So it turns out that the ability to scorch the court with an atomic first serve may not be Serena Williams’ greatest talent after all. It’s beginning to look as if her ability to handle, learn from and make the best use of her success may be even more impressive than a smoker down the T.
The latest piece of evidence for this is Williams’ announcement (made in a column on Time.com) that she will play at Indian Wells this year after boycotting the event for 14 years.
The fact that she chose to write about her decision, instead of merely reacting to the inevitable questions from the media, in carefully chosen words is telling. Also striking are the words she chose, including this passage in particular:
“There are some who say I should never go back. There are others who say I should’ve returned years ago. I understand both perspectives very well and wrestled with them for a long time. I’m just following my heart on this one.”
Following her heart appears to have led Williams to a very good place. One with a great view.
The controversy leading to the boycott by both Serena and her older sister Venus revolved around the 2001 Indian Wells semifinals and final. The short version is that Venus pulled out of her scheduled semifinal against Serena (the reason: tendinitis) just 20 minutes before start time. The crowd felt cheated and reacted with jeers and boos.
In some quarters, the withdrawal enhanced the appeal of a theory -- supported with a greater measure of suspicion than evidence by some players -- that Richard Williams was a puppeteer, dictating which of his daughters would win specific matches. Thus, things got even more horrid when Richard and Venus showed up to watch Serena in the final. Richard later said that he and Venus were subject to ugly, terrible, racist taunts. We know for certain that Serena was continuously booed and heckled. In her column, she writes that she spent hours crying in the Indian Wells locker room after she won the tournament.
It’s imperative in this saga to remember that Serena was 19 years old at the time. And while the Williams sisters certainly faced formidable obstacles to success in tennis, they also were embraced and hailed by legions of tennis insiders and fans. The success of the sisters allowed people to feel good about themselves and to point to the strides the game has taken in becoming more accessible to African-Americans and other minorities. The reality is that many people of all races had stepped forward to help the Williamses make their great leap from Compton to West Palm Beach, often out of the goodness of their hearts.
Serena reacted to the events in Indian Wells as if the sky had fallen in, because to her 19-year-old mind and heart it really had. The fantasy of a seamless transition from aspiration to maximal success was shattered. At the same time, the Williamses knew full well that, because of the sisters’ burgeoning careers, the Indian Wells tournament needed them a lot more than they needed the tournament. They chose to punish the tournament and stayed away for 14 years.
In the interim, Serena eclipsed even Venus as a star. For a while, it appeared she might vanish into the black hole of her celebrity. Just as Serena was on the cusp of becoming a figure of historic importance in tennis, in a way that had nothing to do with the color of her skin, she seemed prepared to throw it all away. It seemed she was more interested in becoming a third-rate actress with a big name rather than the greatest female tennis player who ever lived. Over time, though, she chose the latter.
Once she embraced her identity, a new, more thoughtful and secure Serena began to emerge. She earned a platform from which she could say whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, with the guarantee that she would not only be heard but also that many would take her words for gospel truth. That’s a lot of power. She began telling people what she really thinks, rather than what she thought they wanted to hear or what she thought might make her look good.
Serena continued to thank her god, Jehovah, after she won tennis titles. She was pilloried in some quarters as a “victim blamer” for the stand she took in a highly visible rape case -- her position being to wonder where the unfortunate girl’s parents had been in her life. She tweeted her disappointment in the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case but later said she had no firm opinion on the outcome because she wasn’t given all the facts the grand jury examined.
Whether you agree or disagree, give Serena this: She is an independent, and in some ways unpredictable, thinker.
And that is what led to this change of heart regarding Indian Wells. A cynic might scoff at her decision and characterize it as a public relations gambit or spiking the football; after all, she will be returning in triumph. But does anyone really believe that a woman who has been reducing her schedule to accommodate her age (33) and physical state would add the 10-day “fifth Grand Slam” to her calendar out of spite? Or that the 19-time Grand Slam singles champ would do it for rankings points?
Serena is making a statement, but it isn't aggressive, vindictive or self-regarding.
She doesn’t need anyone’s approval. She doesn’t need anyone’s money. (Ten minutes on the Home Shopping Network and, bingo, she can make more than most folks do in a year.) She certainly doesn’t need anyone’s advice on how to interpret race relations in America. Free to think and say whatever she wants, Serena writes:
“I’m still as driven as ever, but the ride is a little easier. I play for the love of the game. And it is with that love in mind, and a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness, that I will proudly return to Indian Wells in 2015.”
At the end of her column, Serena points out that 2001 in Indian Wells was a “pivotal moment” in her story and notes that she is part of the tournament’s story as well. She concludes, “Together we have a chance to write a different ending.”
I’m pretty sure I know at least one component of that ending: Serena Williams beats the tar out of whomever she meets the final 6-3, 6-1.