Sports

What Serena Williams Means to You

It’s hard to say what is more potent: Serena Williams’s howitzer serves, or the deep and powerful passions she provokes from fans watching those shots — particularly those who have been cast as outsiders in tennis.

Since this year’s U.S. Open is quite likely Williams’s last professional tournament, we asked readers to share personal memories of watching her play, and to tell of the emotions that she stirred. There was no shortage of submissions in which fans described their relationships to Serena, and Venus — how the sisters inspired them to watch matches, travel to tournaments and even take up the game themselves.

That relationship was particularly powerful among Black fans, who referred to Serena Williams as “family,” “our sister” and “our Wonder Woman.”

She has been on the world stage, playing top-flight tennis, for nearly a quarter century. But her legacy goes far beyond what she did between the lines. It’s also in the fans she drew to tennis and the excitement she provoked among those who witnessed her greatness.

(The responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Amanda: My friends and I talk about it to this day: When you had beads in your hair as a kid, you couldn’t tell us nothing. It felt like they were bringing our childhood to the court with her.

She opened doors for Black women to go into spaces where we’re not welcome and also to not conform. She brought her hairstyle. She brought her structure, her build. She brought the emotion. A lot of times as a Black woman, you’re told to be quiet. When she was upset, everyone knew. She showed anger.

Serena showed me that who I am is enough. We’re enough. She feels like a big sister. And we came here for her, like, “We’re here for you.”

Rachel: In a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve grown up with Serena, experiencing the same phases of life that she has at the same time. I have a very strong, visceral feeling toward her. When I was pregnant with my second child, John, I remember seeing her five-part documentary and watching her go through the whole birthing experience.

That was so on my mind when I was pregnant with him because I just was not getting the care that I felt like I should and like my doctors weren’t listening to me. I was seven months pregnant, and I decided to switch practices. I’m so glad I did because we had a little bit of a situation during his birth, but I felt so much more secure. Just knowing her story and knowing how she had to advocate for herself, even to the physicians. And I felt like I have to advocate for myself in the same way with my birthing story.

I’ve been going to U.S. Open for 30 years. As a Black woman, seeing her winning was transformative for me. I used to be one of the few Black fans in my early years. Now many of my Black friends from college go. That was not the case in the ’90s.

Serena resonates with me because she is unashamedly Black. She did things on her own terms and propelled herself to greatness, doing so in a sport that felt by design that it was off limits to Black people. She is my only sports hero, and to me will always be the greatest.

I tear up over her 2007 Australian Open win, where she was so heavily criticized for her weight and dedication to the sport. After winning, she gave a tribute speech to her late sister, Yetunde Price. When I have a tough day, I rewatch that final.

Race, body, gender, being a mother — her dedication to the sport has always been questioned, but she always stepped up. I’ve lived with Serena (and Venus) in my life since the age of 8, and now I’m 32 and their presence in a typically white-lily sport was so comforting to see. It’s just amazing to see in the past decade how she is finally being adored for the treasure and icon she truly is.

Watching Serena win the 1999 U.S. Open on television — beads flying — warmed my heart. At that time, tennis commentators expressed disdain at Venus and Serena. They didn’t belong. They just had “power,” not tennis acumen. It took several years before those commentators realized each was a prodigy responsible for elevating women’s tennis.

Serena’s response to unbelievable pressure on the unforgiving world stage resonates with the pressure I faced throughout my legal career.

Monique: I went to Wimbledon in 2019 by myself. I’ve been to the Cincinnati Open and I’ve been to the Miami Open. A lot of times I just get looks and energy that says, “You don’t belong” and “Why are you here?” It’s an invisible, strong thing that says, “Don’t be here.”

Seeing Serena, for me it was that inspiration of seeing the grit and determination, not only in her, but in her sister and her father and her mom and her other family members. Everyone has to support so it’s a family affair.

My daughter, Kayla, surprised me because Sunday was my birthday and I’ve been wanting to come see Serena. We saw her practice yesterday so I was very happy.

Kayla: She’s so sweet. Her motherhood, her advocacy for Black women in their pregnancies, just watching her go through normal life, like we love her. She’s our Wonder Woman.

I was there at the French Open in 2018, when Serena came back from maternity leave wearing the infamous cat suit. I cheered for her as loudly as I could, shouting “Go, Mama!” in between points. My daughter, Camille, is 11 now, and she doesn’t quite grasp how extraordinary Serena’s achievements are, because she’s been at the top of the game her whole life.

