How Serena Transcended Tennis

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Mary Curtis: So a mirror rose. Do you remember the first time you watched Serena Williams play tennis?

Speaker 2: That’s a great question. I don’t know if I remember the first match, but I remember the moment in which I knew that Serena and Venus were. In existence in my world. All of a sudden we had the U.S. Open on or the Australian Open on and it became this event to make sure we were there and witnessing and supporting and cheering on these these black girls in the lily white sport.

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Mary Curtis: Amira Rose Davis is an assistant professor of Black Studies at the University of Texas Austin and co-host of the feminist sports podcast Burn It All Down.

Speaker 2: I know for me, one of the things I really latched on to was the beads in their hair. I rocked beads all through my childhood and it was just like, Oh, that’s what representation looks like to have beads in a space where there was none and still have the confidence and the audacity and the swagger to just rock your hair in the way you want to and not to kind of conform yourself to this space.

Mary Curtis: A mirror rose followed Serena Williams as she won 23 Grand Slam titles and four Olympic gold medals. She watched Williams endure attacks based on her race and femininity, and she also saw her survive a difficult pregnancy that threatened to derail her career.

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Speaker 2: And it wasn’t until high school college where I started really watching their matches and understanding playing style and all of that. But what preceded all of that was just their kind of cultural impact on me and my family and in the community.

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Mary Curtis: This month, in an essay in Vogue magazine, Williams announced her retirement from professional tennis. She wrote that she wants to focus on her daughter Olympia and possibly have more children. She also regrets having to make that choice. That quote, If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family. Yet. She also refuses to use the word retirement. Instead, she prefers evolution. Her career isn’t ending, she writes, but simply changing. And for a mirror, Rose Williams’s work is far from over.

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Speaker 2: Oh, so funny. I’m like a terrible sports person because I hate, like, listicles and rankings, but with Serena. That label of greatness to me transcends like it blends her numerous accolades on the court, her impact on tennis, and it also combines these like. Cultural reach and impact. People like to have arguments and they argue about tennis and they argue about, you know, Nadal or Federer. You know, he just goes on and on. But to me, it’s it’s so clear that when you count those accolades and you count her impact and you count the void that will be left in her absence. If that’s not greatness, then I don’t know what is.

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Speaker 3: It’s just been so memorable. You know, like I said in my article, I’m terrible at goodbyes, but a goodbye.

Mary Curtis: Today on the show, we consider the legacy of Serena Williams, how she changed tennis and all sports for women and women of color, and the ongoing work of one of the greatest athletes of all time. Filling in for Mary Harris. I’m Mary Curtis. You’re listening to What Next? Stay tuned.

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Mary Curtis: The world knows about Serena Williams, the superstar. But before she was that person, she was a little girl from Compton, California, coached by her father, Richard Williams, himself a tennis outsider.

Speaker 2: I mean, it’s so hard to think about Serena before tennis because it was only the first four years of her life, basically. Both Serena and Venus grew up playing tennis. Richard Williams, their father, but a racquet in their hand very early. And they were out in Compton on Compton courts training from very young ages, turning heads, I think you see from the get go this emerging support system within their family. They’re the younger sisters of five. They have older siblings and really dedicated parents who had a vision, who had a dream for them and for tennis. And so very, very, very quickly, their lives started orienting around the sport and their possibilities in it.

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Mary Curtis: You talk about vision. You mentioned that and how the whole family believed in this before anybody else did. In fact, her father predicted that she’d be the greatest of all time. How did he convince others to share that? How did he secure her professional coaching?

Speaker 2: Yeah, I mean, unrelenting. Richard Williams, if you have one word to to kind of capture and think about him, it’s unrelenting. He was a southern migrant to the California area. He also went outside the kind of traditional confines of the sport at various times. And so one of the things he did, he knew that when they walked into tennis spaces, they would automatically be not only judged but just doubted. He also knew there was a huge financial discrepancy in the sport from what they had coming into it. And what usually needed to get started in tennis is.

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Speaker 4: Venus want to win Wimbledon, Serena want to win the U.S. Open. And when I think about that, there are times, you know, I wonder what would I do? And I know what I would do now. I would go back to the ghettos of Compton and get some of the old gang members who used to protect my daughter from other gang members. And I would go get the members of the Crips and bring them to the U.S. Open in Wilmington. And they would sit in box seats and they would sit there and watch my daughter.

