In front of a record 29,959 fans in attendance at Arthur Ashe Stadium Serena Williams defeated the number two ranked player in the world, Anett Kontaveit, 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-2 to advance to the third round of her final US Open.
Williams, the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion and greatest player of all time, is enjoying overwhelming crowd support in her swan song tournament. Some have wondered if it’s “fair” for her opponents to deal with. Fair or not, they’re getting a little taste of what it’s like to be Serena Williams.
Serena Williams is back on Arthur Ashe. Less of a show tonight, but still a montage before she walks out, played with Anett Kontaveit sitting on court waiting nervously for a full two minutes.
Not fair, IMO.#USOpen
— James Gray (@jamesgraysport) August 31, 2022
To understand what it means to be Serena we have to look both on and off the court. In her on-court post-match interview, she gave us a little insight.
“Honestly, I never get to play like this since ’98 really. Literally, I’ve had an X on my back since ’99. It’s kind of fun,” said Williams. “I really enjoy just coming out and enjoying it. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to do that.”
Williams followed up on that in her press conference in the media interview room in the bowels of Ashe Stadium.
“I just feel like I have had a big red X on my back since I won the US Open in ’99. It’s been there my entire career, because I won my first Grand Slam early in my career.”
In truth it was before 1998 or 1999, it was the moment Serena and her sister Venus were announced to the tennis establishment, by their audacious and visionary father Richard Williams.
A Black family from Compton, California planned to take over the predominantly white country club sport of tennis. As you can imagine that didn’t go over so well.
Richard had a plan and marched to the beat of his own drum, eschewing the traditional path that the majority of other tennis players followed. From the outset Serena and her family were cast as others and outsiders. Whether it be from fellow players, coaches, and the media.
“My plan was simple: to bring two children out of the ghetto to the forefront of a white-dominated game. Could it be done? I hoped so. In fact, I was beyond hope. I was certain,” Richard Williams wrote in his 2014 memoir, Black and White. “Eliminating the last doubts from my mind, I wrote a final seventy-five-page tennis-training plan for myself, Oracene, and my daughters-to-be, detailing every step of the road we would travel, more than two and a half years before they were both born.”
This attitude of otherness or the Williams family as outsiders carried over to the larger tennis establishment and of course the predominantly white tennis fanbase.
Who could forget the Indian Wells tournament in 2001 when Richard Williams was accused of match fixing. Serena was slated to play Venus in the semifinals, but Venus pulled out with a knee injury meaning Serena advanced straight to the finals. When Richard and Venus arrived at the finals to watch Serena take on Kim Clijsters they were roundly booed by the crowd and racial slurs were directed at them. Serena won the match but boycotted the tournament for 14 years after the incident.
Both Serena and Venus won so much that eventually the establishment had to begrudgingly respect them, but the love and support was far from unanimous and welcoming.
This is what Serena is referring to by the X on her back. Despite her many accomplishments, there is still enough of the tennis community that wants to see her fail. Whether it be tennis media constantly body-shaming her, commentators continually questioning her commitment to the game, and all sorts of subtle thinly veiled racist comments.
This is part of what it means to be Serena.
At the U.S. Open, a tournament she has won six-times, she hasn’t always had an easy time. Whether it be the chair umpire, line judge or the fans, the US Open has been its own “House of Horrors” for the great champion. As an American, this is Serena’s home Grand Slam. She should feel the most comfortable and receive the most support playing in front of the “home crowd.”
In 2004 during the quarterfinals against Jennifer Capriati the chair umpire incorrectly overruled a shot by Serena, calling it out when video clearly showed the ball landing in bounds. In fact video replay showed several calls were incorrect during that match. As Serena grew agitated, the crowd started to turn on her a bit. Coincidentally, that match is believed to be the impetus for the challenge system using video replay.
In 2009 in the semifinals against Kim Clijsters, Serena received a warning for slamming her racquet after losing the first set. Another violation would carry a point penalty. At a crucial moment in the second set Serena was called for a foot fault by the line judge resulting in two match points for Clijsters. Serena was visibly upset and berated the line judge, using profanities. She was issued a point violation and lost the match.
Did Serena lose her temper? Yes. Do we see athletes do that all the time? Yes. But it somehow registers differently when it’s Serena losing her temper or cool.
If you’re Black and you’ve witnessed the treatment of Serena over the years it’s hard not to think racism plays a huge factor in the way she’s covered and discussed. Was it the case 100% of the time? Probably not. Can we say it wasn’t the underlying factor always present? Can’t say that either.
Jamaican poet, essayist, and playwright Claudia Rankine in her 2015 New York Times Magazine essay “The Meaning of Serena Williams” described her interpretation of what Serena means to Black fans in an interaction at the 2013 US Open women’s final. Serena faced her friend Victoria Azarenka from Belarus.
“That Sunday in Arthur Ashe Stadium at the women’s final, though the crowd generally seemed pro-Serena, the man seated next to me was cheering for the formidable tall blonde Victoria Azarenka. I asked him if he was American. ‘Yes,’ he said.
‘We’re at the U.S. Open. Why are you cheering for the player from Belarus?’ I asked.
‘Oh, I just want the match to be competitive,’ he said.
“After Serena lost the second set, at the opening of the third, I turned to him again, and asked him, no doubt in my own frustration, why he was still cheering for Azarenka. He didn’t answer, as was his prerogative. By the time it was clear that Serena was likely to win, his seat had been vacated. I had to admit to myself that in those moments I needed her to win, not just in the pure sense of a fan supporting her player, but to prove something that could never be proven, because if black excellence could cure us of anything, black people — or rather this black person — would be free from needing Serena to win.”
At this 2022 U.S. Open, the final Grand Slam of her legendary career, Serena is experiencing something she has never felt at the U.S. Open. Universal, unconditional love from the crowd. Her first two matches set U.S. Open attendance records for a night session.
Maybe the respect has moved from begrudging to simply respect. Maybe the tennis community understands that there will never be another Serena and they’re appreciating the moment.
“The last couple matches here in New York, it’s really come together,” Serena said following her second-round match on Wednesday. “Maybe I should have traveled with you all for all those years.”
That’s not a throwaway line. Serena is feeling the love like she’s never felt it and it is spurring her on.
Is it difficult for her opponents? Yes. Is it fair for her opponents to have to wait as a montage plays before Serena comes out on the court and deal with an entire crowd rooting for her to win and you to fail? Fair or not. It is what it is.
A tearful Kontaveit was matter of fact in her press conference following the tough loss to Serena.
“I think they were not rooting like against me. They just wanted Serena to win so bad,” Kontaveit said. “So, I mean, I don’t think it’s a personal attack against me or anything. I mean, it’s fair. I mean, she deserves this.”
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