By last year, people stopped believing
ın Serena Williams.
There was a time, in 1999, when a star like Andre
Agassi boldly predicted—well before it was fashionable—
that Serena was better positioned for greatness than her
famous older sister, Venus; that she moved better on the
court and had a better forehand; that she just had that
special “it factor” going.
But that was then. This was January 2007, when,
after injury and inactivity, her world ranking slipped to
No. 81. There was criticism, too, that Serena Williams
didn’t want “it” badly enough.
Serena’s gone Hollywood. Serena’s got a clothing line.
What about tennis, Serena?
“One day you are on top of the world,” she wrote on
her blog, “and the next day you are fighting to hold on
... physically and mentally. U grasp onto a small string
that’s holding u between sanity and insanity.”
But Williams found her focus. She arrived unseeded
at the Australian Open, determined to climb back to the
top. She took on six seeded players and beat them all. She
defeated top-seeded Maria Sharapova in two sets—giving
up only three games—in little more than an hour.
In the end, her thoughts turned to the rougher times
in her life, times that had toughened her resolve: Her
sister, Yetunde Price, an intensive-care nurse, was killed
in 2003 by a gunman in a car in their old family neighborhood of Compton in Los Angeles. Williams dedicated her
biggest comeback win to Price’s memory.
“My family has always been very supportive of me,”
says Williams, 26, in a recent interview with Arrive.
“They are the last people in the world to put pressure
on me. But it was important for me to win, because of all
the things she did for me. I felt like she was there every
moment, that she was really a part of it. I know what she
would have said, too, at the end. She’d say, ‘Why did
you go after that girl like she stole something from
you?’ She’d always tease me like that if she thought the
match was too easy. But it wasn’t easy at all. I was just
very, very focused that day.”
When the U.S. Open kicks off in August in New York, Williams will look to return to the championship form she
demonstrated in Australia. She hasn’t won a Slam since,
and lost in the third round of this year’s French Open.
But, if history tells us anything, it’s a safe bet that she’ll
again dominate with her groundbreaking style of play.
And if the story line continues as it has, there will be
electricity in the air whenever Williams takes the court.
It could be her self-designed, famously flamboyant tennis outfits. Or it could be the legendary, still-in-progress
story of struggle and achievement that the Williams sisters have lived for more than a decade. Or it may be the
classic Serena style—determined and confident, if not
headstrong and cocky—that inspires fans to root either
for her or against her with equal devotion.
“I know when people are cheering against me,” she
says. “But I’m perfectly capable of shutting them out.
Just like I was capable of shutting out the people who
said I’d never come back. People had already written
me off, but I knew I was going to jump
right back in. Maybe my confidence wasn’t
quite as high as before. But I never, ever
lost it completely.”
The designation of Next Great Thing
can be a dubious one for an athlete. In
women’s tennis that burden fell upon
Williams quite early. With her victory at
the Australian Open in 2003, she landed
in a rare place in women’s tennis history,
holding all four Grand Slam singles titles at
once. With the win came the same gravity
of expectations that Martina Navratilova
faced before Williams, that Chris Evert
faced before Navratilova, and that Billie
Jean King faced when it all began.
Taking that into account, along with
the pressure of having an older sister as
one of her toughest rivals—not to mention the attention that comes with being a
black woman dominating a predominately
white person’s sport—it really shouldn’t