Serena bares all

Lesotho Times - - Sport - Billy Rule

NEW YORK — And so you ask the best women’s ten­nis player in the world to pick a mo­ment. It’s not a lazy ques­tion. You’ve done your home­work, you know this is Serena Wil­liams’ gazil­lionth in­ter­view and you’re wary she might flick it away like she does a pesky op­po­nent’s se­cond serve.

Thwack. Love-15. You’re en­vis­ag­ing her lob­bing back a vague re­sponse so as not to of­fend — “oh, you know, they’re all im­por­tant, ev­ery tour­na­ment means a lot”.

So you try and steer her to­wards a defini­tive an­swer. Some­thing to hang a head­line on.

“Serena, is there a match, or maybe an anec­dote, or a con­ver­sa­tion that stays with you above all the oth­ers?” you ask.

“Some­thing that pushes it­self to the front of your mind among your 21 grand slam sin­gles ti­tles. One mem­ory or mile­stone that stands out.”

Be­fore you ask the ques­tion you’re pre­empt­ing the an­swer.

Maybe it will be her first ma­jor vic­tory in 1999 when at just 17, she pum­melled her way past Kim Cli­jsters, Con­chita Martinez, Mon­ica Se­les, Lind­say Daven­port and Martina Hingis - the roy­alty of women’s ten­nis at the time - to win the US Open.

Or maybe it was the ‘Serena Slam’ of 2002-03 when she held all four ti­tles - the French Open, Wim­ble­don, the US Open and the Aus­tralian Open.

Or maybe it was the ‘Serena Slam Mark II’ in 2014-15 when she did it again start­ing with the US Open of 2014.

Or maybe it was just when she was start­ing out with her ra­di­ant sis­ter Venus. Re­call­ing those sepia child­hood pho­tos of pig­tails, braids and two-handed back­hands at the Comp­ton ten­nis courts on the wrong side of Los An­ge­les.

What­ever the an­swer, you know you’re ready for her re­sponse. You’ve done your re­search and hope to ex­tract some emo­tion with a fol­low-up ques­tion. And then she replies. “In­dian Wells.” “Huh?!” Your mind races. In­dian Wells?”

You scat­ter through the notes on your desk. Noth­ing. You flick through the fil­ing cab­i­net in your head.

“In­dian Wells ... In­dian Wells … In­dian Wells.” Ohhh, yep. Then you re­mem­ber. In­dian Wells. Racism al­le­ga­tions. Boo­ing. Boy­cott.

“Yes, that’s right,” you stum­ble. “Um, yeah, you only went back there this year af­ter not play­ing for 10 or 11 years, didn’t you?”

“Four. Teen,” Serena Wil­liams re­sponds. Em­phat­i­cally. And then she rolls.

“Some­thing that stands out is my re­turn to In­dian Wells,” she says.

“I can’t say I ex­pected that to hap­pen, and it took a lot of for­give­ness and a lot for me to go back. Just com­ing to that de­ci­sion to be like, you know, I’m ready to go back.

“I didn’t have to go back and peo­ple were telling me ‘you NEVER have to go back, we don’t blame you’. But overcoming that is some­thing that stands out.”

The ‘that’ she is talk­ing about is an ugly spring af­ter­noon in Los An­ge­les in 2001 where Serena, Venus and their father, Richard, were the vic­tims of vit­riol.

As the then 19-year-old was pre­par­ing to take on Kim Cli­jsters in the In­dian Wells fi­nal a shower of ‘boos’ rained down from the stands.

She looked across to see her father and sis­ter walk­ing to their seats, the tar­gets of spite.

An in­jured Venus had con­tro­ver­sially with­drawn from the semi-fi­nal clash with her sib­ling and al­le­ga­tions of ‘ match-rig­ging’ had been la­belled at Richard, who also claimed he was racially abused.

Serena even­tu­ally won the match but her faith in oth­ers went miss­ing. She later ad­mit­ted In­dian Wells was where “I lost a piece of my­self”.

In an ar­ti­cle for Time mag­a­zine this year she wrote: “The un­der­cur­rent of racism was painful, con­fus­ing and un­fair. In a game I loved with all my heart, at one of my most cher­ished tour­na­ments, I sud­denly felt un­wel­come, alone and afraid.”

That pain ob­vi­ously cut deep. The Wil­liams fam­ily drew a line in the sand and

“In­dian Wells? boy­cotted In­dian Wells, long re­garded as one of the cir­cuit’suit’s most pres­ti­gious tour­na­ments.

But af­ter r much soul-search­ing, Serena re­turned to thehe caul­dron this year be­liev­ing she had a re­spon­si­bil­i­tyon­si­bil­ity to foster change.

“Go­ing back I re­alised it was big­ger than me and it was for the fans,” she says.

“I have so many amaz­ing fans at In­dian Wells and it made me feel ‘gosh, I wish this thing had never hap­pened’. It was big­ger ger than me, it was def­i­nitely big­ger thanhan me.”

Her an­swer,wer, defini­tive and de­lib­er­ate, puts her pri­or­i­ties into per­spec­tive. e.

She chose ose the power of f or­give­ness ss in­stead of the mul­ti­tude of prizes that clut­ter her tro­phy cab­i­net. t.

Among her most fa­mous us vic­to­ries are sixix Aus­tralian Open sin­gle crowns, six Wim­ble­done­don ti­tles, six US Opens and three French Opens.ens.

