Serena Williams at a Crossroads: What’s Next for World’s Greatest Tennis Player?
There are only so many narratives in sports. Take your pick among trailblazers, hungry upstarts, reigning champs, scrappy underdogs, comeback queens, all-time greats and honest-to-God icons who redefined the game right before your eyes, and then try to decide who the greatest of all time is, for our time anyway. Sometimes a player can be most of that in a brief lifetime. It’s rare, to say the least.
In an interview with The Fader last October, Serena Williams said that her story is universal. It’s nice of her to say so – that’s a good narrative, and maybe she believes it as much as she can. But remember her accomplishments, and try to agree. Let’s rephrase this so that it hits as hard as it did the first time you realized it: Serena Williams has won every Grand Slam title except two (mixed doubles at the French Open and mixed doubles at the Australian Open), and she has won them several times over, more than you remember, in all phases of a career that has spanned more than half her life.
That’s more than half her life winning on every court surface, sometimes one after the other, against different generations, with some opponents coached by her former rivals. That’s one shy of having more singles titles than anyone else in the Open era (i.e., the era where there are far more people to beat), and just three shy of having more than anyone ever. That’s what people mean by “longevity.” It’s not just that she wins a lot, or that she’s “old” for tennis, whatever that’s supposed to mean. She has done more than anyone else has done for her sport, on and beyond the court into people’s imaginations. And at the age of 35, she hasn’t stopped yet. Hopefully not this year, and hopefully not the next.
This is rare on its own, but it gets more stunning when you factor in Serena’s personal tragedies, like her sister Tunde’s accidental death by gang shooting in 2003, and her physical setbacks, like the blood clots in her lungs and the bleeding in her stomach in 2010, both before she turned 30 years old. It’s even more stunning when you try to understand her struggle against an often racist establishment, most succinctly represented by the drama of Indian Wells, where 20-year-old Serena and her sister Venus were accused of match-fixing, where they were booed and slurred at even when Serena won, where she then returned 14 years later with forgiveness in her heart.
Her grace in these circumstances has never gotten enough credit. When Serena was still in her teens, John McEnroe, who rarely leads by example worse than in this case, said that she and Venus should be more “humble” when they win. She must have known this was not real advice. When Serena yells on the court (not unlike McEnroe did so much decades before, it must be said), her outbursts are used by the media to comment implicitly on her gender and the color of her skin. A celebratory dance is taken as something violent instead of passionate, as if her self-expression can only be a threat.
If we keep watching Serena for a reason other than fanatic diligence, we also keep watching for her unbounded confidence, which she’ll probably always have. In July 2015, the New York Times published an article about female tennis players and their aversion to “bulky” bodies, despite the ways that “bulk” has only helped someone like Serena. Less than a year after that, Serena danced – twerked, specifically – in the video for Beyonce’s Lemonade track “Sorry,” as in that’s exactly what she’s not. She consistently celebrates what she has been told not to celebrate her whole life. “If you don’t like it,” she said of her body in a December 2016 interview for The Undefeated, “then I don’t want you to like it.” Her radical support and love for herself is the key to her humanity on the court, her dignity in profiles and interviews. She respects herself enough to get angry, and she loves herself well enough to use that anger for more. It’s all about context.
She has never been shy. A 2003 interview with her in Vogue had her comparing her body to Marilyn Monroe’s. In the last few years though, her confidence has changed shape. Maybe it’s her age. Several times over the last few years, she has spoken about the strength she finds in blackness and in being a woman, and it’s clear that long ago Serena decided to disregard people who didn’t think highly of her. Not just as strategy; this isn’t a fake-it-until-you-make-it situation, or at least it hasn’t been for a long time. She dismisses them, you see, because she knows what they don’t: they’re wrong.
In a documentary about her much-publicized quest in 2015 for a calendar year Grand Slam, her coach Patrick Mouratoglou tried to guess what Serena must have been feeling after her loss to Roberta Vinci in the semi-finals of the U.S. Open. He guessed shame, disappointment and the inexorable despair that comes from letting people down. Hasn’t she done enough to get a pass here? Is it possible for Serena Williams to truly let anyone down? But every time she loses, there is the ugly feeling that she did exactly that. Perhaps the feeling persists because it’s not enough for a woman to be completely dominant in her field, let alone a black woman, who can mess up once and be disregarded. Perhaps we feel disappointment more heavily when we can tell, because she doesn’t hide it, that she can’t stand losing. When you show everyone that you’re right to expect great things, losing is differently painful. The lows for Serena Williams are deeply felt and then ignored, because that’s the only way anyone can catch a high again. If anything about Serena is universal, it’s that.
After she finished the 2015 season early, 2016 was a down year. She had injuries, illnesses and missed opportunities. She won Wimbledon, but she didn’t get her customary gold in the Olympics and she didn’t win any other Slams. Common sense says that she is near the end of her career, that she is a mortal person who can have good days and bad days and then no days after that. But despite common sense and all evidence so far, she seems like she could be, should be on an upswing. She’s getting married. She’s the favorite to win the Australian Open, by most accounts, even if she isn’t playing to that level in 2017 so far. It bears repeating: winning Australia would mean she would have the most singles titles of any woman in the Open era. Perhaps this is the kind of pressure that makes someone make 88 unforced errors in her first match of the year. It’s still early.
As a player, you’re not supposed to think of anything more than one tournament, one match, one point at a time. Serena doesn’t do this. But I’m not Serena, so I can give in. Come on, you’ve thought about it too. If she wins Australia, maybe she’ll win the French and maybe she’ll win Wimbledon – or maybe not Wimbledon, which would be nice and all, but the U.S. Open, her home turf, one more time to avenge 2015 – and she’ll have done it. More than Steffi, more than Margaret Court. It’s provocative to say without equivocation, but it’s true: she already has more than any of the men, even Roger. She’ll have more singles titles than anyone ever. And why shouldn’t it be Serena? If anyone can create new standards for what’s possible here, it could be her. And if she doesn’t, will she have let us down, even with all of her past? Being the one who wins it all is what she’s been best at. But this year, she might show us something other than being the best. Whatever it is, we’re in the final stretch. Whatever’s left to do, she’ll decide if she wants it.