Fan Club: Serena Williams

Friday, March 23, 2012 /by

SwSerena Williams made her return this week in Key Biscayne, so we bring back the Fan Club, this time devoted to her. I talk with one of her longtime supporters, Marissa Lackey of San Francisco. You can follow her at @sblily. Here's Part 1; I'll post Part II on Monday.

*****

Marissa,

This week marks Serena Williams's annual post-Indian Wells return. It's hard to think of another player whose presence changes the sport's landscape so much, at least for fans in her home country. I sort of hate to say it, but she makes the WTA seem major league again.

Serena's future in the game has been a little hazy for a while now, but after her early loss Down Under, and her 30th birthday, it seems hazier than ever to me this time around. For the first time, I feel like she needs to play well, and that the days of her turning it on at the majors and making ridiculous comebacks look routine might finally be behind her. I would normally say, regarding Victoria Azarenka's streak, that it doesn't mean that much until she plays Serena, but Serena seems so detached from the tour right now that I haven't really thought about that at all. That said, I'd love to see the two of them face off, soon.

As a longtime fan of hers, what does Serena's continued presence in the sport mean to you? Do you still root for her, after all these years, the same way you did when she was younger? I feel like she can be pretty tough on her fans, because she vanishes for such long stretches. Does that bother you? Or does it make you appreciate her more when you do get to watch her play? She and her sister will be remembered as one of the most remarkable stories in tennis when they're gone, but I think we tend to forget that when they're still around.

And, before I go, thanks for taking the time to talk to me about her...

*****

Hi Steve,

First, thanks for the opportunity to be the fan voice for the Serena Edition of your “Fan Club” series. It’s not always easy being a Serena fan, but it’s also never dull.

When I consider what Serena’s presence on tour means to me, so many words come to mind: Drama. Charisma. Passion. Craziness. And yet the two words I settle on, strangely enough, are “Uncertainty” and “Certainty.” Uncertainty in the sense that Serena brings an unpredictable, carnival-esque quality to the tour. In a time in which it seems that many of the players have been media trained from a young age to shake hands, smile, and give sanitized, no-answer answers, Serena is must-see TV. Or perhaps more accurately, a reality show that no one wants to admit that they enjoy watching.

At the same time, Serena’s game and name suggest a kind of certainty and stability. First, there’s That Serve. Having seen my share of WTA break-fests, I’ve long been fascinated and amused by Serena’s ability to make what is a source of angst for so many of her peers look so effortless. Casual toss. Easy wind-up. Boom. So easy, almost mocking. The other part of that certainty is the sense that, for all of Serena’s side projects—the red carpet appearances, Green Day-themed tweets, and HSN (Home Shopping Network) appearances hawking her designer wares—once she's on court, she’ll fight like a junkyard dog.

And then, as you alluded to earlier, having Serena’s name in the draw lends an event a certain...how should I put it? Gravitas? This was brought home to me in a big way last summer, when I saw Serena play live (at the Bank of the West Classic). She had a presence and command of the court that had the crowd buzzing. I think Serena is one of a handful of active players that make women’s tennis relevant and compelling for a broader American audience. When I talk to non-tennis loving friends about the sport, Serena’s is one of the few names that requires no further descriptors.

I’ve been a Serena fan for about a decade, but I didn’t start out that way. In the beginning I was a Williams Sisters fan, which is probably why Venus plays a prominent role in many of my earliest memories of watching Serena play. I don’t know if it was the retina-searing outfits, the press conference duels with Martina Hingis, or the fiery on-court demeanor, but at some point, I began to identify Serena as the “fierce” Williams sister and I’ve been a fan ever since. Here was this young black woman with muscles, curves, and attitude to spare, winning big matches, and often making it look easy. I became emotionally involved in her matches then, but mainly out of concern for her legacy—I wanted her to win on the big stages and to beat the top players, just to show the tennis establishment that she could.

