I just finished reading this book and have been deep in appreciation for Serena. When I woke up to the news of her "Evolution away from tennis," I thought, what perfect timing.
The book is written by a former New York Times Magazine editor and follows her through her comeback after baby Olympia was born.
Anyone who knows me, knows how much I love Serena and Venus. I grew up with my sister Susanna. We were Susanna and Valerie, watching Serena and Venus battle it out on the tennis court, the same way we did. Laughing half the time, talking shit, trying to piss each other off with junky drop shots. We didn’t know it at the time, but who they were, made us who we were- two little Mexican-American girls who loved playing tennis. Like them, we didn't grow up at a country club, our parents didn't spend college money on a tennis academy, we never played an official match until high school. Before the Williams sisters, my tennis idols were Chrissy Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graff, and Monica Seles. All blonde, all white. Maybe to some people, that's the way it's supposed to be. Then these two little black girls show up and not only are they not white, not blonde, but not average players. They’re better.
Through the decades of watching Serena’s career, what is most surprising to me is how many people don’t like her, in fact, hate her. I don’t necessarily want to try to convince those people otherwise, but perhaps explain what exactly Serena means to those who love her.
Being hated is not the worst thing in the world. Hate is usually fear in disguise. Serena spent the peak of her career in a time where black women were emerging as major power players. Oprah, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Michelle Obama for example.
“Some people feared these women, hated these women, white men, mostly, or anyway most vocally - hated them in no small part for being formidable black women.”
Reading this reminded me of an encounter I had, maybe a year to two ago. I arrived at my tennis club, about 20 minutes early. It was a match day. The lobby television was always set to Tennis Channel, and this particular morning, Serena was playing a match. I sat and watched as I tied my shoes and got organized. Shortly thereafter, an older gentleman came in from the courts, sweaty and red-faced. He smiled at me then looked to the television.
"Who's playing?" he asked.
"It's Serena!" I said excitedly.
He huffed and said, "Pfff, is she even a woman?" He laughed expectantly, assuming I would say something like, "I know right?"
I did not. I gathered my stuff and walked to the bathroom, dumbfounded.
I couldn't believe this rolled off his tongue so easily. Perhaps it was her size, her strength, her influence, or her wealth that made people afraid of her, and hate her. Evidently, this guy wasn't alone.
Suddenly this group of marginalized women were coming into their own power and some people didn’t like it. Despite the hate, she grew into something special.
“... a cultural icon is whom she’d become.”
Not unlike what Tiger Woods did for golf, Misty Copeland did for ballet, Serena took the punches for a larger group.
“…others who might look like her, come from places like where she came from, exhibit the dauntlessness she did, suffer disappointments and discontinuities she did, annoy an inflame as she did, and impose themselves as she did, revel or rage as she did. That she could and would navigate all this surely led others to think, If she could do it, I can do it…”
One of the things I loved most about the book was learning about Serena’s time in Paris. In her late 20’s she bought an apartment in the Seventh Arrondissement. She furnished it with outdoor market finds and books she bought along the Seine. There was speculation that "Serena was "hiding" there- from her father, and maybe from an America "that couldn't decide if she was a goddess or a threat."" Although I love the idea of Serena Williams walking around Paris, speaking French, buying tchotchkes, and sitting in the golden light of her apartment window, I thought, how sad. Here is this treasure of an athlete, and our country treated her so badly, she had to cross the Atlantic to feel relief.
The book follows the tennis calendar beginning in Melbourne and continues through to New York. Serena has so much history at each tournament and the details of that history is explained. From being booed at Indian Wells, the controversial loss to Henin, her rivalry with Maria Sharapova, the US Open final against Osaka and much more.
The first and only time I have ever seen Serena play was in 2019 at Indian Wells against Victoria Azarenka. I was over the moon! Two incredible women, two moms, playing the most incredible tennis. As we sat there, freezing in the brisk desert air, I watched in awe as the match went on. There was a couple behind me, who made negative comments about Serena the entire match. What they were saying, I don't remember. What I do remember thinking is- after all she's done, all she's accomplished, always cordial and appreciative of tennis fans, they still didn't want her there, and probably never would. They couldn't give her an ounce of credit.
I loved this book, I love Serena, and if you love tennis, it's worth the read. My favorite quote from the book is something Serena said when she was 19, after being relentlessly booed at Indian Wells. And as we watch the last days of Serena William's professional tennis career, it's something I think we all need to remember about her.
"I'm not out there busting my butt for the blue-haired Palm Springs jet-setter. No, I'm out there for me. People need to understand that."