Serena and the Meaning of Life

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Reflections on the Serene and Not-so-serene Serena

Bill Simons

For 26 years tennis lovers have been tracking a force of nature named Serena. The wide-eyed Compton kid who was first known as Venus’ baby sister has long been an international icon. When, in 2015, after a 14-year absence she returned to Indian Wells, James Blake noted, “This isn’t a tennis match, this is an international event.”

When Andy Roddick recently reflected on all-time sporting greats, he claimed, “We need to enter Serena into the conversation with Jordan and Ali…[that’s where] the conversation needs to go.” 

In Paris ,much of the conversation has been about Williams. The French know her well. She speaks their language, is taught by their leading coach, has an apartment in their elegant capital, has won their Open three times and used a devastating 2012 loss to one of their stars, Virginie Razzano, to turn her career around. 

As an international brand, she’s revered by  millions around the globe. Tennis may now have a famous coco – that would be Kid Gauff. But Starbucks has its own Serena blend – “Serena Organic.”

Today a reporter started Williams’ Paris press conference by noting that more people watched her US Open semi with Naomi Osaka than the Thiem-Zverev men’s final. He then compared her commercial oomph with that of Roger and Rafa, and asked her what the keys are to effective branding.

She replied they are passion and being real. Of late, Serena has been really into religion. During the COVID shutdown she dove into biblical studies. When asked today to weigh in on the debate of who would be the greatest male player of all time if Rafa won the French to equal Federer’s record of 20 Slams, she replied, “I don’t get involved…The greatest for me is and will always be Jesus.”

Saturday the press wanted to know about Serena’s 39th birthday. But she’s a Jehovah Witness, and they don’t do birthdays. “I generally try to forget this day…[and] don’t celebrate birthdays,” she noted. “I honestly never thought I’d be playing at my age. I mean, I don’t quite look 39. I don’t know when it’s going to stop, I just have fun. When I feel it’s over, it’s over. But I could have pretty much bet my life that I would not have been playing at 39. This is why I don’t bet.”

Serena, who’s the fourth leading French Open favorite behind Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza and Vika Azarenka, has long been more into making philosophical comments than seeking gambling payoffs.

Decades ago, when talking about the key to her stunning emergence, she insisted, “You have to take your time as quick as you can.” When asked about her top-of-the-pack skill sets, she claimed, “I know how to play tennis.” After one French defeat she said, “If I hadn’t lost I would have won.” As for her on-court movement, she quipped, “I move very well, especially when I want to.”

When she wore a bodysuit at the French Open, she asserted, “It represents all the women that have been through a lot…an homage to all those mothers out there. It says they can be a mom and still be a bad-ass.” Last year in a presser,  explaining her temporary confusion, she joked, “I have that mommy brain now. At least, that’s my excuse.” 

The other day a writer told Serena, “It’s kind of a dark time. There’s a little bit of maybe fatigue or something around the tour?” Serena replied, “I’m in general just a happy, positive person…Having different personalities helps. For me, anything can happen…Nothing is guaranteed. You just have to be really excited about each moment life gives you because you don’t know if it’s going to be your last.” Today she was candid: “So many deaths – it’s been tough, it’s been wild. It’s been an interesting year to say the least.”

On court on this chilly French day, we saw the two extremely different sides of Serena we’ve long relished. Time magazine noted, “When Serena is on, she’s unbeatable. When she’s not, the ball boys wear cups.” 

Few other elite champions gravitate so inescapably to drama and trauma. Come to think of it, no one who’s ever picked up a tennis racket has been such a compelling drama diva. Serena confided, “I love my name, but it has nothing to do with me. I am the most un-serene person in the world. I’m not peaceful. I’m not calm.”

Today in Paris there was an Ahn-core of Serena’s first-round match at the US Open. She faced the TikTok whiz and No. 102 player in the world Kristie Ahn. You figured it would be a walk in the Bois de Boulogne. But Kristiee was Ahn-fire, moved well, broke two times and twice served for the first set. But Serena, who was playing her first clay court match in 15 months, started to serve lights out and fought back. Midway through the first-set tiebreak, Williams kicked into high gear, and we saw the other side of her: the dominating, merciless powerhouse who’s an astounding 74-1 in opening rounds at Slams. 

Jon Wertheim noted that Serena’s groundstrokes are “struck so fiercely they could leave exit wounds.” Twenty-one years ago when Serena was crushing Belgium’s Dominique Van Roost, a compassionate Paris usher warned a writer arriving to view the match, “This is not for your eyes. This is carnage.”

Serena mused, “I think of myself as two different people. There’s the Serena everyone knows: She’s crazy. She can’t make a mistake. And she’s angry and just not nice, to be honest. I’m only that person for three hours a day, when I’m on the court. The rest of the time I’m just Serena. I’m the class clown.

Today Serena soon made Kristie quite Ahn-easy, and sprinted to a 7-6. 6-0 win. The victory left us musing on the many sides of this player, person and brand we thought we knew quite well. 

Then again, certainly Serena’s coach knows her better than we do. Patrick Mouratoglou noted, “She doesn’t think like other players. I’ve worked with thousands…and in terms of mindset there is only one Serena…You become who you are and how you think.” 

But for today’s final word on that big, bold and brassy wonder known as Serena, there’s no one better to refer to than her older sis. Venus claimed that despite all Serena’s gone through, more than ever, “She’s still a little girl. Just because you do adult things, you don’t have to grow up. That’s the best part of Serena.”

THE BUZZ

AMANDA’S BACK IN GEAR? American teen prospect Amanda Anisimova, who scored a stunning breakout run some 15 months ago to reach the 2019 French Open semifinals, has had many a setback since. But today she beat Tamara Korpatsch in 59 minutes. 

UPSET ALERT: Fourteenth seed Fabio Fognini fell tamely to Mikhail Kukushkin. Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, 19th seed, lost to Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka. Last year’s finalist and No. 15 seed Marketa Vondrousova lost to Polish teen Iga Swiatek. American Christina McHale took out 22nd seed Karolína Muchova. No. 12 seed Madison Keys lost to China’s Zhang Shuai. Maybe it’s not really an upset, but two-time Slam champ and 28th seed Svetlana Kuznetsova fell to fellow Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. 

AMERICAN SCOREBOARD: Four of seven American men won today. Tennys Sandgren showed his tennis chops as he scored a thrilling 11-9 win in the fifth over Pole Hubert Hurkacz. NorCal and UCLA product Mackie McDonald struggled early but rallied to down Canada’s Steven Diez. Jack Sock, who is trying to restore his singles career, beat his big compatriot Reilly Opelka. Tommy Paul was more than worthy as he drowned out Aussie James Duckworth.  Michael Mmoh fell to the high-tossing Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Frances Tiafoe narrowly lost to Jan-Lennard Struff in five sets. Four of eight American women won, with Serena beating Stanford grad Ahn, Anisimova downing Korpatsch, McHale beating Muchova, and Bernarda Pera prevailing over Atherton’s CiCi Bellis. Lauren Davis lost to Katerina Siniakova and Keys fell to Zhang Shuai.

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