Thirteen slams later, I’m as emotionally invested in Serena’s matches as ever, but for reasons that owe more to her injury woes than her age. Her extended absence last year was a sobering reminder that as invincible as Serena can seem, as effortless as she can make the game look, she's more fragile than the common “Superwoman” narrative allows. I find myself feeling a bit more…protective maybe? Aware of her vulnerabilities? In my mind, Serena was always the more reliable Williams Sister, but these days, I watch her matches on the edge of my seat. I sigh with relief when That Serve is working. I cringe when a bad call goes against her, willing her to hold it together, lest she add more footage to her “highlight” reel of career emotional meltdowns. I see the tension in her face and shoulders during tight matches and worry that, despite her talk of playing for many more years, she may be questioning just how many more opportunities she’ll have to win majors.

As for Serena’s tendency to go AWOL for long stretches of the season… I can’t exactly say that it bothers me, given that her recent prolonged absences have been due to injuries. But as a fan, you do get used to them, especially because it’s been a few years since Serena has played the full schedule of, say, a Bartoli or Wozniacki. That said, I think her periodic absences are probably a big reason why she’s still playing at 30 and still (relatively) healthy and sane when so many others of her generation have long since left the game owing to injury or burnout. At this stage in her career, I’d gladly trade a Cincy appearance for a Kardashian wedding and a deep run at the US Open (though I can definitely appreciate the uncomfortable position this puts tournament directors in!).

Going forward, though, I’m intrigued by whether Serena will play more tour events to get match tough for majors if, as you suggest (and I believe), her days of parachuting in with little or warmup play, playing herself into championship form, and walking away with the winner’s trophy may be behind her.

Now a question for you: Does Serena’s pattern of vanishing for stretches of time make your job more difficult? As someone who covers the sport week-in, week-out, I imagine it could be frustrating when one of the sport's most recognizable faces can seem so ambivalent, even uninterested.

*****

Marissa,

I don’t think Serena’s absences make my job harder, but I have a specialized position at Tennis.com. With our audience—international fans, mostly serious fans—I’m one of the lucky American tennis writers who doesn’t have to write about American players all the time. If I did, I might find Serena's on-again, off-again career, and her sometimes-less-than-totally-forthcoming press conferences, frustrating. At this point, I pretty much enjoy her when I can see her, and I stopped worrying a long time ago about what she says or doesn’t say in pressers. Her absences bother me only in the sense that—aside from when she’s injured—they can make it seem like she doesn’t have much interest in the tour, or in tennis in general. I want to see her committed and determined all the time, because that determination is a big part of what makes her a special athlete.

As a fan, I swerve to the extremes with Serena. I love watching her when she’s good; at those moments, she's an amazing example of what competing can be all about. That Serve, as you say, is one of the sport’s greatest shots—the ultimate example of “less is more”—and her fighting abilities are unequaled. I’ve never seen a player—man, woman, or child—with such deep-seated, unfaked, unshakeable confidence in herself. You know that question: Who would you want to play for your life? The answer isn’t supposed to be the best player, but the best competitor, the person who will win when you need them to win. I used to think I would take Rafael Nadal; but Serena is probably the better choice. On the other hand, I don’t enjoy watching Serena when she’s going bad. Because she can look really bad when she’s off, and her prolonged show of disbelief at herself can be a drag, at least to me.

I will say, at the risk of getting into volatile territory, that Serena has made me think and consider my judgments and descriptions as a writer when it comes to race and gender more than any other tennis player. You mention that, as a fan, you’re on the alert for another meltdown moment—in truth, of course, Serena hasn’t lost control of herself all that many times in her career, but when she does, it’s memorable. During her last one, in the U.S. Open final last fall, I found myself turned off by her harsh words to chair umpire Eva Asderaki. Later, though, I had to admit that Andy Roddick—not to mention Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe—has insulted his share of umpires and linesmen, but I've rarely been as bothered by it as I was with Serena at the Open. I thought back to Roger Federer's words to umpire Jake Garner at Flushing Meadows in 2009—"Stop showing me your hand. Stop telling me to be quiet. I don't give a ---- what he said"—and wondered how fans and writers would have reacted if something similar had come from Serena.

