• U.S.

Her Serena Highness

5 minute read
Howard Chua-Eoan

What am I doing here? Serena Williams asked herself in the middle of the championship tie breaker that would help her make history, allow her to fulfill her father’s predictions and alter her relationship with her older sister. It was a moment of doubt. But being 17, she dismissed it quickly–just as swiftly as she recovered from the nervousness that tripped up two earlier chances to win the title outright in her match against Martina Hingis. Serena’s prevailing ethos reasserted itself: she doesn’t lose tie breakers. She hasn’t lost one all year. The rule held. She won.

And so Serena Williams was transformed. On Saturday evening in New York City, she became the first African American to win a tennis Grand Slam singles title since Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon in 1975, and the first African-American woman to win the U.S. Open since Althea Gibson in 1958. As a historymaker, Serena transfigured her family as well. She, her sister Venus and their father Richard were no longer the loudest mouths on the tennis circuit. She had shown the world that her father was not just some voice crying in the wilderness but a true prophet. He had long predicted his daughters would dominate the world of women’s tennis. Daddy did know best.

With her titanic 6-3, 7-6 victory over the wily Hingis last week, Serena, in her third year as a professional, also proved that she was no longer a bratty wannabe with a tendency to feud with other players: if she is ever cocky in the future, well, that’s just a champion’s confidence showing. Even her relationship with Hingis (with whom she has exchanged sharp words in the press) was different after the victory. Never one to admit weakness, Serena acknowledged Hingis’ prowess and her ability to take advantage of her whenever she “slacked off.” And Hingis returned the favor. Serena’s serves, she said, “were, like, smacking.”

One change in Serena’s life, however, will keep tennis fans glued to the little things that go bump on courtside and off. Venus, 19, was supposed to have been the first in the family to become a Grand Slam singles champ. Two years ago, Venus reached the finals of the U.S. Open only to lose badly to Hingis. She had come so close again this year but lost to Hingis in a ferocious semifinal the night before, perhaps wearing out the No. 1-ranked player enough to help Serena win on Saturday. Said Serena: “Venus was so bummed…and that encouraged me to be even tougher out there.” Still, on victory Saturday, as her parents exulted in the stands, the camera panned to a wistful Venus staring straight ahead, betraying no strong emotion. Later, Serena said, “I’ve never seen her that down before.”

The sisters have been extremely close. They are, says ex-pro Pam Shriver, “best friends, doubles partners, practice partners. I don’t think there have been players this close in the game, certainly not at the top.” Venus invokes her sister’s name constantly during interviews. Serena does the same. They are moving out of their parents’ home into a house they are building nearby. Shriver points out that whenever sisters have competed in professional tennis, the elder sister has always had the edge. In the past, Serena had seemed hesitant to surpass her sister. There was talk that she had pulled out of one tournament because she and Venus were on the same side of the draw. The sisters deny that. But they are competitive. Says Shriver, who is Venus’ mentor: “It’s only natural that it can be awkward. The Lipton [tournament where Venus beat Serena] was very odd. They’re teenagers going through adolescence. My hope is that if they truly both have this ambition, which they do–to get to the very top–they need to work this out eventually, and not have any edge one way psychologically.”

Family dynamics are critical. And Richard Williams has not made it easy. Two weeks ago, as the U.S. Open began, he predicted his two prodigious daughters would face each other in the finals. That almost happened. But he has also said that Serena might prove to be the better player. On Friday night, as his older daughter was being defeated by Hingis, he vanished from the stands and apparently returned to his hotel room. Says Mary Carillo, a lead analyst for CBS Sports: “I think the sisters handle [parental pressure] beautifully. They understand what they have to do to defuse situations created by their father. Richard wants to be the story; he wants to be a big part of the Williams legend. He creates controversy and his kids have to react to it. It’s all part of the hype, but let me tell you, it’s those kids who have to walk into the locker room.”

So far, the sisters have rushed to each other’s defense amid adversity. Says Andrea Leand, a contributor to Tennis magazine: “When it comes to each other, they know the relationship is much more important than the tennis.” Serena herself reflected on it last week during an interview that aired on CBS before her big victory: “I don’t see how tennis could separate us. Tennis only lasts for a few years, and after that we have the rest of our lives.” An admirable thought from a teenager–but one that is certain to be tested again and again on the court.

–Reported by Harriet Barovick/New York

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