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TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GettyImages Serena Williams

The Favorite

Learning to appreciate Serena the Conqueror

I liked Venus better. Not that you had to pick one, in a John vs. Paul sort of way. The real question, back when they first appeared on the semi-serious tennis fan’s radar screen in the mid- to late ’90s, was whether you liked them, period — whether you thought “the Williams sisters,” that strange collective being, were something worth rooting for. They were going to overthrow women’s tennis; that was clear from the very beginning. They were too big, too powerful, too fast, and too fierce for everyone else. The entire established order of the Hingis-Davenport era was under threat from the moment they arrived. After the 17-year-old Venus reached the final of the U.S. Open on her first try in 1997, the old guard subtly reconfigured itself, became a concerted, doomed effort to stop them from breaking through. It’s hard, now that they’ve been so dominant for so long, to remember the kind of low-grade panic they caused, so let’s put it this way: The day before Venus and Serena arrived, the game was a fully functioning system complete with plots and subplots and rivalries. The day after Venus and Serena arrived, all that seemed about as relevant as political squabbles in Constantinople right after the Turks showed up.1

And they were controversial. I mean, John Rocker was “controversial”; the Williams sisters were divisive in ways that almost defy analysis. Simply by virtue of being black, confident, from Compton, and physically on a different plane from their competitors, they raised a swarm of issues — about race, class, gender, who was inside, who was outside, what we were supposed to identify with in sports — that society, much less the WTA Tour, barely had the vocabulary to address. Tennis, in its unimportant way, had long since become one of those numb zones in which everyone more or less means well but also tacitly agrees that certain things are nicer not to discuss. Semi-serious tennis fans, as a class, were whiter, richer, and better educated than society overall.2 After the Williams sisters appeared, it was no longer possible for these fans to stay pleasantly unconscious of the fact that their chosen sport trended almost ludicrously white and upper-class, and that most of them, without being in any way self-identifyingly racist, were actually pretty OK with that. A lot of white tennis fans, in other words, suddenly felt besieged by an enemy they hadn’t even known they were against.

Cf., in 2003, Tony Hoagland’s massively controversial3 poem “The Change,” in which an implicitly white, male, middle-class speaker, not in any way a self-identifying racist, recounts his anxiety while watching a young black female tennis player beat a white one:

some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite —

We were just walking past the lounge
and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,
and pretty soon
we started to care about who won,

putting ourselves into each whacked return
as the volleys went back and forth and back
like some contest between
the old world and the new,

and you loved her complicated hair
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,
and I,
I couldn’t help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,
because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips

and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
so unintimidated,

hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,
like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.

The Williams sisters, of course, had a father/coach who was mischievous and egomaniacal enough to provoke constant racial micro-controversies (my favorite: Richard Williams leaping over the NBC broadcast booth and shouting “Straight outta Compton!” when Venus won the 2000 Wimbledon title) while often having a legitimate point to make. And the sisters kept getting involved, generally through no fault of their own, in incidents that escalated the tension that seemed to follow from their mere presence at a tournament. In 1997, Irina Spirlea deliberately bumped Venus during a changeover at the U.S. Open; in 2001, the crowd booed Serena at the final at Indian Wells, and some fans allegedly yelled racial slurs.4 Everywhere they went, those first few years, the atmosphere was tacitly (and sometimes explicitly) confrontational.

A lot of people wanted them to fail. All of the worst and deepest assumptions of the sport they were in the process of conquering suggested that they shouldn’t even exist. And yet there they were, conquering it,5 and not asking anyone’s permission.

Anyway, back then, I liked Venus. Partly this was for reasons that could themselves be seen as problematic. She was prettier, less obviously overpowering, less baroquely muscled. She hit hard, but her game was elegant rather than punishing. She carried herself with a sense of whimsy, in contrast to Serena’s sometimes surly relentlessness. She was packing that glorious sun lamp of a smile. It doesn’t take a Gender Studies decoder ring to figure out that what all this builds to is that Venus was more conventionally feminine and played a game that was (slightly) more in line with the last-gen WTA tactical geometry of Hingis et al. Serena served and buildings fell over. Venus, at least in theory, seemed vulnerable.

There was another aspect to my Venus love, however: the family-psychology trap. When the sisters started playing each other in majors — they met in four straight Grand Slam finals between 2002 and 2003, the only time two women have done that in the Open Era — the Williamses gave a lot of weirdly unselfconscious interviews in which they talked openly about how Serena, as the youngest, had always been the princess of the family, and how, growing up, it had always been Venus’s job to make sure Serena was OK. (Venus is 15 months older.) The now-adult Williamses all somehow seemed to broadcast that not only was this still the case, it was, moreover, totally aboveboard and natural. And you could see it, I thought, in the awkward, occasionally unnerving matches the sisters played against each other. Serena spent those matches looking like she uncomplicatedly wanted to win. Venus spent them looking trapped in some excruciating psycho-emotional cross-current between wanting to win and wanting Serena to be happy. When Serena won, she would celebrate. When Venus won, she would kind of half-celebrate and half-console Serena. This middle-child plight of Venus’s, so ingrained that she wasn’t even fully aware of it, struck me as wickedly unjust. I wanted her to break out of the trap, crush Serena 6-1 6-2, and smile so wide the seasons changed.