Speaker 2: He was able to convince various sponsors along the way, coaches to take a chance to train and open doors and pathways to his girls.

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Speaker 4: She has every quality to be a champion, and she will be. And that’s what what makes Venus. Venus and Serena is it’s like a pit bull, though. She does. Once you get home to you, she won’t let go. And she’s so strong. Serena, probably a better player than Venus. That’s not to compare my girls, but she will be.

Speaker 2: But one of the really interesting things here is when they started that training, Venus, as the older sister benefited from a lot of the formalized training. Venus was able to enroll in tennis academy, whereas Serena had to take a back seat. And both of the sisters have talked about how this actually put a chip on Serena’s shoulder, put a little bit of a hand at her back because she was waiting for her time. She was waiting for her time in the spotlight in coming up behind the sister who was occupying that spotlight. And I think now, looking back, it’s hard because Serena, of course, has become the dominant Serena capital as Serena. But Venus, as a trailblazer, certainly cast a long shadow for her little sister.

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Mary Curtis: And I think it’s interesting how as much as folks have tried to put them against one another sometimes that they’ve remained really close.

Speaker 2: Yeah. And I mean, I think it’s really essential to their legacy. There is something to be said about the fact that they had each other and that Richard Williams and Austen Price, their mother, were so committed to them understanding that they were sisters first.

Mary Curtis: I’m so glad that you brought up their mom or scene price, because with all the publicity that Richard Williams gets, sometimes people forget that their mom was a coach, a tennis coach, and she also set them on their path in life.

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Speaker 2: She was a coach, and specifically when Venus was getting formal coaching. In the years that Serena was in, she was really training and conditioning Serena.

Mary Curtis: Was there a moment that really launched Serena Williams from another promising talent to someone to really watch?

Speaker 2: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s interesting. Serena because she made ripples very early. You know, when she finally makes her professional debut and she, you know, comes in in 97, she’s ranked in the three hundreds.

Mary Curtis: This tournament was in Chicago, right?

Speaker 2: Yeah, absolutely. Big stage. And she ends up beating two players in the top ten, becoming the lowest ranked player ever in the open air to do that in a single tournament. And so you have just a year and a half really into her professional debut, a kind of announcement going up that she is is really coming up as a talent. But I think that one of the things that’s so fascinating about her as a player is because of the longevity of her career. You have all of these chapters. And so even at that time, she was good. We hadn’t even seen her at her most dominant, because, of course, once we get into the early 2000, she’s going to go on some amazing runs. She’s going to complete that Serena slam, winning all four grand slams in a row.

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Mary Curtis: Which is the Australian, the French, the U.S. and Wimbledon. And she started more than once.

Speaker 2: And she’s done it more than once, which is wild.

Mary Curtis: So so when do you think was the moment when you think that she realized that her father’s prophecy that she’d become the greatest of all time was was a reality was coming true?

Speaker 2: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I feel like she always knew, or at least always was pushing towards that. I think. One of the things you can see instilled in both Serena and Venus was their confidence. If you watch clips of them as young girls, even well-meaning reporters are so condescending and in casting so much doubt on their dreams and they’re asking them questions like, Do you really think you can win at Wimbledon? Do you really think you can do this? Do you really think you can compete? And they’re always saying absolutely. And so I don’t think she needed to wait to win, to feel like she could win.

Mary Curtis: I do recall those interviews of them as children when they weren’t arrogant. They were just matter of fact. And the interviewers almost seemed astonished. I want to go to another way that she’s leaped beyond all the boundaries that have been set, because I remember when she won the 2017 Australian Open and she was two months pregnant and she had had a tough labor and delivery because she’d nearly died and she had to speak up to save her own life. She was an African-American woman with so much wealth and privilege, yet she had to speak up. And then, after giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia, she would come back and make four more finals.

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Mary Curtis: So can you comment on that?

Speaker 2: Yeah, absolutely. I think that this is you know, when we talk about these chapters in her career, you have the first Serena slam, those early emergencies and you have some injuries. But then all of a sudden, you’re in 2017 and you have her dominating after injuries. You have her dominating as now the older kind of person on on the circuit. And so it comes out after she won that she was actually pregnant during that win, which just catapulted, I think, both that that victory and the kind of mythology around Serena to the next level.