Only St­effi­effi Graf (22) has won more ma­jor cham­pi­onships hips since the start of the Open era in 1968.8. Aus­tralia’s Mar­garet Court holds the high­est t record with 24.

Serena’s ca­reer prize money is $US73 mil­lion and, ac­cord­ing to Forbes, her en­dorse­ments bring ng in ap­prox­i­mately $13m a year.

They’re in­cred­i­ble num­bers. Fig­ures that may only be ri­valled by the amount of times she’s smacked­ked a ten­nis ball over a three-foot net.

Apart from om the venom, an­other rea­son the 2001 in­ci­dent ent had such an im­pact on the Wil­liams fam­ily ily was be­cause it was so close to home.

Their ten­nisn­nis jour­ney be­gan just 200 kilo­me­tres westst of In­dian Wells in the crime-rid­dled city of f Comp­ton, Cal­i­for­nia.

Day af­terer day the hulk­ing Richard would cor­ral his daugh­ters to the lo­cal courts and sear into their heir sub­con­scious that ten­nis was their ticket t out of the seedy sub­urbs.

Gaz­ing now at an old photo of her­self and Venus as kids with gap-toothed grins spilling out of their r father’s arms, Serena glows.

“When I look at that pic­ture I just have happy mem­o­ries mories of grow­ing up and play­ing ten­nis,” she e says.

“And then, en, you know, just the jour­ney. You think, wow,w, that was a long time ago and it’s been a re­ally lly crazy jour­ney and some­times I just can’t be­lieve elieve I was able to make it so far.”

And while le some may think bash­ing a ball to the other r side of a court could get mo­not­o­nous, Serena na saw it as mag­i­cal

“I did loveve it,” she says. “I loved do­ing what­ever Venus s did and then it be­came a fam­ily thing.”

When thehe girls were first un­leashed onto the ten­nis world it was Venus who was seen as the star. r. With her long, loose limbs she floated acrossoss the court with the flu­id­ity of a ge­nie slip­ping ing out of a bot­tle.

In con­trast, ast, Serena was the pocket-rocket lit­tle sis­ter r who ric­o­cheted around the white lines like the he kamikaze Ti­gress from King Fu Panda.

But soon n the sport­ing world was put on no­tice. In Jan­uary, 1998 when a 16-year-old Serena de­feated Lind­say Daven­port in the quar­ter-fi­nals of the Syd­ney In­ter­na­tional, her father warned: “No one has seen the real Serena yet. The real Serena will be in full swing and take over the No 1 spot in 12, 13 months.’’

And he was right. His youngest daugh­ter soon dom­i­nated the game, both as a player and as a style icon.

With her mus­cu­lar physique be­decked in eye-catch­ing flo­res­cent out­fits she flashed across the court as if she’d stepped out of a Marvel movie.

Since that first US Open sin­gles vic­tory in 1999 she’s com­peted in 55 grand slam tour­na­ments, win­ning 21 of them — an as­ton­ish­ing suc­cess rate of al­most 40 per cent.

Her game is pure power, pun­ish­ing the ball with fear­some fore­hands and serv­ing at speeds of more than 200kmph.

Stand­ing on the op­po­site side of the net to Serena can be in­tim­i­dat­ing. Ali­cia Mo­lik had nu­mer­ous bat­tles with the Amer­i­can su­per­star and ad­mits it took her a while to feel con­fi­dent step­ping on to the same court.

“You’re con­scious she can hurt you from the word go on any shot,” the Aus­tralian Fed­er­a­tion Cup cap­tain says.

“I think it took me a num­ber of years on tour to get com­fort­able play­ing and fac­ing her depth and weight of shot and serve.

“She’s in­tim­i­dat­ing be­cause of the ag­gres­sive way she plays. The phys­i­cal­ity she brings. Ba­si­cally, when you face Serena you have to be com­fort­able be­ing un­der the pump from the get-go.”

Mo­lik is also full of ad­mi­ra­tion for what Serena has done be­yond the base­line.

“She is one of the ath­letes that has tran­scended ten­nis,” Mo­lik says. “She’s a star in her own right. Not just a ten­nis star. You walk the streets of any part of the globe and ev­ery­one knows who Serena is - which is pretty spe­cial for women’s ten­nis.”

And, once again, Serena has the num­bers to prove it. She has six mil­lion fol­low­ers on Twit­ter, four mil­lion on Face­book and 2.4 mil­lion on In­sta­gram.

While fe­male celebri­ties who dip their toe in the turgid world of cy­berspace can be a mag­net for misog­y­nis­tic trolls, Serena is pre­pared to tol­er­ate the vul­gar for the sake of her loyal sup­port­ers.

“I like it be­cause I can re­ally con­nect per­son­ally with my fans and they can see a lit­tle bit more into my life, who I am and what I do out­side of the court,” she says. “I en­joy giv­ing peo­ple a glimpse.”

Last month the on­line world saw a dif­fer­ent side of Serena.

The fo­cused stare we’re so used to on the ten­nis court sud­denly cracked. Tears leaked from her eyes as she an­nounced that her loyal mate, Jackie, a wire-haired Jack Rus­sell, had passed away. In a trib­ute post scat­tered with pic­tures of her lit­tle lady, Serena wrote: “To­day is re­ally hard for me. My spe­cial friend in which I got at 17 (two weeks be­fore I won my very first Grand Slam) left me to­day ... her poor body gave out this morn­ing …with my dad by my side we were able to say a lov­ing good­bye.”


Serena Wil­liams

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