Who knows how anything happens, whether everyone saw the sisters the same way I did or whether the media just invented a narrative that stuck. But throughout Venus’s and Serena’s primes, from, say, 2003 to 2010, the tennis culture gradually embraced Venus — she was so gracious, and she jumped up and down so sweetly when she won Wimbledon — while Serena remained a flashpoint, criticized for her temper and her supposed lack of focus,6 as well as for a lot of other more sinisterly conceived stuff like “having no class” and “destroying sportsmanship in tennis,” which, talk about not needing a decoder ring. (And I’m sorry, white dudes who tweet at me during every single tennis tournament, but you can’t accuse Serena of destroying the genteel good manners of tennis while simultaneously chuckling at every dumb commercial in which John McEnroe pops up to squawk “You cannot be serious” at Mayor McCheese or whatever. White dude par excellence Jimmy Connors called a U.S. Open official “an abortion,” right there on TV. This ship has sailed, and with warp speed.)

Venus took over tennis to the point that she seemed to be of tennis, to belong to its codes and traditions. Serena took over tennis while, in some sense, always remaining an outsider.

Venus and Serena Williams

Is it strange to say that this is why I’ve come to love Serena more than all but maybe three or four active athletes? Love is probably the wrong word here; love implies a kind of sympathy or protectiveness that I only feel toward Serena in flashes, and never because she seems to need it. Serena took over tennis and then … just kept on taking it over. She never stopped being a conqueror. I followed her around at Wimbledon this year, and let me tell you. Have you seen her play in person? The difference between Serena live and Serena on TV is greater than the difference between Roger Federer live and Roger Federer on TV; I’m not kidding. She is just — and I mean, you can spot this with one eye closed from the top row of a stadium — playing a different sport from her opponents. This is true to the point that I kept taking that famous Bobby Jones quote about Jack Nicklaus (“[He] plays a game with which I am not familiar”) and applying it to her in more and more general ways, trying to find the right level (“She occupies an order of being with which I am [explodes]”).

You know, I’m guessing, what’s going on with her right now. How she came back from a life-threatening pulmonary embolism to win Wimbledon at age 30, and not just win it, but run away with it (24 aces in two sets in the semis vs. Victoria Azarenka). How she did the same thing at the Olympics. How she has romped through the U.S. Open so far, beating Andrea Hlavackova 6-0, 6-0 in the fourth round. Serena turns 31 this month, and she is winning more forcefully, more ruthlessly, than she ever has. She’s playing tennis the way some people salt the earth.

None of this is to say that Serena doesn’t have the normal complement of human feelings and fears. But the thing I love, or admire, or am in awe of about her, though it took me years to appreciate this, is that on the court, she makes everything except tennis appear not to matter. The sport is full of subtly prejudiced upper-class white people? Well, here is an F5 tornado. Katharine Hepburn said at Humphrey Bogart’s funeral that he liked to drink, so he drank; Serena likes to win tennis matches, so she wins tennis matches. It isn’t to make you like her, or prove you wrong, or sell you a sandwich. It isn’t to overcome the global history of race. It isn’t to expand our sense of the meaning of Americanness. It’s to do a thing she wants to do. And miraculously, she is herself such a force that all that other stuff scatters like paper.

And yes, here is where totally impartial fans on the Internet are going to come after me with her legendary U.S. Open meltdown, the time when she physically threatened a lineswoman who slapped her with a (probably incorrect, and pretty spectacularly non-standard in any case) foot-fault call in 2009. And yes, it was scary, and Serena showed some cosmically bad form. And OK! For fans who need their athletes to have safe personalities, or to be unswerving role models, then maybe Serena Williams is never going to click.7 Personally, I sometimes crack under stress while packing the car for a road trip, or reading a book review; I can barely understand how the Williams sisters haven’t lashed out under pressure a hundred times more than they have. And unswerving role models bore me. The point is: It doesn’t matter, because Serena isn’t playing for your approval, doesn’t need your approval, and kind of turns the whole question of your approval into wasted breath.

And I love this, or anyway I admire it and am definitely in awe of it. At some point, if you care about seeing things done well, you have to sit down and applaud the aristocracy of talent, which makes the aristocracy of tennis fans irrelevant. After all, that’s what makes any change an athlete can bring about possible. Years from now, if the Williams sisters appear to have changed tennis at all, I am almost sure that Serena will seem to have been more central to that change than Venus.8 That racist, anti-racist Tony Hoagland poem from 2003 ends after “the black girl” has beaten her opponent, “then kicked her ass good / then thumped her once more for good measure,” as the speaker ambiguously mourns the end of the 20th century. I love that Serena is still out there kicking the 20th century’s ass — just incidentally, not even meaning to do it, not making a point of it, just kicking its ass over and over again.

Filed Under: People, Serena Williams

Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

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