Tennis is like high school. The scene is carved up into groups and cliques. Okay, it’s not as bad as your junior year, where everyone seemed to be on a track: in or out, nerd or jock, popular or loner. But it can be a daunting universe filled with cutting judgements – mean and severe.
In tennis, Sharapova is the self-proclaimed outsider. In contrast, Kim Clijsters liked everyone. She said she played the game to make friends. It’s amazing that Federer, despite being so dominant, is so popular in the locker room. Madison Keys, Coco Vendeweghe, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Sloane Stephens are well-bonded, as are their fellow Americans John Isner, Sam Querrey, Steve Johnson and Jack Sock, who have recently been busy attending each other’s weddings. Among the younger guys, Frances Tiafoe is not exactly the class clown, but he lights up a room. Novak Djokovic’s humor drew mixed reviews.
When Venus and Serena came into tennis in the mid-90s, their task was a lot more than a kid having to pick up and go to a new school. Tennis was pretty white and pretty intimidating. Who knew those Williams kids from the California hood would totally transform a sleepy sport?
In any case, Venus and Serena’s survival style was to stick together tightly and always have each other’s back. They didn’t have any pals in the locker room. And, truth be told, as they emerged, the sisters had some ‘tude. “The Bump” incident at the US Open, when Irina Spirlea crashed into Venus, didn’t happen out of nowhere, and there was another incident when a Hall of Famer reportedly kicked a Williams tennis bag in the locker room.
But that was then. Serena, in particular, has grown into quite a societal force. She’s won lots of titles and prevailed in many a cultural skirmish. Plus, she’s changed her locker room approach. She now has many an admirer and pal both in tennis and in Hollywood: think Meghan Markle.
She became buddies with Kim Clijsters. Her gal pal Caroline Wozniacki was at her New Orleans wedding and she’s friends with Novak Djokovic, whose second child was born just a day apart from the birth of Serena’s daughter.
Yes, some wondered about her wearing her catsuit. To Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky, sporting the outfit at the US Open would have been just fine, but not in Paris at the continental French Open. In contrast, Serena’s pal Djokovic was eloquent in his praise.
“I love Serena,” he began. “She deserves all the superlatives and beautiful words you can think of. Especially now, after she gave birth to Olympia. After all she’s achieved, to see her back and putting hours on the court and working again – it’s impressive. It’s inspiring. It really is.
“I’ve a really nice relationship with her…There’s only a day difference between the birth of my daughter and her daughter. So we’ve texted a lot in the process. She was very nice to share a lot of things that she was going through with me and my wife, and I really appreciated that. I felt really close to her. All I can say is I love her, and I wish her all the best, especially after all she’s done. We cannot forget about that.
“It’s not like she never won a slam and then now she wants to come back because she has something to achieve. She’s the greatest female athlete of all times, probably, and she keeps on coming back and inspiring everyone. She uses tennis as a platform to do good things, and that’s why she’s back. You can see how much she loves it…[Becoming a parent obviously is] much more difficult for a woman. That’s why it makes it even more impressive when they make comebacks, and especially Serena. We cannot forget that…She wants to come back because she has something to achieve…She keeps on coming back and inspiring everyone. She uses tennis as a platform to do good things, and that’s why she’s back. You can see how much she loves it.”
Knowing that Serena is one of the strongest women in American culture, we decided to ask another strong woman – the German thinker Andrea Petkovic, who is into the third round – to talk about Serena’s catsuit, her role in culture and why, even though she’s vastly popular, she still draws slurs and putdowns.
Petkovic said, “I love the catsuit. I’m all for it…I might copy her and [take a] walk with it, but probably only in New York because that’s the only city where you can actually pull it off on the street.
“Serena’s one of my big idols. I have nothing but admiration for her. But personalities like her will always stir controversy, and that’s just something that is great, because she moves people. And sometimes people have negative emotions towards her. Most people have positive emotions towards her.
“And people who inspire always stir up something. It says more about the people that comment negatively about her than it really 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 people. [Maybe its] insecurity. They’re afraid of strong females.
“There are millions of reasons that I cannot point out to you right now, because I don’t know the issues of those men that made such [negative] comments.
“But it always says more about these people that comment negatively than it says about Serena. And every person that’s inspirational and stands for something more than just her sport…will stir controversy. That’s just a given that you have to take.”
A woman fan, Kathleen McGerver from Boston, who was were near me in the press box, was candid. “We’ve had our ups and downs with Serena. But now we’re with her.”
Her husband Bill added, “Yeah, she’s redeemed herself.”