As I write this, Serena Williams is fighting for her tennis life once again, this time against Sam Stosur—the Aussie's big game really does trouble SW. Whatever the result, in tribute to that vintage Williams fight, I'll finish my Fan Club chat with Marissa Lackey of San Francisco today.
In some ways, Serena has shown me, as much as much any player, how you can come to appreciate and like very different attitudes and styles among tennis players. I normally feel better when a player gives an opponent credit when they lose. But I've come to have a hard-earned respect for how the Williams sisters, as a matter of policy, so rarely do so. In their minds the match is always on their racquets, even back when they were teenagers playing Steffi Graf. Neither seemed to give her any special deference, and if you want to win, that's the way it should be. To me, the most unique aspect of both sisters, but especially Serena, is how thoroughly they absorbed the main lesson of their father—that they were born to be the best. Thousands of coaches have tried to instill that belief into thousands of players, but I've never seen anyone succeed at it the way Richard Williams and his daughters did. It's inspiring, and a little daunting.
You mention questionable phrases like "brute power," which have been used to describe Serena's game. Another thing I've learned is that it can be hard to get away from what the old Sports Illustrated writer Roy Blount Jr., termed "respectful racism." You start to question using a term like "naturally athletic," even when they do apply, and I've wondered about my past uses of the word "intimidating" to describe Serena's and Venus's on-court demeanors, if only because I almost never use the word to describe other players. But let's face it, when you hear the other women talk about playing Serena, they say it is intimidating. As you said very well, Marissa, it's complicated when it comes to Serena, and it's not like she isn't aware of the Angry Black Woman cliché that you mentioned on Friday. Take this awkward moment from her post-loss press conference at the Australian Open:
Q. Seems like there's perspective here. Seems like you're motivated to go back out there. I think if you compare this to other press conferences after defeats, you'd agree that they're a little different.
SERENA WILLIAMS: Am I usually angry? I don't know. Crying? I don't cry. So I don't know what I usually project.
There was more tension in the room during this exchange than the words on the page indicate. While her personality is hardly like Arthur Ashe's, if you look at Serena and her sister's careers, you can see that like Ashe they went out of their way, most of the time, to be especially sporting athletes. In many ways, they're old school when it comes to that. How many calls do they argue or challenges do they make? Who else walks straight around the net post to the other side of the net after the first game of a set, the way the rules originally mandated? It's a shame that Serena will now be more famous for her, well, less-sporting moments.
As for her game and her place in tennis history, I was, like you, surprised to see her out of the Top 10, when Billie Jean King made it in. Serena has 13 Slams to King's 12, so other factors—maybe, like you said, perceptions about commitment to the game, or longevity—must have been considered (not that longevity isn't a relevant factor). I guess there are two ways you can look at it. I admire players like Evert and Navratilova and King who gave everything to tennis, played week in and week out, until they couldn't do it anymore, and as a fan I wish Serena had had that commitment. But then you can see the flip side in the modern burnout cases of Martina Hingis and Jennifer Capriati. Maybe the Williamses were smart to limit their schedules. Whatever it was, they did something right, because both have stood the test of time, with seemingly no dimunitiion in their desire once they do walk on court.
What amazes me most about Serena at this stage is the expectations for her. While Federer's age is constantly mentioned, by press and fans alike, no one seems to think that Serena, who is just a couple of months younger, should be slowed down at all by the years and the miles. At her best, she's been so dominant that most people believe that even age can't slow her down. Serena: Inspiring, and daunting, to the end. And, from background to mentality to career management, one of a kind.
Marissa, has watching Serena taught you anything over the years? Has she inspired you? Is there any part of her persona or her game that you don't love?
That seemingly unshakeable confidence that Serena and Venus have is something to behold, isn’t it? The word that comes to mind is “entitlement.” It’s a quality that I typically think of as being negative, but in the context of the Williams sisters’ story, I can’t help but admire it. After all, nothing in the sisters’ family background would suggest that they would take up tennis, let alone so quickly make themselves at home on the sport’s biggest stages. Still, I can see how this quality could be off-putting. Tennis requires a full-time commitment for most players, but at times, Serena and Venus have seemed to view the sport almost like a hobby—just something to do between Home Shopping Network appearances or fashion design courses.
