Serena Williams burst onto the professional tennis tour in Quebec City, Canada, on Oct. 28, 1995, a powerful and precocious 14-year-old with a head full of beaded braids, and dreams as big as her groundstrokes.
Her older sister, Venus, a prodigy nicknamed “Cinderella of the ghetto’’ by their father, Richard, had already made national news a year earlier, knocking off highly ranked players and signing a seven-figure endorsement deal with Reebok at age 14 before winning her first pro tournament.
Serena would have a less auspicious start. She and her father missed their connection in Philadelphia en route to Canada. They arrived in Quebec very late, with no time for practice. Williams wound up losing 6-1, 6-1 to 18-year-old Anne Miller in a qualifying match held on a practice court in front of about 50 spectators and a handful of journalists.
“I guess I played a celebrity,’’ Miller told the New York Times after the match. “She has as much power as anybody around, but maybe she needs to play some junior events … to learn how to become match tough.’’
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Twenty years, 21 Grand Slam titles and $73 million later, Williams still has vivid memories of that first match. She shared them with the Miami Herald on Thursday night in a wide-ranging interview about her quest for history at the upcoming U.S. Open, her relationship with her father, her love of Palm Beach, her struggles in 2006, and her body image.
“I remember I could barely play, could barely breathe,’’ Williams said of her debut. “I was really stressed. I wasn’t ready. It was a crazy experience. Now I can laugh about it. Everything worked out fine.’’
Richard Williams kept his youngest daughter off the tour for the next year and a half, and helped her develop her game. “Serena will be better than Venus,’’ Richard Williams told the Herald in May 1997. “She’s more aggressive.’’
Father was right. Though Venus has had a remarkable career, reaching No. 1 and winning five Wimbledon titles and two U.S Opens, it is baby sister Serena, a few weeks shy of her 34th birthday, on the cusp of history as the U.S. Open begins on Monday. A victory could cement her title as the best of all time.
Williams — the oldest-ever No. 1-ranked player — is trying to become the first woman since Steffi Graf in 1988 to complete a calendar Grand Slam, meaning a season sweep of the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. She also is in position to tie Graf’s 22 major titles. Williams has won six Australian Opens, six Wimbledons, six U.S. Opens and three French Opens.
As defending champion of the U.S. Open, she already holds all four major titles concurrently, an achievement nicknamed The Serena Slam. But winning all four in a calendar year almost never happens. The last male player to do it was Rod Laver in 1969.
“To me, she’s the greatest female player that ever played,’’ tennis great John McEnroe said. “She’s better in every way now. She’s more prepared now. She used to maybe not get as prepared because she figured she was so much better that she didn’t have to be on her toes, be mentally focused, she could sort of ride in and out of it, and she showed even when she’s not playing her best, she still figures out a way to win. If she brings her ‘A’ game, she’s going to win this for sure.’’
That Williams is even in reach of the milestone is astounding considering she plummeted to No. 140 in the rankings in 2006, an injury-plagued season during which Williams got out of shape, battled distractions and was chastised by television commentators and fans for appearing indifferent.
Legend Chris Evert wrote Williams an open letter in the May 2006 issue of Tennis Magazine, urging her to take the sport more seriously and not squander her talent.
The letter began:
I’ve been thinking about your career, and something is troubling me. I appreciate that becoming a well-rounded person is important to you, as you’ve made that desire very clear. Still, a question lingers — do you ever consider your place in history? Is it something you care about? In the short term you may be happy with the various things going on in your life, but I wonder whether 20 years from now you might reflect on your career and regret not putting 100 percent of yourself into tennis. Because whether you want to admit it or not, these distractions are tarnishing your legacy.’’
Williams said of that tumultuous year: “I went through a lot of stuff in 2006. You never know what happens behind closed doors, so you have to understand maybe I wasn’t in the best place, wasn’t feeling good. I was injured, wasn’t fit, my sister had passed (her older sister, Yetunde, was murdered in 2003 in a drive-by shooting). It was not a fun time in my life, but you have to get through it.’’
She battled many tough moments over the past two decades.
