award-winning educator, mental health advocate, social entrepreneur, inspirational speaker, author/writer, program executive, and radio host
Watching Serena Williams play tennis is an exercise in patience, frustration, admiration, respect, and joy. Never will you see her on the court competing halfhearted! Whether you like her emotions, intensity, or outbursts, you have to recognize the mastery of this champion who is too often criticized for questionable moments instead of the lasting legacy she’s made for herself and the game.
Serena’s tennis brilliance didn’t have a traditional start. She developed her skills and prowess on the public tennis courts in the heart of Compton, CA, which was and is one of the toughest inner-city neighborhoods in the U.S. Furthermore, she didn’t have an experienced tennis expert to teach her the game; instead, she had a determined, committed, and purposeful father (Richard Williams) who learned the game by being a mindful student / observer. As frustrating as it might have been to Venus (her legendary tennis superstar sister) and other observers, Mr. Williams predicted that Serena would be the better of the two.
Serena and Venus elevated women’s tennis to its current and highly competitive state. It’s because of these extraordinary athletes that women on the tour hit the ball harder, are better conditioned, and have more depth of talent than ever before.
The determination of greatness is often amplified by the obstacles overcome to achieve success. From the beginning of Serena’s career, there was heightened scrutiny surrounding her: ranging from hair beads, a perception of manliness due to her extreme fitness, and questionable calls against her.
Serena has had extended leaves from the game on multiple occasions, which either helped or hurt her pursuit of additional major championships. One such leave was related to events that occurred within a short time of each other. First was the surgery to repair a torn tendon in her quadriceps; shortly thereafter, the murder of her sister (Yetunde Price) in 2003. Both of these events, kept Williams away from the game for many months. In 2010, she left the game again after she cut her feet on broken glass in an unfortunate accident that required surgery to fix them. This incident led to an almost yearlong absence from the game. Then, in 2011, Serena was hospitalized for a blood clot that caused a pulmonary embolism that risked her life.
Other challenges Serena experienced were due to shocking early losses in the second round at the French Open in 2012 and a fourth round loss at Wimbledon in 2013. However, like a true champion, Williams used these losses as extreme motivation that led to twenty-one major championships and being ranked the #1 player in the world since February 2013, which is over a 170 consecutive weeks or 3 years.
Even though Serena hasn’t won a championship for almost a year since Wimbledon in 2015; she’s always in the conversation about potential winners. Williams’ legacy is even more incredible because at 34, she’s still capable of winning even more championships, along with being ranked #1 for months or years to come.
Greatness can be defined by a number, but it’s also defined by the impact of someone’s contributions. No one in tennis history or arguably any sport has overcome the numerous overwhelming odds to conquer and dominate a sport for the amount of time Williams has done it. Therefore, even if Serena never wins another championship, she has left an outstanding legacy that should be acknowledged, admired, respected, and celebrated.
If these contributions weren’t enough, Serena is now a role model of grace and class in defeat. She embraces the wins of her competitors, which certainly isn’t easy for an intense competitor and with millions of people watching her matches. Nevertheless, whether it’s believed that she’s sincere in these actions, her willingness to put forth the effort is more than admirable.
At this year’s French Open, Serena smiled and applauded her competitor’s winning lob on match / championship point. This ability to understand that losing doesn’t mean that you still can’t celebrate someone’s success is a powerful lesson in character, leadership, and stewardship that will be remembered long after Serena stops playing professional tennis.