From Arthur Ashe to Zina Garrison, I have always followed the Black players. Watching Venus and Serena grow into the game and dominate, it was like a vicarious, cathartic triumph.

I graduated from high school the same year that Serena won her first Grand Slam title, so the Williams sisters were my entry point: They are what brought me into tennis and introduced a young, queer kid to the game.

I have been to every U.S. Open from 2012 to this year, minus 2020, of course. When Serena and Venus play, there’s a real energy here. And then on the years when they’re not here, it’s just … different.

Back home, people ask me, “Why do you still support them? They don’t win.” Or, “Why is she still playing?” I could care less about if she loses in the first round or not. This is more about a send-off. If she’s not playing great, my hope is that she plays somebody worthy of beating her. And I hope she doesn’t give up on tennis after she’s done playing. I have a feeling we may never see her at another tennis tournament, like when Steffi Graf retired. I hope that’s not the case.

Me and my two best friends watched her win the U.S. Open finals in ’12, ’13 and ’14, and we gasped in unison when she was one botched swing volley from a calendar slam in 2015. But my most joyous experience was watching her demolish the field at the 2012 Olympics. It was a remarkable performance.

My best friends and I recognize that we root for Serena like she’s OUR sister. We revel in her dominance; every bit of frustration she shows on court we feel with her. She is proud enough of her excellence to demand perfection of herself, and she has freed other women to do the same.

We have two older sisters, and they play, too. My dad put us all in tennis because of Serena and Venus. So they all started young, and then as soon as we could walk we started playing tennis. It seems like Serena’s had a very long career because I started watching her when I was 3 and now I’m 17, still watching her.

She never gives up. Being able to stay calm while playing tennis, being able to motivate yourself on the court — because she can be vocal — I feel like that’s important.

The Serena and [Naomi] Osaka match really made me realize how humble Serena actually was because even though the crowd was with her, at the end she lost and she still supported Osaka in that moment. That was nice. It exposed a lot about the tennis community, that one match.

If I saw her, I’d probably try and give her a hug or something. I would tell her I appreciate all that she’s done and how great of a person she’s been.

The Black community has a maxim: “You need to be twice as good” to make it in America. So, when one of us pries open the gates and makes it through the gauntlet, it is a cause for all to celebrate. Over 20 years, we have celebrated with Venus and Serena and we have shaken our fists at our TVs over the cultural insults they have born: insults to Compton, to Richard Williams’s unshakable confidence, to their braids, to their bodies, to their (unfeminine) power game, to their assertiveness (as if this were new to tennis), to the thinly disguised racism of the TV commentators. To each insult, Serena and Venus have had an answer: They were more than “twice as good.”

My very first U.S. Open in 2013, I caught the Amtrak with my mom, and as we were on our way there, it started to rain. Upon arriving in the gates, we heard over the loud speaker that the match had been canceled. I was totally upset. I had never been to a tennis tournament and had no idea that if a match is canceled, you don’t get your money back. I didn’t want to see any other players: We came for Serena only. Luckily, my mom was able to take off work again and we repurchased tickets for her second-round match on her way to win the tournament that year.

Serena is such a symbol of beating all odds and breaking all barriers. For me, it shows that if we, Black people, are given access, we will show and prove we belong. She is the greatest athlete and did not until the past few years get her flowers because she is a Black woman.

Sonia: I was a tennis fan before the Williams sisters, but when they started, I became more. When they are playing, I’m in for the game. I don’t leave my TV.

Abigail: She cheers and screams. Sometimes when I’m in the bedroom and I hear her, I think something’s wrong. I’m like, “What’s wrong, what’s wrong?” and she says, “No, it’s just the game. I'm happy because of Serena.”

Sonia: I see her, I see me. You know? With Serena Williams and Venus, it’s not about the money. They put their heart in. They put their heart and everything in it, so I go for them. When they leave, I’ll still come to the Open, though. I like Naomi Osaka and Coco (Gauff). Coco has that Serena-go-for-it, too.

At the 2015 Western and Southern Open, when I walked in the ticket-taker said, “Serena’s practicing in Court 14 if you want to see her.” I hurried over and stood at the chain-link fence surrounding the court and watched as she practiced and was coached by Patrick Mouratoglou. It was a thrill to simply be that close to her! I have photos from that day that I will keep forever. Standing and watching her, I could feel her power, energy and passion even on the practice court. Strangely I don’t recall whether she won her match that day.

Her power, passion and unbelievably strong mind-set all resonate with me. I know she will shake things up when she is on the court. Seriously, no one else in the world would have the guts to come play Wimbledon with no match play. She is the queen.

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