SHE TURNED PRO AT 14 AND WON HER FIRST GRAND SLAM TITLE THREE YEARS LATER. SHE ONCE PLAYED AT THE US OPEN IN EARRINGS WORTH $40K, AND AMONG HER MANY TITLES IS ‘MOST HEAVILY FINED TENNIS PLAYER IN RECENT HISTORY’. NOBODY CAN CALL WOMEN’S TENNIS BORING EVER
it was an extraordinary moment in tennis. In the 2001 finals of the Indian Wells tournament in California, Serena Jameka Williams – one half of America’s most successful sporting-sibling duo – took to the court against Kim Clijsters. Serena and her older sister Venus were unlikely tennis heroes who had captivated the world’s attention with their displays of dramatic athleticism. On that day, however, the energy of the crowd took an ugly turn.
‘I’ve never been at a tennis match and heard 20 000 people boo one player,in unison,’ said John McEnroe in the 2012 documentary Venus and Serena. ‘She got booed from the warm-up to the last point, to the trophy ceremony.’ Serena, then 17, still a slight figure compared to the muscular athlete she would become, was seen wiping away her tears on court.She went on to win the match regardless. ‘She won because she’s a champion,’ said Venus, her biggest supporter and regular oncourt opponent (and doubles partner). ‘Have you seen Rocky? Well, that’s her.’
The crowd, disappointed that Venus had pulled out of the semi-final match against her sister due to a ‘knee injury’, believed that their father and coach, Richard Williams (a polarising figure among the tennis set),had ordered her to withdraw. ‘We’re competitors and we always go out to compete,’ said Serena at the post-match news conference. ‘I think maybe if my dad [did] decide, maybe Venus wouldn’t be up four-one [in Grand Slam titles], maybe it would be three-all by now.’ The Williams family have boycotted the tournament ever since.
Admitting that they spent most of their childhood dreaming of the finals they would one day win (for Venus it was always Wimbledon; for Serena the US Open) it’s doubtful that Serena would accept an easy way to win from anyone – least of all her sister. The sisters, who have lived together in Palm Beach, Florida since they were 18, along with Serena’s many dogs, are best friends off the court and have been fierce rivals on it. ‘I get mad at Venus when she [beats me],’ Serena once said. ‘I hate losing more than I love winning.’ In her 2009 book, My Life: Queen Of The Court, she shared how she motivates herself with messages on Post-it notes stuck on her racket bag that she glances at during match breaks.‘Show no emotion,’ she would write. ‘UR black and U can endure anything. Endure. Persevere. Stand tall.’ Or another: ‘Hold serve. Move up. Attack. Kill. Smile.’
It was Serena, the younger sister by 15 months, who showed her champion’s heart first. Arnon Milchan, the head of Puma, one of Serena’s first sponsors (in 2003 she moved to Nike in a $40-million – about R400-million – deal),says he was mesmerised by this‘AfricanAmerican girl going straight to the heart of the white man’s land [of tennis] and kicking his butt’. It was 1999; Serena was 17.‘Don’t you know I’m going to be the number-one player in the world?’ she said to him before she and her dad negotiated a $2-million bonus if she won the US Open that year. She defeated Martina Hingis in a gruelling final. ‘I’ll never forget my dad saying this was the moment we’ve been working for all our lives,’ she says in Venus and Serena.