Her gaze aflame and her body bent a bit, poised to attack, like a hunter finally ready to pounce on her prey, Serena Williams lightly touched her long lush lashes for a split second, as if to check this tool of feminine beauty. That’s so Serena, tennis’ unique package of ferocity and femininity, made obvious again last week during her last match at the 2022 US Open, the curtain falling on her career of more than two decades—not just a career, by the way, but 27 years of world domination.
What tennis buff doesn’t know the #Serena twirl? After each win, usually a demolition job, really, of her opponent, she walks to the center of the court, waves at the adulating fans sardined in the stadium, and does her twirl, her tennis skirt in a swirl like a tutu. That’s Serena the ballerina.
In her farewell match at the US Open last September 2, against an opponent 11 years her junior, she was in black glitter, from her brown-streaked bush tail of hair to her shoes. Serena the Queen.
They say that Serena’s retirement, right before her 41st birthday, after 23 grand slams, marks the end of an era. To me, it’s not only an era, for Serena is more than the sport’s statistics; Serena is true grit (saving five match points in her finale US Open match). She has the heart of a lioness, for whom no wound is ever fatal.
Her game is power, speed, skill and technique, strategy, persistence—but then so is the game of any grand slam champion. To me, what makes Serena the Greatest of All Time (GOAT), like perhaps Nadal and Federer, is that beating heart that refuses to take defeat, even at 5-1, even after all these decades. Something not every winner has. No fame and celebrity endorsements seem to divert her focus from the game, unlike some in the next-generation set of champions. Eye on the ball, not on that necklace to be endorsed!
‘I call it evolution, not retirement. Like Serena 2.0,’ she said at the US Open rites celebrating what people thought would be her farewell match
“I call it evolution, not retirement. Like Serena 2.0,” said Serena at the US Open rites celebrating what people thought would be her farewell match (it wasn’t; she went on to win to make it to the third round) before a crowd that included fashion queen Anna Wintour in Serena’s player box.
“Just a bonus,” she referred to the “perks” of the game, while stressing that it was winning that she really loved.
“I’m just Serena,” she wrapped up her reaction to the accolades being heaped on her at the US Open. In that last match, she was ranked lower than 600 in the Women’s (she hardly played last year)—a detail made irrelevant by the unique impact she’s made on the sport. The world, particularly the women, the Black women, has seen in her a symbol, not just of sports but also of womanhood. More important, the world beyond tennis has come to regard her as a story, an inspiring story of a girl who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak, but rose above her poor black neighborhood in Compton, California, to become the Serena Williams. Naomi Osaka, the 24-year-old four-time grand slam champion, holds Serena as her role model; Naomi at 18 beat Serena in the US Open to bag her first grand slam trophy. “She’s fearless….the greatest that ever happened to the sport,” Naomi said in her interviews.
Never give up—is Serena’s oft-repeated message in her interviews on and off court. “Give your all no matter what you do,” she always says, really a good advice especially to the younger generations who live in their techno-perfect world and have a hard time accepting adversity.
“If there’s a will, there’s a Williams” was the glib remark of a sports commentator.
Her last opponent, Ajla Tomljanovic, who ended Serena’s run in this year’s US Open, said in the off-court interview: “No dream is too big if you have the support system,” referring to the famous sister act of Serena and Venus, and the Williams family’s Hollywoodish journey to fame and fortune.
In truth, the story of Serena and Venus and their family is the 2021 award-winning film King Richard, which won for Will Smith the 2022 Oscars Best Actor. Serena’s “retirement” made me, a non-Serena fan, really, watch the movie. It focused what is otherwise an epic Williams story on the early competition years, when the father, Richard, moved heaven and earth to execute the “plan.” That was to see his daughters, the older Venus and the younger Serena, become tennis champions one day. “It’s like having two Mozarts in your home,” scoffed the first tennis coach he approached, who dismissed his wild plan.
‘King Richard’ is about how their father moved heaven and earth to see his daughters become tennis champions one day
The Williams were a typical low-income family of five daughters in the black neighborhood. Richard and wife Oracene were athletes who held low-income jobs just to see their growing brood through. But even in a disheartening environment—where crime was more the norm than the exception, where hooligans ruled the ‘hood—the couple never lost sight of the dream. “I’m in the champion-raising business,” Richard says while facing one rejection after another.
Ironically, his own childhood programmed him not to have ambition—“I was busy running away from the Ku Klux Klan and the police,” he’d say. It was no big deal for him to be turned away by one coach after another in the country clubs, as he asked them to check out his daughters and to train them.
Even as he kept knocking on each coach’s door, he and Oracene themselves trained the two prodigies in the public tennis court, with the ‘hood bullies roughing them up. He’d teach them to hit in the unrelenting rain—to make them get used to heavy rain-soaked balls that wouldn’t bounce, perfect training for volleys. (That got stuck in my head, volleys being my impossible dream.)
Then he pounded this thought into their minds—that “the most dangerous woman is the strongest woman…. the woman who thinks.” Yet always, primary on the mind of the Williams couple was how to keep their female brood off the streets, to insulate them from a corrupted environment where one wasn’t allowed to dream. Richard’s two girls were conditioned to aspire for something that was considered a rich white man’s sport, and to dominate it.
Even as the movie follows Richard’s obstinate pursuit of the “plan,” it captures an extremely solid family life. So that’s why, you answer the tennis fandom’s age-old question as to why the Williams sisters have such an unbreakable bond and why the family is so tight knit (all these decades, there’s been hardly a match of these two where the family members didn’t watch in the player’s box).
The family watches together Cinderella, after which Richard asks the daughters the lessons they learned from the movie. (Watch it to find out.) After Venus wins a match and she and her sisters celebrate boisterously, bragging, as expected, Richard drives off, leaving the daughters behind, just to teach them a lesson—never to brag after a win. (As we all know by now, Serena and Venus have their own unique way of showing off the crown.) As early as this scene, the conflict and tension between Richard and Oracene surfaces: “You’ll never gonna leave my daughters behind again,” a livid Oracene tells her martinet husband.
Richard would teach them to hit in the unrelenting rain—to let them get used to rain-soaked balls that wouldn’t bounce, perfect training for volleys
Venus is scouted finally, dominates the club circuit, and the maverick Richard tells off the coach and the talent agents—that his daughter will not follow the expected Juniors route, but will instead turn pro. That’s how the movie confirms the belief that there was hardly a moment in the careers of Venus and Serena where Richard’s way wasn’t followed.
An interesting scene is when Venus turns down a million-dollar offer from Nike at the start of her career. No wonder Venus had worn Reebok all this time, until she designed her own sport line.
The movie focuses on Venus’ rise, while Serena is just a tag-along. It’s Venus who is professionally trained and coached. And Richard has a beautiful way of explaining why—why the family’s focus and resources are on Venus, not Serena. No spoiler here. This is a scene you should wait for; it is touching.
The Williams’ family values—like gems shining in the muck that is their neighborhood—are so evident in the movie. Will Smith—well, he deserves his Best Actor award. His transformation into Richard Williams—the king in Serena’s and Venus’ lives—is so worth your time witnessing.
I’ve known her since I was in single digits. She’s just always been a badass ……. Let’s keep it rolling SW and NYC
— andyroddick (@andyroddick) September 1, 2022
At the US Open farewell celebration in honor of Serena, the queen turns emotional. The first thing she says: “Thank you, Daddy and Mommy.” Then her gaze pans to her sister: “I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus.”
The lioness heart is a grateful heart.
Now I am a Serena fan. Never too late.