She was booed during the 2001 Indian Wells (Calif.) final amid accusations of match-fixing in the Williams camp. Venus had withdrawn from her semifinal with a knee injury, triggering an angry reaction from fans who felt Richard Williams didn’t want the sisters to face each other. The Williams sisters boycotted the event until this year, when Serena returned.
During the 2009 U.S. Open semifinal against Kim Clijsters, Williams threatened a line judge with a profanity-laced tirade after the official called her for a foot fault on match point, costing her the match. She was fined $92,500.
In 2010, days after winning Wimbledon, she stepped on broken glass at a restaurant in Germany and severed a tendon in her foot, an injury that required two surgeries. A year later, she was rushed to the hospital with a pulmonary embolism, and later suffered a stomach hematoma.
Through it all, Richard Williams supported his daughter. Serena says she owes her success largely to his early tutelage.
Richard Williams taught his girls to play on a court in gang-infested Compton, Calif., inspired by a TV broadcast of a women’s match in which the winner earned a $30,000 check. He had never played the sport, so he studied instructional videos and books. He was criticized for being too controlling of his daughters’ careers early on and keeping them away from the high-pressure junior circuit. He insisted it was to protect them.
He eventually moved the family to Palm Beach, and bought a 10-acre compound where the girls could practice in private.
“He always believed in me, and was really positive,’’ Williams said of her father. “He never put pressure on me, said I didn’t have to play tennis if I didn’t want to. That’s one of the reasons I was able to enjoy what I do and play so long.’’
Once a fixture at his daughters’ matches, Richard Williams isn’t around the tour much anymore. He has had undisclosed health issues over the past few years, and did not attend any of the Grand Slam events last year or this year. He will not be at the U.S. Open next week, Serena said, but will be watching on TV.
This past March, while in Miami to watch his daughters in the Miami Open, Williams collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. He was unable to attend the tournament. Serena won, and honored her father during her trophy ceremony.
“He is doing much better now,’’ said Williams. “But he is taking time to let us do what we need to do. He watches every match I play. When I’m really down and have a bad match, I go to the locker room and call him. He’s a voice of reason, a voice of calm.’’
Serena and Venus are on their own now. Since 2012, Serena has been coached by Patrick Mouratoglou, and she credits the Frenchman for raising her game. The sisters share a home in the serene Ballen Isles community in Palm Beach Gardens.
“I spend as much time there as I can,’’ she said. “It’s really close to my Dad, so it’s perfect. What I love is that I have my friends there, and I don’t have to dress up or wear makeup. I wear my Uggs, jean shorts and any top. No one bothers me. People say, ‘Hi’ and ‘Congrats,’ but everyone knows me there, so they’re chill and they respect my privacy. I love it.’’
Despite her riches and historic achievements, Williams makes less endorsement money than Maria Sharapova, whom Williams has beaten 18 of the 20 times they have played. According to Forbes magazine, Williams made $15 million in endorsements last year and Sharapova made $23 million. Williams’ fans say the disparity may be due to Williams’ skin color and physique.
Williams’ athletic build has been a topic of discussion her entire career, sometimes in a flattering way, sometimes not. The New York Times recently came under fire for an article about female tennis players’ physiques, in which a few coaches and players suggested that being muscular is not feminine. Williams shrugs it off.
“For every negative comment, there are 300,000 positive ones,’’ Williams said. “My fans are incredibly supportive. I look like a normal athlete, a normal woman walking down the street, a thicker one. I’m OK with that. I love that. You have to be OK with yourself no matter if you’re size 0 or a little bigger, like me. A lot of other people say I inspire them to be comfortable with themselves. My mom was really strong on that, on learning to love yourself.’’
Asked what she would tell that 14-year-old Serena now if she could go back to 1995, Williams said:
“I would tell her not to change a thing. I really believe experience makes the person. If I took away some of my experiences, I wouldn’t be who I am today. Whether it’s tragic experience or incredible experience, they all add up and mean something. They shaped me.
“Life hasn’t been perfect for me. But it’s been a wonderful experience, and I wouldn’t change it.’’