“Awwww! I don’t like tennis. It’s boring!”
This was my daughter’s reaction when I first told her that I had tickets to see Serena Williams play while we visited New York City.
You see, I’ve been a fan of Serena and Venus from the beginning. My 9-year-old daughter Simone, not so much. She knew the women—you couldn’t be in my presence and not know of the Williams sisters—but she just wasn’t a fan of the game. So, we struck a bargain: If she would give me that Friday to watch live tennis at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, we would spend the rest of our visit to New York doing whatever she liked.
I was determined to see Serena play, and I hoped to see Venus play as well. For me—and I don’t think I’m alone in my sentiment—Serena is by far the best American product of tennis. This is not said to disparage Arthur, Althea, Billie Jean, Pete, or even Venus. But we all know the story: Venus’ career has suffered as she’s adapted to the burden of her Sjogren Syndrome immune system disorder, and Serena has risen to the destiny that has been apparent since she and her sister first took the world of professional tennis by storm. It’s also true that once Serena has played her last match, she will be bestowed with many titles that all mean the same thing: She’s a once-in-a-lifetime athlete.
A Heavy Crown
That description has not come without tears, frustration, and hurt. As an African-American woman, with a similar build and complexion, I’ve been right there with her. The insults, the jeers, the disbelief in her and her sister’s God-given talent despite the fact that it was obvious… I’ve felt as if they were directed towards me as well. Foreign dignitaries and world leaders have felt no remorse or shame in belittling this woman. Other tennis players—male and female, older and younger, foreign and American—have disparaged her and called into question her intentions, dedication, and love of her game.
But what has made the era of Serena’s rise that much sweeter—for me, for my daughter, and for other African-American women and women of color—is the dignity, resolve, and swag she’s graced us with as she’s continued to win in spite of it all.
We know her parents prepared her and Venus for those tribulations. Mr. Williams himself did not hesitate to prophesy his daughters’ dominance or the world’s reaction, yet I have still been beyond angry and hurt on her behalf. I know I’m not the only African-American fan to feel that way. And if that’s what we felt, I can only imagine the depths of her emotions. But she’s done exactly what her parents’ taught her to do: use those slights as fuel and motivation to become one of the best players ever.
It won’t last forever. Eventually, her last match will be played, and we are undeniably on the downside of her spectacular career. However, as we all wonder at what point she will decide she’s satisfied and ready to move on, Serena is steadily racking up wins and obliterating records. As she closes in on this next Grand Slam win, which will be her 7th US Open title, and adds at least one more notch to her ridiculously long list of achievements, I just felt the undeniable need to witness . . . . Her. Her dominance, her strategy, her superiority of play. I had to add my own cheers, applause, and whistles to the roar of the crowd at Ashe stadium, even knowing she wouldn’t be able to distinguish my lone voice. I would be glad to add it to the many others that came out in support of her—our real life superhero.
More importantly, I wanted to gift my daughter with the memory and bragging rights to say that she had also witnessed Serena. I know she doesn’t quite understand why I insisted on making this trip, to this event, at this time. She’s too young to understand much of anything that I’ve written about, and that’s OK. Unfortunately, she will come to her own knowledge of these issues. I also know that eventually she too will regard Serena Williams as a living legend. Serena has left no room for the world to see her as anything less. And so, after my daughter and I disembarked the Liberty Cruise at Pier 83, we hopped first the E train and then the number 7 train to the Mets-Willets Point Station.
I have to admit, I was the one who was grinning uncontrollably as we crossed the wooden walkway to enter the Billie Jean King Tennis Center. My daughter took it all in stride, even as I squealed with delight to realize that not only would we see Serena play during the Evening Session, but we would also see Venus play that day.
But then, a wonderful thing happened. Simone got caught up in the emotion present in Ashe stadium, as the hometown crowd cheered Venus’ resurgence. She became engaged in the tennis match watching Venus effortlessly put away Belinda Bencic. And that night she became of part of the crowd that cheered Serena on to her “comeback” win over Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
It was a special match. Serena lost the first set, but then came back to win the second set seven games to five. We saw her releasing her signature yells of “Come On!”, dropping into a full split on a winning shot and basically being THE SERENA WILLIAMS by refusing to lose the match—even when most of us were sitting on the edge of our seats in distress.
But that’s not what made it special. What was so gratifying for me, and I’m sure very significant for Simone, was the amount of support present for Serena in that stadium. I heard people behind me asking questions and being taught the game of tennis while watching it, making it obvious that they were just there to witness Serena. We grimaced, laughed, jumped out of our seats, and cheered with people who spoke with a variety of accents and a multitude of skin colors, people who were also there to witness Serena.
Beforehand, I hoped it would be a wonderful experience for my daughter. Neither of us was disappointed. As we rode the train back to Manhattan after midnight, my daughter pulled my ear to her lips to make sure I could hear her clearly.
“Mommy, I like tennis. A little bit. But I still don’t want to play.”