Serena Williams stays herself even if she leaves tennis behind


“It may be premature to label her as a female version of Tiger Woods, but she’s on the way.” I first wrote these words on September 14, 1999 about Serena Williams, two days after beating Martina Hingis at the US Open for her first career Grand Slam singles title. At just 17 and in her second year as a pro, Williams had raced to the championship, her wake filled with marketing reps salivating over her potential, with cynics wondering if she would be just another rugged teenager like Jennifer. Capriati. , and the normally polite and collected tennis world is not sure what to think of her. Within two weeks, Williams shared that she was learning to speak Portuguese, dreaming of being a fashion designer and feeding the tabloids through a verbal spat with Hingis.

By sheer luck, I had a front row seat to all of this, and it was delicious. The Philadelphia Daily News sent me to New York to cover the entire Open, and that year also sent me to New Haven, Connecticut for the Pilot Pen to cover the tennis player the most polarizing, interesting and talented – Venus Williams, or so we thought. I saw small children clamoring to speak to Venus, who casually tossed a pair of flip flops to hold a clinic. Serena? She was the little sister with the matching pearls in her hair.


And then Venus and Serena, on either side of the table, headed to the final, both advancing to the semi-finals, with Venus set to face Lindsay Davenport and Serena against No. 1 ranked Hingis. Richard Williams felt his daughters were destined for the championship, and Hingis didn’t necessarily take that too kindly. The Williams family, she said, had “big mouths” and were very fond of talking. Invited to respond, Venus brushed him off. Serena? Serena pouted, declared them not fat at all, and continued to say that maybe Hingis’ lack of formal education allowed her to make such stupid statements. Hingis won the endgame, beating Venus in the semi-finals; Serena won the match, thrashing Hingis, 6-3, 7-6(4) in the league.

I thought back to those early days on Serena’s cover when I read her first-person essay in Vogue announcing her decision to “walk away from tennis.” About who she was then, and who she has since become. And the answer is that she really hasn’t changed at all. Matured ? Yes. But changed? No. She remains genuine and authentic and that is why, more than the 23 Grand Slams, she is on the short list of GOATs.

Rare is the person who has won big and lived bigger, who has refused to apologize when there is nothing to forgive, and who has seen success not as a glass cage to be protected but as a open door to honesty. Rarer still is the woman who succeeds in all this. Serena came to this point in the 1999 US Open just months after the US women’s national soccer team won the World Cup, and many people I interviewed felt that Serena would able to supplant Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm in popularity. Chastain’s sports bra pose was seen as the epitome of girl power, but the likeable (and hugely successful) Hamm was a media darling.

Serena didn’t fit either mold. She wore daring outfits and said what she thought. She played fiercely and sometimes acted sullen. She was not supple like her sister, but sculpted and wide. She is black. She, frankly, made people feel uncomfortable. And yet, she didn’t capitulate, pander to a marketing guru’s notion of a feminine ideal, but rather pander to marketers. “They can play aggressive and pump their fists,” Serena wrote of her legacy. “They can be strong but beautiful. They can wear whatever they want and say whatever they want and kick ass and be proud of it all.

The irony, of course, is that the woman who has long made bold choices is forced to make a very traditional one. you can have it allis what the women’s movement has always preached. It needs an asterisk. You can have it all* (*but maybe not all at once).

I’ve done both – have a career and have a family. There were days when I was convinced I was a bad mother (that flight home from the Kentucky Derby was delayed on my son’s birthday in 2013) and days when I was convinced that I was a bad reporter (the time I missed an NCAA tournament because my daughter had scarlet fever) and the days when I was convinced I was both (Roy Williams retired on day I went to see my daughter at college because our dog died…and I wasn’t home with my son, who found said dog dying). The days when I was good at both? There may have been a random Tuesday in 2010.

I could at least take maternity leave and return to work, physically fit even though mentally disturbed. (Like when you found out your 2-year-old daughter, who had to come to work with you because the babysitter was sick, left her favorite bear at Eagles practice. Thanks, Troy Vincent, for home delivery .)

Serena Williams physically cannot continue to pursue her career and expand her family. At 41, there is no room for another pregnant break. And so she chooses, as millions of women have chosen. She is at peace with it. Don’t confuse that with loving him.

Most retirement stories are told with hints of nostalgia, tinged with the sepia tenderness of memories. “There is no happiness in this subject for me,” she wrote. “I know it’s not the usual thing to say, but I feel a lot of pain. It’s the hardest thing I can imagine. I hate that.”

She’s the woman I first met 23 years ago. Straightforward and true, extraordinary in her talent, yet ordinary in her struggles.

The female version of Tiger Woods? It is an insult. Someone should aspire to be the male version of Serena Williams.

(Top photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)