OH, SERENA – TWENTY-FOUR YEARS OF ADVENTURES WITH THE MOST COMPELLING AND PROVOCATIVE ATHLETE OF OUR GENERATION
I first saw her 24 years ago. There was little Serena Williams – just 12, wide-eyed and in awe as her older sister Venus made her circus-like debut in Oakland. Amid the media storm, Serena’s dad Richard insisted that big things were in store for Serena and she would even be better than her considerable sister.
Newsflash: he was right on both scores.
For more than two decades I’ve been privileged to be on hand for virtually all her on-court triumphs and trials. In 2001 I was stunned when an Indian Wells crowd booed teen Serena in the finals, and I wrote at length about that sad, sorry day.
More importantly, I began a 14-year campaign to try and get Serena and Venus back to Indian Wells. I would continually ask the tournament organizers Charlie Pasarell and Ray Moore, “What can we do to get our foremost American players back?” Every year I’d ask either the heads of the WTA or the sisters themselves about it. I had a surreal exchange with their dad – the vastly underrated Richard Williams – dealing with a possible return. And, at the Aussie Open, I lobbied long and hard with Serena’s coach and pal Patrick Mouratoglou, pleading with him to encourage Serena to return to Indian Wells. It would, I contended, be wonderful to write a new chapter, one that would be so good for her, the fans, the tournament and for race relations in our troubled land. Shortly thereafter, Serena was on the entry list.
In over 38 years as the writer and publisher of Inside Tennis, I have delighted most in three achievements. One: keeping a tennis magazine going for almost four decades, and hopefully improving it. Two: in 1996 and 1997, initiating and sustaining the successful campaign to change the name of the US Open’s stadium from the USTA Stadium to Arthur Ashe Stadium. Three: having what I believe was some sort of role in getting the most important sisters in the history of sports to return, after 14 years, to Indian Wells.
More recently I defended the sisters when former Russian Fed Cup coach Shamil Tarpsichev put them down, describing them as “the Williams brothers.” I was stunned when media sources body-shamed Serena, and I was critical of a recent slur by Romanian Ion Tiriac, who said, “Serena is 36, weighs 198 pounds. I wish something different for the women’s field.”
And very recently, as part of a piece called “The Amazing Days of Serena,” I spoke with Martina Navratilova about the impact of Serena and African-American culture on the royal wedding. Martina said the day “was fantastic. The diversity of everything in that wedding ceremony was amazing, culturally, intellectually, spiritually – with all 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.”
Earlier this week, I spoke with German player Andrea Petkovic, who told me that Serena is one of her idols and that she has nothing but admiration for her, but “personalities like hers will always stir controversy, and that’s something that is great, because she moves people.” Petkovic said most people are positive about Serena, but “sometimes people have negative emotions towards her…[That] says more about the people that comment negatively than it says about her.
“She’s living her life to the fullest. She’s a very strong female figure, very inspirational. She’s very charismatic. And all these things, for whatever reasons, will always hit the wrong chord for some. [Maybe it’s] insecurity – they’re afraid of strong females…Every person that’s inspirational and stands for something…will stir controversy. That’s just a given.”
Yesterday, I asked Serena about comments President Donald Trump made to me in 2004 about her and Maria Sharapova. Trump, who’s been criticized for judging women based on their bodies. He mentioned how alluring he thought Sharapova’s shoulders were. Then he put forth perhaps one of the most absurd tennis analyses I’ve ever heard. He said that when Serena lost the 2004 Wimbledon final, she was intimidated by Sharapova’s supermodel good looks.
Serena understandably didn’t want to comment on that, but added, “I can’t say that I have ever been intimidated by anyone.”
Serena, who will face Sharapova, perhaps her fiercest rival, on Monday in a “no-love-lost” fourth-round match, then went into an extensive criticism of Maria’s book, “Unstoppable: My Life So Far,” which describes Williams crying after her 2004 loss. Serena stated, “The book was 100% hearsay…which was a little bit disappointing. I have cried in the locker room many times after a loss, and that’s what I have seen a lot of people do…It’s normal. It shows the passion and the desire and the will – you have to want to go out there and do [your] best.
“It’s a Wimbledon final. So…it would be more shocking if I wasn’t in tears. And I’m emotional. I have emotions.” Serena added that maybe Maria should “not necessarily talk about it in a not-so-positive way in a book…I feel negativity is taught…I feel like women, especially, should bring each other up…We should encourage each other, and the success of one female should be the inspiration to another…I always get inspired by other women that are doing well.” Serena then asserted, “I was one of the few people that…didn’t have anything negative to say about Maria [following her drug suspension].”
Today, Madison Keys said she was delighted by the return of Serena – whom she called currently “the greatest female tennis player – and possibly the greatest of all time.” So I asked Madison to tell me what the key is to Serena’s success. Keys replied, “She takes everything with the same fire in everything she does. It’s always at an extremely high level. If she puts her mind to something, you know it’s going to be good. The thing I love is that you can tell how much she cares. She’s obviously a very emotional player. It’s awesome to watch someone who…doesn’t really care what other people think but is going to go out there, and whatever she has to do to win, she’s going to do it.”
Exactly. And that’s just what the world has seen for 24 glorious, sometimes tumultuous, rarely dull years. It’s inspiring.