Serena bares all
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.”