The Expectation of Being Serena Williams
A look back at Serena’s career following her 23rd Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, and what she had to overcome to get there.
By Matt McNama
Venus and Serena Williams played their ninth Grand Slam final on Saturday at the Australian Open, a sibling rivalry spanning 18 years, 30 Grand Slam singles titles and plenty of unscripted drama. Serena won handily - collecting her record-setting 23rd Grand Slam title, returning to number one, and cementing her place as the greatest tennis player of all time.
Like most of their matches, it was not an instant classic. The sisters rarely put on the best show when playing each other. For all of their historical dominance against the rest of the field, both Williams’ play flat when their sibling is across the net. We know this now, but back in 2001, the tennis world didn’t know what to make of the Williams sisters, let alone their lackluster play against each other.
No event captures how the tennis world’s view of the Williams sisters has changed better than the Indian Wells Masters – an event in SoCal more known for Serena and Venus’ absence, more than their presence.
In 2001, Serena and Venus faced off in the semi-finals at Indian Wells. Rumours of match fixing had plagued the two at the time, in large part due to a perceived svengali-level of control from their father, Richard, a straight shooter, with a penchant for pissing people off.
Venus was perceived to have tanked the match. The next day, in the finals against then-upstart Kim Clijsters, the crowd was uncharacteristically angry towards the Williams’, with boos echoing throughout the stadium – tennis, after all, isn’t exactly known for agitated crowds. Alleged racial slurs were used like the N-word and telling Richard and Venus (while walking to the player's box) to, “go back to Compton.”
Serena won the match – a symbolic middle finger to the crowd from a shaken teenager, who didn’t deserve what she and her family were served that day. Hindsight would put the crowd’s reaction on the wrong side of history. The largely white crowd emphatically heckled two black teenagers and their father. It smacked of racism.
The match-fixing allegations that dogged their match proved false. Not only was Venus legitimately injured at the time, neither player, dramatics aside, would ever be accused nowadays for wanting anything but a win. The Williams sisters boycotted Indian Wells for 13 years.
With each passing year, the tennis community held their breath to see if the sisters would return. That day finally came for Serena on March 13, 2015.
The anticipation of Serena’s return loomed large. She walked onto centre court, with headphones over her ears, head down, as if not entirely sure what to expect. The crowd, simply put, said sorry. It sustained a boisterous, and prolonged standing ovation, and it looked like Serena was taken by surprise. She took off her headphones, mustered a sombre smile, and choked back tears. For an athlete both revered and reviled for her strength, Serena revealed a deep pain resulting from what had happened there in 2001. For long-time tennis fans, and certainly for fans of Serena and her legacy, it felt like she finally forgave us, even if we had nothing to do with it. A page felt turned.
In many ways, what happened on March 13 that year echoes the narrative of Serena’s career, both on and off the court. Boos become cheers. Frequent skepticism gives way to adulation. Open disdain becomes admiration. The outsider became the consummate ambassador. And sport fans should be thankful she has stuck around this long – and not just because she’s now 35, but because everything about her rise and fall, and rise and fall, has been in the face of extreme criticism.
When older sister Venus turned pro in 1997, the tennis community didn’t know what to make of her. Not only had the Williams sisters skipped the juniors circuit and bucked convention, they didn’t fit the country club version of what a tennis player should look or act like. There she was, Venus Williams – a tall, strong, steely-eyed-yet-shy, black girl from Compton with beaded braids. Tennis was a white person’s sport. Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe may have paved the way, but diversity in tennis was nil, both on the court and in the stands.
But for all of Venus’ talent and trailblazing (seven Grand Slams is nothing to scoff at), it was baby Serena who would dominate. A prominent coach recounted a conversation with Richard Williams after witnessing a young Venus on the court. “I think you have the next female Michael Jordan on your hands.” Richard replied, “No brother man, I got the next two.
A year after Venus’ debut, Serena turned pro. Over the next 19 years she would go on to win 22 Grand Slam titles, tying Steffi Graf’s Open Era Record. On her way, Serena has had to endure far more criticism than any contemporary athlete of her status, male or female.
There’s the criticism of her dedication to the sport. After dominating for the better part of five years, Serena turned her attention to other interests like a fashion line and acting. It prompted tennis great Chris Evert to pen an open letter to Serena, begging her to commit to the sport in order to achieve greatness. That she had already won six Grand Slams by that time wasn’t good enough for a person of her talent.
Similar criticism crept up following a July 2010 incident where she stepped on glass, ending her season. It prompted the New York Times to declare in a headline that, “Williams’ Injuries Need Explaining” alluding that Serena may have been faking the injury to avoid playing tennis. Serena later revealed that she also suffered from a hematoma and pulmonary embolism before her return in March.
And this month, following her loss during the first tournament of the year, questions arose about whether her engagement to Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian is distracting her – forgetting the fact that she hasn’t played since August, and might be a tad rusty.
There’s also a double standard that exists, particularly when it comes to her intensity. During the semi-finals of the US Open in 2009, Serena once again faced off against Kim Clijsters, a fan-favourite and newly out of retirement. Clijsters was up 6-4 6-5, two points from victory, when Serena was called on a foot fault on her second serve, giving Clijsters match point. Serena was irate, and rightfully so. Emotion got the best of her though, telling the lines-woman she would, “shove this tennis ball so far down [her] throat”, which resulted in a loss of point for misconduct, and handed Clijsters the match and a ticket to the finals.
The media response largely focused on Serena’s outburst – the angry black woman. Whether a line judge should call a foot fault at such a crucial moment – a move that would be considered uncommon at best – barely entered the conversation, and neither did the fact that John McEnroe has said far worse. But that’s the thing about Serena. She’s consistently held to a different standard, whether because she’s a woman, or because she’s black, or simply because she’s Serena.
The double standard is also because she’s great. At the 2015 US Open, Serena was two matches away from completing the Grand Slam, winning all four Grand Slams in a calendar year – a feat that hadn’t been achieved since Steffi Graf in 1991. She lost to #43 ranked Roberta Vinci in the semi-finals, one of the biggest upsets, like, ever. Even under unbelievable pressure she was expected to win, to not have an off day. No other tennis player is afforded that same distinction.
Serena herself called out the pressure she faces in a media conference following last year’s Australian Open loss. “Everyone expects me to win every single match.”
The expectation runs deeper. She’s expected to win; she’s expected to keep her emotions in check; she’s expected to not lose her focus; she’s expected to explain herself; and she’s expected to be strong, yet still feminine; she’s expected to be Serena Williams.
To have done what she has done, in the face of expectation, of racism, of sexism, of misogyny, of classism, and of greatness is nothing short of remarkable.
In that open letter Chris Evert wrote to Serena back in 2006, she pondered, regarding Serena’s potential place in history, “whether 20 years from now you might reflect on your career and regret not putting 100 percent of yourself into tennis.”
Ten years later, Serena’s place in history is firmly secured. One record remains unbroken - Australian great Margaret Court’s 24 Grand Slam single titles before the modern era of tennis. You don’t hear many people talking about that record, because it appeared unchaseable - Court’s haul includes 11 Australian Open titles, at a time when most professional tennis players didn’t play the tournament. Given all that Serena’s achieved in the face of expectation and criticism, she’s now only two Slams away from breaking the unbreakable. It took us far too long, but no one is betting against her now.