearby Wimbledon, where she was doing an event, told IT, “It was fantastic. The diversity of everything in that wedding ceremony was amazing, culturally, intellectually, spiritually – with all the the different religions, viewpoints and everything thrown in. Then they drove off in an E-type Jaguar that had been converted and had an electronic motor. That’s as good as it gets.”
But not as good as it gets was how Serena was treated in Paris. Never mind that she has won more Slams on European soil than any other American in recent memory, and is a lover of the French. What other WTA player has a Paris apartment, a French coach and is the first great foreign woman player since Mary Pierce to speak French?
Despite all this, Roland Garros officials shamefully refused to grant a seed to the great diva, who has been a key to the success of modern tennis. But this kind of shoddy, short-sighted treatment of a great star is hardly new. In the early ’80s, officials played it by the book and forced the young, but exhausted, Swedish super star Bjorn Borg to play events when he wanted to rest. He left the game. And, of course, since the beginning of time, women’s careers have long been hampered by their pregnancies. Many came to Serena’s defense, including Ivanka Trump (those Palm Beach, Florida folks hang together).
But in the end, it seems the tennis gods might just fancy Williams. Or they might have the common-sensical opinion that a player shouldn’t be penalized for bringing a child into the world. It only seems right that Serena has a decent draw. In her first round, the greatest player of the two Williams sisters will face the lesser Pliskova sister – Kristyna. It will be fascinating to see how match-tough Serena is. With only a measly four matches under her belt this year, will she be sluggish or will she be able to sizzle? She’s lifted the French trophy three times, but she also suffered, in 2012, her most devastating first-round loss here. It kicked her in the butt –and soon after, her career surged. If she wins a few matches, she would play the No. 6 seed, Kristyna’s sister Karolina, in the fourth round.
Then again, even if she’s just changing diapers, there always seems to be a story with Ms. Serena.
• Never in recent memory has there been a greater favorite in a Slam then Rafa, who is going for his eleventh French title – “decima-un.” His dominance brings to mind the era when his friend Tiger Woods dominated golf. At every tournament, the question used to be who do you favor, Tiger or the entire rest of the field? This year most French Open observers would take Rafa over the field. He has a great draw. A loss of a single set in the early rounds would be a newsflash. Rafa did lose to Dominic Thiem in the high altitude of Madrid and was fortunate that a rain delay late in the Italian Open helped him turn around his Roman wrestle against the rising 6’6” Alexander Zverev, who was just three games from victory and is unquestionably on the brink of greatness.
• Rarely has there been a more splendid qualifying tournament than the “prequel” to the French Open. Yes, former Wimbledon finalist Genie Bouchard fell in the first round. But, elated former champion Francesca Schiavone got through to the main draw, as did former semifinalist Ernests Gulbis and the once high-flying Bernard Tomic who, amazingly, was set to face his fellow Aussie Nick Kyrgios in the first round.
• There will be a Carolina twang in the first round. New Yorker Noah Rubin, who went to Wake Forest in North Carolina, will face North Carolina native John Isner, who went to Georgia for college.
• The last quarter of the men’s draw is a landmine that has already been dubbed “the quarter of death.” It features Austrian Thiem, the only player to beat Nadal on clay on this year, as well as Greece’s hot teen Stefanos Tsitsipas, who has a sublime one-handed backhand. Plus, there’s Kei Nishikori, who recently beat Novak Djokovic, and Frenchmen Benoit Paire, Gilles Simon and Lucas Pouille, America’s flashy, upwardly trending Frances Tiafoe, and fellow American Sam Querrey, as well as the long-sidelined former French champion Stan Wawrinka and, lest we forget, the No. 2 seed, a tall German, Mr. Alexander Zverev, who would love to shock the world and hold the Paris trophy high in the French sky once the final shot is stroked.
• Two former French champions who left their original homes to train in Spain – Svetlana Kuznetsova and Garbine Muguruza – will meet in the first round.