Serena Williams: The Queen and Her Court

By Gerald Marzorati

I was sitting in the pressroom backstage at the U.S. Open, surrounded by a chatty horde of media from around the globe, when Serena Williams strode in wearing a form-fitting top and a tennis skirt. It was the first time I was near her and the sight of her up close was breathtaking. She was muscular and radiating power like a warrior queen. This was about 20 years ago but she was, then as now, one of the very best players in the world. And she was already a complex, polarizing figure. I watched her dismantle tiny Martina Hingis, and even though the U.S. Open crowd loves Americans, aggressive players, new stars and winners, on that day the overwhelmingly white audience was clearly rooting for Hingis and merely tolerating Williams. Meanwhile, throughout the match, every Black friend I had who held even a passing interest in tennis was calling with glee to say, “She is amazing!”

Serena has evoked so many emotions and symbolized so many ideas that she, more than any other modern professional athlete, deserves a book-length meditation. Gerald Marzorati, a veteran tennis writer and former editor of The New York Times Magazine, has given us his version with “Seeing Serena,” a thoughtful journey through her 2019 season with stops at all of the major tournaments. Marzorati attended all the Slams and three other big tournaments and occasionally talked to Serena and other tennis luminaries, from her current coach Patrick Mouratoglou to her childhood coach Rick Macci to Chris Evert and Tracy Austin. Serena is portrayed as a global celebrity who’s inherently political — a Black superwoman like Oprah, Beyoncé or Michelle Obama, a body-conscious star in an era when people are expanding the definition of beauty, and a working mom in a time of celebrity sharenting.

Serena has, for years, been on the doorstep of tying the record for the most Grand Slam tournaments won — she’s one win away from it — but in Marzorati’s telling, the desire that’s most present for Serena is the imperative to win one as a mom. She’s been so dominant for so long it’s easy to forget that she has not won a single Grand Slam title since she became a mother. But that is one of the most challenging mountains in the sport — only one mother has won a Slam in the past 40 years. Part of the challenge is recovering your body after having a baby. Part of it is how the Women’s Tennis Association does not allow for any sort of maternity leave, so if you go off to have a baby, your ranking plummets and you have to rebuild your status. Part of it, too, is emotional — the mother’s imperative to do everything she possibly can for her baby is in direct conflict with the athlete’s need to do everything she possibly can for her sport. For Williams, who conquered the barriers of being Black in a white sport, of growing up poor in an expensive sport, and of lasting a long time in a young person’s sport, this last hurdle has proved the hardest.

Marzorati digs deep into the reasons for Serena’s dominance: She has the greatest serve the women’s game has ever seen and the greatest return of serve ever, too. These two strokes put her at an advantage at the start of every point and often push her opponents to the edge. “Williams’s returning prowess often forces a server to go for more on her serve,” Marzorati writes. “This, in turn, can lead to faults and double faults, and, even when not, to pressure. Causing stress, incessant stress: This has been an aspect of Williams’s game, over the years, as important as any. It can’t be tabulated like rally length or service placement, but it’s clear enough to those who have watched Williams that she can undo an opponent by mentally and emotionally straining her.”

There’s plenty of insight and detail in this book to please tennis nerds, but this is also a travelogue covering Marzorati’s year following Williams from Melbourne to Paris to London to New York. He gives us some of the flavor from each stop such that you get more than just tennis, you get the feel of having been on this dream trip following Serena around the globe. In England we hear about the origin of lawns and how that led to grass-court tennis, and about an exhibition of the work of the great African American visual artist Faith Ringgold, which puts him in mind of Serena because once you start looking at the world through a Serena lens, everything bends back to her.

Marzorati also relates highlights of Serena’s personal life, from sleeping in a little bed with her older sister Venus in their childhood home in Compton to hiding out from her father in her Paris apartment to meeting the man who would become her husband in an Italian hotel. In a world where the Black family seems invisible, Serena has always been seen as a devoted family person. From her first foray into stardom she was surrounded by family. The love between Serena and Venus is heart-wrenchingly sweet. As kids, Marzorati writes, “when they played practice points against each other in the park in Compton, Serena would ‘hook’ her — call balls out that Venus had clearly hit in — and Venus would say nothing.” Everyone deserves to know love like that. Now, Serena is in the twilight of her career, and her husband is in her box, and her daughter does commercials and photo shoots with her, and even her daughter’s doll Qai Qai has had her own 15 minutes. Serena is such a giant star that people in her orbit become stars, too.

The trip through Serena’s childhood raised questions for me about how we have chosen to view her and what details we’ve focused on and which ones we’ve ignored. It’s critical to the mythology of Serena that she is from Compton, that iconic city, the home of N.W.A. The media mentions it constantly, as if to endlessly burnish her credentials as a “real” Black person, i.e., one who rose from poverty. But the full story is more complicated. Serena’s father moved the family to Compton by choice because he thought it would forge greatness and also because living there lowered his mortgage payments immensely, meaning he could worry less about his business and think more about teaching his daughters how to play. The toughness and the vibe of the place seem to be part of Serena, but the Williamses moved to Florida so she could attend tennis academies when she was just 9 years old. Compton gets a lot of mention for a place she left at 9 — she’s from the world of institutional tennis just as much as she’s from there, but “she grew up at tennis academies” is not quite as evocative. And sometimes “she’s from Compton” plays into hoary stereotypes of Blackness that turn painful for Black viewers when, say, Serena gets angry on the court and white pundits and cartoonists look at her like some stereotypical Angry Black Woman, conveniently forgetting that all athletes under high pressure get furious at some point.

Marzorati says Serena became “the most consequential athlete America had produced since Muhammad Ali.” But where Ali’s political stances were revolutionary, nowadays it’s considered a sin for athletes with large platforms to not speak up. Serena has not been overtly political because her Jehovah’s Witness faith forbids it. Marzorati is understanding about this, but another writer might have chosen to take her to task for being silent. Is being political in the political-as-personal sense enough when Black people are dying at the hands of the police? It is disappointing to see Serena remain quiet in a world where Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James and Megan Rapinoe and Maya Moore and Naomi Osaka are using their platforms to try to make the world better.

Marzorati has written a deep, satisfying meditation on Serena’s path through an unsatisfying year. But she’s still the greatest tennis player ever, and it’s instructive to watch her become a Madison Avenue darling after being rejected by so many white fans early in her career; it says a Black person can eventually win ’em over if she’s a winner and she’s sympathetic and she’s nonthreatening. Serena may be fearsome on the court, but her apolitical nature means she’s not going to challenge white supremacy in ways that make fans feel uncomfortable, while her personal triumph gives them a chance to feel good about rooting for a Black woman who’s risen up from Compton.

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