And yet, for someone who in many ways helped redefine the women’s game, Serena can be, as you noted, remarkably old school and traditional in her views about sportsmanship. Who can forget Serena’s repeated verbal jabs at Justine Henin for the “the hand incident” in the 2003 Fench Open? Another way in which Serena is refreshingly old school is her refusal to take advantage of oncourt coaching or to look up to her box between points with the questioning expressions we see from so many other players. Watching Serena, I’m reminded of the gladiatorial aspects of tennis that initially drew me to the sport.
I’m also intrigued by the differences you noted in the expectations for Serena and Federer. I believe that, like Federer, Serena may ultimately end up suffering because of the impossibly high standard she has set for herself. Federer has made the act of playing consistently high-level tennis year after year seem like the most effortless, natural thing in the world; Serena has made an art out of improbable comebacks and impossible escapes.
I still remember the tone of the coverage of Serena’s loss to Marion Bartoli in last year’s Wimbledon. It was only Serena’s second tournament after missing 11 months with an injury and life-threatening complication, and yet so many fans and media seemed shocked—shocked!—that she could lose to a Top 10 player (and former Wimbledon finalist). It’s hard to imagine us having the same expectations of any other player in those circumstances. I suppose it’s evidence of just how much all of us, fans and non-fans, have internalized the Williams sisters’ mythology.
What have I learned from Serena? I’ve learned that when she steps on court, rankings and conventional wisdom about match toughness and preparation can be deceiving and sometimes downright meaningless. I’ve also learned that, when it comes to Serena, WYSIWYG (“What you see is what you get”) doesn’t apply; I have seen her play when she appears to be out of shape, injured, and outclassed, only to turn the match around with one shot and prevail in a match she had no business winning. I don’t expect Serena to always win these kinds of matches, but the belief that she just might is enough to keep me watching.
It’s funny—before you posed the question, I’d never really thought about whether Serena inspires me, per se. Sure, I would look at Serena and Venus—two strong-minded, undeniably talented black women doing their thing in their own particular way—and feel proud. But inspiration? Well, OK. I admit that I’ll sometimes channel Serena’s defiant, refuse-to-lose attitude when I encounter a challenging situation in my day-to-day life. But usually, it’s more subtle than that, like going to a live tournament and noticing a marked difference in the diversity and energy of the crowds during the sessions when Serena is playing. I find that inspiring and, as someone who loves tennis, heartening.
More generally, I draw inspiration from the Williams family because their story in some way parallels that of my own. Serena and Venus are around my age and their parents, like mine, are originally from the South. Even though the tennis establishment has often viewed Richard Williams as an eccentric (to put it politely), he didn’t strike me as all that different from some of the elders in my own family who’d grown up in the segregated South. Indeed, Richard Williams—and his lessons for his daughters—seemed far more relatable to me than other tennis parents.
In terms of her public persona, I’ve wished at times that Serena would bite her tongue. As entertaining as Serena’s interviews are, I sometimes find myself groaning in anticipation of how her remarks will be taken out of context or used as ammunition for her critics. For instance, part of me wishes that she’d just apologized to the lineswoman in her post Footfault-Gate press conference, instead of blankly looking at the press corps as if she had no idea on earth what she had done that would warrant a sense of contrition. I also would have preferred that Serena stay above the fray in the “Real No. 1” furor of a couple of years ago instead of fueling it. That said, Serena is such a polarizing figure for fans, media, and the general public that there will always be ammunition there for those who look. Besides, would Serena really be Serena if she had a filter?
Perhaps Serena herself said it best in a press conference exchange during last year’s US Open when, incidentally, she was questioned about her intimidation factor.
Q. [Ivanovic] said you were intimidating. Do you try to be intimidating out there?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Yeah. I walk out there, do the Crip walk and try to intimidate them (laughter). No, I don't try. I just am. I am who I am. I don't know whether that's intimidating or not. I am just me.
Inspiring. Daunting. That’s just who she is.