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The ugly way tennis treated Serena didn’t stop her

How to be the GOAT in a sport in which so many want you to fail.

Tennis player Serena Williams tosses the ball with her left hand, preparing to hit it with the racquet in her right.
Serena Williams and her signature serve.
Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Serena Williams’s retirement announcement in Vogue contained a telling line about the motivation behind her playing career. She explains that, for her, turning negativity into winning has been a driving force.

“I’ve built a career on channeling anger and negativity and turning it into something good,” Serena wrote. “To me that’s kind of the essence of being Serena: expecting the best from myself and proving people wrong. There were so many matches I won because something made me angry or someone counted me out.”

It’s easy to appreciate the greatness of Serena Williams: 23 grand slam singles titles, four Olympic gold medals, 14 grand slam doubles titles, and a “Serena Slam,” a non-calendar-year grand slam (winning the four major championships — Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open — consecutively). That’s a galactic level of wins. But in order to grasp the full picture, it’s necessary to remember how poorly the sport treated Serena and her sister Venus — even if a lot of folks in the tennis world would like to forget.

Serena, now 40, has said this is her last US Open and her chance to capture a record-tying 24 singles grand slam tournament wins. To do so, she’ll need to defy tennis logic one more time and win the whole damned thing. Essentially, she’ll need to be Serena Williams, just one last time.

Remembering the parts of Serena Williams’s career we’d rather forget

Throughout their careers, people constantly told Serena and her sister Venus that they weren’t allowed to do certain things. They were told that they had no business winning the most coveted tournaments in the game. Each time someone told Serena “no,” she went and proved them wrong beyond a shadow of a doubt.

The most visceral example of this might be 2001 Indian Wells, perhaps the ugliest moment in recent tennis history. Serena won her first US Open in 1999, and Venus won both Wimbledon and the US Open in 2000. As they became more dominant, players and commentators had talked about how not only was their father Richard a bad influence, but also started circulating the unsubstantiated rumor that when the sisters played one another, they would decide in advance who would win. At Indian Wells, a major tournament, Venus was supposed to play Serena in the semifinals but pulled out at the last minute because of an injury. The audience, upset at the walkover and wound up by the rumors of match-fixing, booed at the Williams family in the stands, some calling them racist slurs.

“They deny, but with less than the normal conviction, even anger, one would expect in the face of such serious issues. How about pounding on the table and saying it ain’t so? How about some tears, some anger?” LA Times columnist Bill Dwyre wrote at the time, explaining how he and the tennis community didn’t believe Venus’s injury was real and that the family was acting suspiciously.

Serena and Venus Williams, file pictures.
Venus, Richard, Serena, and Brandy Williams
Art Seitz/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Because of the way they were treated and because of the racist attacks, Serena and Venus boycotted the tournament — despite its high payout and elite status — for more than a decade. At the time, tennis insiders and former players, including the great Martina Navratilova, continually dismissed the idea of racism against the sisters and insinuated that the backlash Serena and Venus received was their family’s fault.

Not every attack against Serena and Venus erupted on such a grand scale. It often took the form of commentators critiquing their bodies, or the way they behaved and how they were too bold when they said they wanted to be the best. They were often described as being fat and lazy or distracted by things other than tennis.

Serena Williams and her sister Venus were not just beating the best players in the world — they won multiple grand slams before their respective 22nd birthdays — they were also playing a sport in which so many wanted to see them fail or count them out. They carried that pressure into each tournament and won gracefully, to the point that commentators and journalists had to change their tune.

“I remember, there was a point, and it was later than you’d think — it was somewhere around her having 16 or 17 Grand Slams — when tennis commentators kind of decided to start talking about Serena specifically as a legend and not so much the open criticism they had of her,” Caitlin Thompson, the publisher of Racquet magazine, told me late last year during the release of King Richard, the movie about Serena and Venus’s father.

“There’s now this sort of retroactive narrative. They’ll say ‘I’ve always thought of Venus and Serena as being elegant, transcendent champions.’ And it’s like, really? Did you? It didn’t sound like that at the time,” she added.

Fifteen years ago, those commentators basically wrote Serena out of the 2007 Australian Open. At the time, Serena was coming off a slew of injuries and entered the tournament unseeded. Still, she intended to be No. 1 again, saying that it was only a matter of time before she returned to the top slot. Commentators and insiders called her “deluded” and out of shape; some speculated that Serena, who had dominated tennis just a couple of years prior to her injuries, was over her listed 135 pounds and that the women’s top 10 had passed Serena by.

Despite being unseeded and facing a tough draw full of talented players, Serena powered through the tournament, stunning her detractors in each round. When the dust settled, the only woman standing between Serena Williams and another grand slam was Maria Sharapova.

Sharapova had asserted herself to be Williams’s biggest rival and successor. Before the Aussie Open final, the two played four times and split the matches evenly. However, Sharapova was in better form, having won the 2006 US Open that summer. On paper, Sharapova was supposed to be the favorite.

But on the court, where matches are won and lost, Serena was dominating.

In the first point of the sixth game, Sharapova, reeling from the onslaught of Williams’s serves and backhands, aimed a smash directly at Serena’s body (usually a no-no in tennis since you could hurt someone). Serena glared. The crowd gasped.

If you watch the replay, it’s not entirely clear what she’s more mad at: that Sharapova took a swing at her or that she lost the point. Maybe it was both. But in that pocket of time, Serena seemingly made up her mind to never lose to this woman again.

Not only would she beat Sharapova 6-1, 6-2 in that match, Serena would also go on to beat her touted successor every single time they would play until Sharapova retired in 2020 — 18 times over 12 years, a 20-2 record. And Serena won 15 more grand slam singles titles after 2007, the year she was supposedly done for.

Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova shake hands after a tennis match.
After 2007, Serena Williams, left, never lost to Maria Sharapova again.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The only way to explain why Serena would stick with tennis despite it all is that this is what love looks like. Serena’s love for tennis is the most relatable thing about this unrelatable superstar.

It’s the unscientific reconciliation between human desire and human reality, wanting something so much despite the emotional and physical pain (Serena’s had so many injuries, even a life-threatening pulmonary embolism ) it will bring.

Love is why Serena and her sister dared to change tennis history and accepted the spotlight in their wins and losses. Love is why she took great offense after being called a cheater. Love is why she’s giving herself one more chance, despite the physical limits of a 40-year-old body, to win the US Open instead of adhering to the old advice of how athletes should leave the game while they’re at the top of the sport.

We’re lucky to bear witness to it.

Not unlike what was said about Serena 15 years ago, the odds of Serena making the finals are slim. She hasn’t been in top form and isn’t match tough. She’s currently ranked 608 in singles and has won only one match all year. It would take a miracle for her to win this Grand Slam, an exponentially bigger feat than the one she pulled off in Australia in 2007. But I’ll be heartbroken if she doesn’t. Somehow, against all logic, I still believe Serena can do it.

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