Is this a gender thing—we don’t want to hear “Are you the same one who screwed me over?” from a woman? Or is there a racial component at work, that makes her actions seem, to a white tennis audience, more threatening? I was struck by how many people I talked to after last year's Open final who said that Serena was “so angry” and that she “has a problem.” But I don't want to excuse her, either. I thought she should have been suspended for a Slam after her "shove this ball" tirade at the Open in 09, and "You're ugly on the inside" isn't going to sound pretty coming from anyone.

All of which makes Serena more than a tennis player, or even an all-time champion. She’s a pioneer who so far has had no real followers, and as polarizing a figure as tennis has known. Someday we’ll look back at her and her sister’s story and be properly amazed by what they did, but during their careers I think it's fair to say that they've never been completely embraced by the American tennis audience.

At the same time, when you say that she brings a tournament “gravitas,” I think you mean more than just her playing ability. Serena brings an edge, too, a sense of possibility; something that, whether you like it or not, is never boring. She's the rare star who doesn't seem to worry much about whether people love her.

*****

Steve,

It’s funny that you bring up the Williams sisters’ legacy and your sense that they have never been fully embraced by American tennis fans. Earlier this evening, I was having a conversation on Twitter with some other tennis fans about the Tennis Channel’s recently released list of the Top 100 greatest players and whether Serena’s ranking of #14 was justified.

It got me thinking about how Serena, despite her undisputed talent and big match toughness, perhaps isn’t fully appreciated by the fans and tennis establishment because of lingering questions about her commitment to the sport and because she has a reputation for not playing well with others. I expect it will take a bit of time and distance (and perhaps a few years of not having an American woman in the second week of majors) for all of us to put the Williams sisters’ accomplishments into perspective. Yet seeing how players like Agassi and McEnroe have been embraced in the years since their retirements makes me hopeful that the same will be true of Serena.
 
As for the larger issue you raise as to whether reactions to Serena’s outbursts have been shaped by our views of gender or race: My answer, as with most things pertaining to Serena is, “It’s complicated.” On some level, I think the reactions reflect our own discomfort when female players slip out of their expected roles. I recall some of the most memorable recent advertising campaigns: from Sharapova’s “I Feel Pretty” commercial to the WTA’s “Heroes” and “Strong is Beautiful” campaigns, the message seems to be that competitiveness, ferocity, and strength are attractive and admirable qualities, provided that they are tempered by beauty, glamour, and femininity. Indeed, I think that one of the qualities that makes Serena such a compelling player to watch is that contrast between the perfectly manicured, almost painstakingly accessorized glamour girl and the emotional and fiercely competitive athlete, struggling to walk the tightrope of controlled, productive aggression. I think Serena’s recent meltdowns at the US Open were jarring in part because they were pure anger, adrenaline, and frustration with nothing pretty or sanitized about them.

At the same time, I think that race has played a major role in how Serena’s meltdowns have been characterized. Race has always played a role in the narrative of the Williams sisters’ careers, from the subtle (thinly veiled comments about their “brute strength”) to the not-so subtle (the Indian Wells incident and subsequent boycott). If you take Serena’s most (in)famous outbursts and imagine that they had come from (and here, I’m trying to think of the meanest, most intimidating, non-black female player I can think of), say, Sharapova, I can’t believe that they would have generated the same kinds of reactions and commentary from fans and media. I just can’t.
 
That said, I admit that my Serena “Meltdown meter” is especially sensitive because, as a black woman, I’m all too familiar with the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype in popular culture. You may know her: loud, aggressive, often foul-mouthed, and easily identifiable by her trademark eye roll, teeth sucking, and neck gyrations. When I find myself cringing at questionable calls during Serena’s matches and willing her to stay composed, I suppose my reaction is as much about Serena’s reaction and its effect on the match as how I anticipate how her reaction will look in replays and be characterized in later accounts of the match.

Serena and the whole issue of race and gender is a sticky, sometimes unpleasant topic, but I’m heartened to hear that Serena has made you take a closer look  at how you view and describe players. Can you talk more about the kind of impact Serena has had on you?

*****

Part II of our discussion will go up on Monday. Have a good weekend.

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