Speaker 2: So she was world number one. She took a break from tennis to give birth. She gave birth to a daughter and as you mentioned, had a really tough delivery. And like too many black women in in childbirth in the United States, struggled to be adequately cared for, struggled for her life. It’s chilling, but we know that in this country, black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to to die in childbirth. And that disparity remains even when you control for education, for economics.

Speaker 2: She talks about this. She talks about knowing something is wrong with her body. She talks about being a world class athlete who has to know her body in and out, who conditions her body, whose body is part of her work. It’s part of her labor. And and she knows something’s wrong. And she’s saying this. And and her husband, who is who is white, she’s she’s needing to, like, have him also help advocate for her. And all of this is still not not getting her the care required for far too long.

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Speaker 2: The experiences that she had, both in that harrowing ordeal and the decision that she made to be public about it, to talk about it, to connect it to issues of black maternal mortality rates. That launched for me what is one of the more defining chapters of her career, which is a very keen sense of advocacy around pregnancy protections, around what it means to juggle being dominant in a sport and as an athlete and to be a mom.

Speaker 2: Her return itself, she documents in a documentary being Serena and you see how tough it is. At one point, she’s, like, limping to her mailbox, carrying the baby and she’s saying, I’m supposed to be one of the greatest athletes in the world. And I feel like I can’t even walk a hundred steps. You see, her have to make decisions to stop breastfeeding because her training regime won’t allow for her to do that anymore. You see her coach saying, okay, you’ve been a mom, but now if you want to play tennis again, these are the sacrifices you have to make.

Speaker 2: And so she returned from training. It was a hard fight that at the time the WTA treated it like an injury she had unranked status. The return was not easy and you see things like her wearing a full length bodysuit at the French Open in 2018. She said it had meaning about women’s power and all this stuff, but it was also to help with pulmonary embolism that she was still experiencing in the aftermath of birth.

Mary Curtis: And had to be called disrespectful.

Speaker 2: Exactly. Had it called disrespectful, had it outlawed. Right. And I think that it’s also a significant chapter because it because of the enormity of her platform. It also does mark a shift where there’s this conversation that now occurs, where there’s other mothers on the circuit who who stand to benefit, right. From institutionalizing access to the sport and the return to the sport. And I think that she’s really stepped into that power. You even see in the Vogue piece she wrote to announce her evolution away from tennis, that she talks about how family planning factors into that and how she wants to have another kid. And, you know, she laments the fact that if she was a man, she could have another kid and just keep going.

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Mary Curtis: When we come back, how Serena Williams faced institutional racism even as a superstar at the highest level. Stick around.

Mary Curtis: Let’s get into the fact of Mira that Serena has been a trailblazer for many reasons that have nothing to do with who she is and everything to do with the way she plays. We know that. But it’s impossible to miss that. She’s black. She’s a woman. She’s forging a path in a lily white sport. Race and gender plays so much of a piece of it. So let’s start with race. How has race factored into her tennis career?

Speaker 2: So her dominance and her blackness become a thing that if you go on to Twitter any time she was playing would just bring out. Such a feeling it would bring out hate, it would bring out judgment in scorn. It also brought out a lot of people who felt a deep reservoir of kinship with them and were lifted by their dominance.

Speaker 2: Then you have, of course, things like in in 2001 at the Indian Wells matches, where the Williams family talks about racial slurs that were thrown their way and the reaction from from the crowd. And as a result of that, both Serena and Venus refused to play at Indian Wells and boycotted playing there.

Speaker 2: And what’s interesting to me is that. We see how tennis responds, which is they make. Indian Wells, a mandatory stop on the WTA Tour in 2009. So eight years into their boycott, it becomes a mandatory stop. That’s institutional and they continue to stick to their boycott. They returned after a number of years, but I think that that boycott was really significant in seeing both how the family spoke out against treatment, but also how the tennis establishment responded, which was not favourably.

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Speaker 2: And then, of course, in 2018, the U.S. Open final with Naomi Osaka following a very controversial assessment of game penalties and an outburst. You have things like a cartoon coming out from Australia that first erased Naomi Osaka’s blackness, made her look lily white with blonde hair, but also drew Serena in very racist caricatures, made her lips really big, made her nose really big, depicted her throwing a tantrum. And this is in 2018. This is after the dominance. This is when she is by far one of the biggest entities in all of tennis. And yet you’re getting racist cartoon.

