As they munched on their cereal, kids from Kentucky to Kansas stared at her image. There was Serena on the front of their Wheaties box. Chic urbanites mused on their latest issue of Harper’s Bazaar. There was Serena, revealing her bun on the outside cover and spinning her well-scrubbed version of that most infamous of tennis debacles – last year’s US Open.
After Williams’ semifinal win, Radio Wimbledon rushed to Henman Hill for some breathless fan reactions. One giddy fellow from Ohio gushed, “Serena’s like Michael Jordan or Muhammed Ali.”
Exactly. But what do we call this great warrior – the Queen, the GOAT, Supermother or Superwoman? Whether imposing on a tennis court, on a red carpet or in a press room, Serena is bigger than life. She’s made far more fashion statements then your average run-of-the-mill diva. She outrages some with scandals. Pick your fave: from, “I’m going to shove this f—cking ball down your throat!” to “I am not a thief!”
She infuriates one moment, and inspires the next. Billie Jean King, Venus, Judy Murray, Mary Carillo and Katrina Adams are all tennis feminists who’ve changed the landscape. Of late, Serena has been in her own league. She’s not Kamala Harris with a tennis racket, it just seems that way. When asked today if she’ll stop speaking out and just focus on her game, she told the reporter, “The day I stop fighting for equality for people who look like you and me will be the day I am in my grave.”
Young girls battling their doubts, persons of color facing bias, struggling moms, full-figured women who are body-shamed, millennial girls who just want to have fun and feminists of every stripe hold this icon dear. She’s their champion. Yes, she married a wealthy hi-tech whiz and has pocketed more prize money (over $90 million) than any other WTA player. But what’s more important is that her poster adorns countless rooms.
Before our eyes, we saw that wide-eyed girl with beads in her hair – the one who claimed a Grand Slam in New York when she was 17 – become the savvy media star who won the Australian Open with a baby in her belly. She’s come back from life-threatening ailments and all but stole the show at a royal wedding.
Serena’s Serena. She can do anything – right?…Then again, maybe not. After winning her 23rd Slam at the 2017 Aussie Open it seemed she would soon collect another major to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Slams. What a gimme.
But life stepped in. The birth of her daughter was complicated. Serena had another brush with death. Mothering was a “Please, God, I just want some sleep!” challenge. There were plenty of agonizing tears, but no shiny trophies. That work-life balance thing is a challenge. She faltered twice in Slam finals, lost big leads and suffered wretched losses. And in New York she was at the epicenter of the greatest earthquake in tennis history.
Enter this year’s Wimbledon. Yes, Serena had suffered a first-round scare to a qualifier, and there was the usual dust-up. She was fined $10,000 for pounding Wimbledon’s hallowed turf. But overall, things were jolly. Her knee was fine, she was pain-free, and the highest seed she had to face was No. 17 Julia Gorges. Playing doubles with Andy Murray was a breezy delight, and now, in the final, all she had to do was brush aside little Simona Halep, who’s from a country that hadn’t produced a single Wimbledon champ and doesn’t have a single grass court. No problem – Serena had beaten the 5’ 6” Romanian in nine of their ten meetings.
But Halep is a savvy pro. The 2018 French Champ and former No. 1 talked about being positive and the joy of taking her chances. She was inspired. Eleven years ago, her mom had told her, “If you do anything in tennis, play a Wimbledon final in front of the Royal Box.” She wanted to win. Becoming a member of the All-England Club mattered. Ion Tiriac, the patron of Romanian tennis told her, “From the first point, make Serena run.”
She did. Focused and flawless, she sprinted from the starting gate. Serena seemed leaden. She overhit or dumped shots into the net. With beauty and fleet athleticism, Simona raced from beyond the baseline right to the net. Her defense was a weapon. Her shots were flat, her confidence strong, her mind clear. She returned serve with assurance. Her groundies had depth and found open spaces. Before Sir Edward and the Honorable Lady Cazalet could finish their strawberries and cream, Serena was in Simona’s rear view mirror. In just eleven minutes, Halep grabbed a 4-0 lead.
The 27-year-old didn’t blink. She was relentless. She held serve with ease. Time and again Serena was about to win a point, but Halep’s anticipation was uncanny. Playing with freedom and guts she’d fearlessly dash to reach Williams’ blasts. Halep’s defense seemed to shout, “Guess what, Ms. GOAT, you gotta play one more stroke!”
Centre Court awaited Serena’s counterattack. She tried, but her surge was mild. As we’ve seen before, she got angry, just to calm down and play herself into the match. But she had no answers. Today she gave us a storm of 26 errors – Simona had a paltry 3. As she had versus Angie Kerber last year and against Naomi Osaka in September, Serena fell behind to a high-quality foe. Now she has suffered truly devastating falls in two Slam finals in ten months. New York was all about tumult and turmoil. Today was about a stunning 6-2. 6-2 beat down. You couldn’t even say this was a Romanian rush hour – the match only lasted 56 minutes. For the sixth year in a row the Wimbledon final failed to go to a third set. From the Royal Box to Henman Hill, the place was stunned.
What happened? Is Serena now just too slow? Is she suffering from a lack of tough matches (she’s only finished four tournaments this year)? Is the weight of expectations just too great? Is being a mother, a superstar and a Slam champ too much to ask of a 37-year-old, even if her name is Serena?
Williams is a superwoman. She’s achieved things us mere mortals can only imagine. Her legacy is secure. But even Superman had his achilles heel – kryptonite. In three Slam finals in twelve months, Serena was on the brink of “24.” Three-times she had break points on history. Three times history held and, once again, somewhere in Perth, Australia, an old legend is smiling. After all, Margaret Court is still holding court.