CHAM­PION

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

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - DRIVES - WORDS VANESSA McCUL­LOCH

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.

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