Saturday, 12 December 2015

Ahead Of The Australian Open, Serena Williams Reveals What Really Matters In Her Life

ON the eve of her trip Down Under for the Hopman Cup and Australian Open, Serena Williams opens up to Billy Rule about what matters in her life.

AND so you ask the best women’s tennis player in the world to pick a moment.
Serena Williams has moved past some of the more painful moments in her career.Source:AP
Serena Williams has moved past some of the more painful moments in her career.Source:AP
It’s not a lazy question. You’ve done your homework, you know this is Serena Williams’ gazillionth interview and you’re wary she might flick it away like she does a pesky opponent’s second serve. Thwack. Love-15.

You’re envisaging her lobbing back a vague response so as not to offend — “oh, you know, they’re all important, every tournament means a lot”.

So you try and steer her towards a definitive answer. Something to hang a headline on: “Serena, is there a match, or maybe an anecdote, or a conversation that stays with you above all the others?” you ask. “Something that pushes itself to the front of your mind among your 21 grand slam singles titles. One memory or milestone that stands out.”

Before you ask the question you’re pre-empting the answer. Maybe it will be her first major victory in 1999 when at just 17 she pommeled her way past Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martinez, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis — the royalty of women’s tennis at the time — to win the US Open.

Or maybe it was the “Serena Slam’’ of 2002-03 when she held all four titles — the French Open, Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open. Or maybe it was the “Serena Slam Mark II’’ in 2014-15 when she did it again starting with the US Open of 2014.

Or maybe it was just when she was starting out with her radiant sister Venus. Recalling those sepia childhood photos of pigtails, braids and two-handed backhands at the Compton tennis courts on the wrong side of Los Angeles.

Whatever the answer, you know you’re ready for her response. You’ve done your research and hope to extract some emotion with a follow-up question.

And then she replies.

“Indian Wells.”

“Huh?!” Your mind races. “Indian Wells? Indian Wells?” You scatter through the notes on your desk. Nothing. You flick through the filing cabinet in your head. “Indian Wells ... Indian Wells … Indian Wells.” Ohhh, yep. Then you remember. Indian Wells. Racism allegations. Booing. Boycott.

“Yes, that’s right,” you stumble. “Um, yeah, you only went back there this year after not playing for 10 or 11 years, didn’t you?”

“Four. Teen,” Serena Williams responds. Emphatically. And then she rolls. “Something that stands out is my return to Indian Wells,” she says. “I can’t say I expected that to happen, and it took a lot of forgiveness and a lot for me to go back. Just coming to that decision to be like, you know, I’m ready to go back.

“I didn’t have to go back and people were telling me ‘You NEVER have to go back, we don’t blame you’. But overcoming that is something that stands out.”

The “That’’ she is talking about is an ugly spring afternoon in Los Angeles in 2001 where Serena, Venus and their father, Richard, were the victims of vitriol.
Williams remains one of the most powerful women in sport. Pic: media.Source:Snapper Media
Williams remains one of the most powerful women in sport. Pic: media.Source:Snapper Media
As the then 19-year-old was preparing to take on Kim Clijsters in the Indian Wells final a shower of boos rained down from the stands. She looked across to see her father and sister walking to their seats, the targets of spite.

An injured Venus had controversially withdrawn from the semi-final clash with her sibling and allegations of match-rigging had been labelled at Richard, who also claimed he was racially abused.

Serena eventually won the match but her faith in others went missing. She later admitted Indian Wells was where “I lost a piece of myself”.

In an article for Time magazine this year she wrote: “The undercurrent of racism was painful, confusing and unfair. In a game I loved with all my heart, at one of my most cherished tournaments, I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid.”

That pain obviously cut deep. The Williams family drew a line in the sand and boycotted Indian Wells, long regarded as one of the circuit’s most prestigious tournaments. But, after much soul-searching, Serena returned this year believing she had a responsibility to foster change.

“Going back I realised it was bigger than me and it was for the fans,” she says.

Her answer, definitive and deliberate, puts her priorities into perspective. She chose the power of forgiveness instead of the multitude of prizes that clutter her trophy cabinet.

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