Mary Curtis: Yeah. And also the way they interpret, I think, all tennis players. Protest calls. Yeah, but the whole sense that how they play into that stereotype of angry black woman like you, you have to not react as anyone else would. You have to police your emotions? I always think it’s so strange that black women have to not use certain emotions that we don’t have the you know, we don’t have all of the palette of emotions available to us.

Speaker 2: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think this factors in even to like the kind of racist commentary that has followed Serena her entire career, whether it’s when she exclaims, when she yells, whatever. It feeds into this image of bestiality. It feeds into the image of a sort of masculinity that they want to ascribe to her. And there was also a way that when talking about who’s influencing or who’s growing the game in real time, commentators would talk about everybody being an influence on people except for Serena, except for Venus, which is wild because the next generation, Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff, have pointed to the Williams sisters and in their family as a model and inspiration for their entrance into the sport.

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Mary Curtis: Not to mention all the women point to them as helping them with getting equal money.

Speaker 2: For sure. I mean, Venus especially was integral to getting equal pay at Wimbledon, both of them really agitating for for gender equality on the circuit.

Mary Curtis: You’ve been using the word Amira that Serena herself has used to describe her decision to step away from tennis, which is evolution. She’s been really honest about not using the R-word retirement. So what do you think the next step is for her?

Speaker 2: I mean, I’m excited to see I know obviously she’s given some hints and answers already. She’s talked about expanding her family. She talks about the venture capitalist program that she’s running and the way she wants to invest in women. She wants to give back to women and to black women in particular. She wants to talk about pregnancy as well. She says has a fashion line still. But I also think there’s some stuff that maybe she doesn’t even know yet.

Speaker 2: And I think that word evolution is really powerful because it’s not linear, it’s not a straight line. It leaves the possibility of overlapping lines and circles and whatever. It opens up to me expansive movement. But I also found such power and beauty in the claiming of evolution and the narrating of her decision making and the possibility that is packed into what comes next.

Mary Curtis: Well, again, we’ve seen her control her own story.

Speaker 2: Absolutely.

Mary Curtis: We’ve also seen a mirror Rose that plenty of athletes have shown us that that word retirement can be a loose term. I’m looking at you, Tom Brady. So what are the chances we see her back on the tennis court in the future? What do you think?

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Speaker 2: I think that everybody assumes the is open. I think that it’s maybe more possible to see her on the court pass then. I hope that part of evolution means that if she feels compelled to pick up a racquet again, she will. And we’ll just take all of these as bonus years. But to be honest, like the back half of her career where I was like bonus years.

Mary Curtis: So yeah, you know.

Speaker 2: I don’t know. I just know that I’ll be in New York to say goodbye if that’s it.

Mary Curtis: Amira Rose Davis. I’d really like to thank you for coming on. What next? To talk about Serena Williams, her life and her career. I think it’s something we’ll be talking about for a long time to come.

Speaker 2: Yes, absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Mary Curtis: Amira Rose Davis is an assistant professor of Black Studies at the University of Texas Austin and co-host of the feminist sports podcast Burn It All Down. She’s also the host of Season three of American Prodigies.

Speaker 3: But Collins got a chance to catch up with a very, very emotional Serena Williams. So I just told her, she said she didn’t really do it. Oh, my God. Well, you’re hearing Serena because she has just found out that she is number one in the world. Oh, why do you cry? Is it the green light? Oh, my God. Oh, you’re kidding. I didn’t even know. I just thought, you know, I was just going to go out there and focus, and I play the game of my life and. Oh, man.

Mary Curtis: That’s the show. What next is produced by Elena Schwartz, Carmel Delshad Madeline Ducharme and Mary Wilson. We’re getting help from Anna Phillips, Jared Downing and Anna Rubanova. We’re led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine and filling in for Mary Harris these past two weeks. I’m Mary Curtis, columnist for Roll Call. Host of It’s Equal Time podcast and having a great time in this space. Thanks for listening.

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Speaker 3: Another has been my goal to be number one. And, you know, I mean, I feel bad that I had to take it away from Venus but hey still Wimbledon championship and and stake and you know, I’d rather win Wimbledon right now. How old were you when you knew there was something called number one in the world? I remember I always my dad always said, what do you want to be when you grew up? And I said, I want to be the best. I wasn’t that bright. So I said, I want to be number zero. And he said, no, number one is the best. And I just always, you know, dreamed of being that and now, you know. All right. Good luck to you, Serena. We’ll see you after the final.