Serena Williams in her element
Long ago, I attended a prestigious girls boarding school which offered us a rigorous academic and extracurricular engagements. Sports, music and arts were highly valued. I was privileged to belong to the school athletics team, netball and hockey teams. I also played some tennis. The experiences endowed me with a love for sports up to today. By the time I left the school, I was a well-rounded student prepared for university and a career.
In the 70s, Arthur Ashe, the first African-American to win the U.S Open (1970) and later Wimbledon (1975) visited Uganda and conducted a tennis clinic at my school. It was an unforgettable event for us. Since then , many of us developed a keen interest in tennis and went on to become regular followers of the Australian Open in January, the French Open in May-early June, Wimbledon in June- July, and the U.S. Open as the final Grand Slam tournament of the year.
The Williams sisters: Venus and Serena have given us tremendous joy since Serena’s first victory in 1999 at the U.S Open Grand Slam singles. Venus last made it to the final of the Australian Open and Wimbledon and the semi-finals of the U.S Open in 2017 but Serena has continued to dominate the game until today. They had to stay competitive with other professionals, they just could not stop playing.
Experienced tennis coaches tell us that it takes more than ten years to really get good at the game because there are so many areas to develop in each individual. People pick up tennis and spend entire lifetimes to master the game. You train systematically and compete in tournaments to achieve your physical best. This is exactly what Serena has been doing for twenty-seven years!
A lot has been written about these tennis greats over decades as they rose to fame and greatness.To understand and appreciate how far the two tennis greats and particularly Serena have come, one has to go back to where it all started.Both of them were introduced to tennis by their father, Richard Williams, a former American tennis coach while living in Compton city, California. Before they turned ten, he had had a vision for them to become all-time tennis greats! In 1991, he moved the family to Florida so that the two daughters could attend the Tennis Academy.
In 1995, he withdrew them from the Academy and started coaching them himself. He was determined to use tennis as a vehicle to change how whites viewed blacks. He defined the girls’ world. They both turned professional before their fifteenth birthdays. King Richard– a biographical sports drama based on the life of their father was released in November 2021.Will Smith starred as Richard Williams while the two sisters served as executive producers.
In September 1999, Serena aged 17, won her first Grand Slam at the U.S Open. She became the first African –American to win a major singles title since Althea Gibson in 1956. At the same tournament, the two sisters won the doubles title; opening up their winning streak as they played to win and to please themselves. At the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney, Venus won gold for the singles title and the two won a gold for the doubles title! They went on to win 22 titles when playing doubles together of which 14 were Grand Slams , 3 Olympic gold medals. They met 31 times in professional tournaments.
“If you can dream it, you can do it .’’ – Walt Disney
Venus, the eldest though more of an introvert, led from the front on the courts. She had speed, grace and fierce confidence, always aimed at being among the greatest. According to Wikipedia, Venus has so far won 7 Grand Slam Single titles, 5 Wimbledon titles and 2 at the US. Open Serena initially followed her big sister until Venus conceded that Serena was the best competitor among the two. Serena then began her meteoric rise, demonstrating her unique play, her prowess, tenacity and drive. Serena has dominated the women tennis game for 27 years! Years of intense pressure and endurance. So far, Serena has 7 Australian Open, 7 Wimbledon titles, 6 US Open titles and 3 French Open ones under her belt. A champion of Champions. Venus and Serena have over the years developed and polished the main traits of a successful professional player; becoming the dominant duo. They continued to polish them as they competed, confidently holding their own even at 40 years of age. The women of the world cheer and celebrate them as their own. The tennisconnected.com website lists the following as the main traits of a Successful Professional Player:
. Confidence- unshakable self-belief in your abilities and skills
.Determination- to push through hardships, struggle to become the best.
.Tough- mental strength and physically fit.
Paul “ Bear’’ Bryant, an American college football player and coach said: “ It’s not the will to win that matters- everyone has that . It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.”
It has not been plain sailing; they have both suffered from occupational-related injuries. Venus- suffered a leg injury during the Australian Open in 2014 and a brutal ankle injury during the Australian Open in 2021. Her general health suffered a setback when she was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder in 2011. Serena had left knee surgery in 2003. In 2010, she was out for almost a year due to Pulmonary embolism. In 2017 , she suffered life-threatening issues after the delivery of her daughter. In 2021, she suffered a hamstrung injury during the Wimbledon tournament. On the 2nd September 2022, at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, Serena Williams (almost 41), played against Ajla Tomljanovic (29) of Australia in the third round of the US Open tennis championships. It was the final tournament of Serena’s 27 years’ remarkable career. It was a long three hours’ match in a packed stadium. It turned out to be a huge emotion for the two of them. Tomljanovic won and acknowledged Serena as her top role model. Serena waved to the fans and thanked them for their support throughout her long career. Thankfully, she has broken so many boundaries and barriers that she has inspired many young girls to take up the game.
As if Serena’s news of retirement was not enough for the raving tennis fans, Roger Federer, a Swiss and another all- time great is set to retire from professional tennis by end of September 2022. He has 20 Grand Slams under his belt. During his career of 24 years, like the William sisters, he has pushed the tennis game to unimaginable heights and inspired emerging players like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. These two and himself had become the dominant trio in men’s tennis. He turned pro at 16 now at 41, injuries and surgeries have cut his career short. He will be remembered for his smooth, effortless technique that turned him into a champion of champions. Like life itself, you cannot control the outcome in tennis but you can only control how you respond to the triumphs and disasters.
The two sisters from Compton, California, driven by their forward looking father, have grown into the games and come to love it. No doubt they have become the symbol of what is possible for women in sports. Their places are secure in the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. Over the years, they have developed the courage, the fierce confidence to play to win. They have changed the game of tennis for ever.One local proverb says: Even the best dancer has to leave the stage at one time. Venus and Serena climbed the mountain and each chose when to come down, leaving indelible footsteps along the way for other young women like Ajla Tomljanovic to follow their path. Over time, other players armed with consistency and excellence will rise up and establish themselves as dominants of the game. It will take a while; just like the 100 metres, 200 meters and 4 by 100 metres men’s relay have not been so exciting since the Jamaican track legend , Usain Bolt retired in 2017 after the world championships. As for now, I salute Serena in these borrowed words: “Thank you Serena for defining greatness.’’
There is more to life than our professions or careers – after living your childhood dream, you tend to yearn to open up and grow- you have to leave the world and the experiences you know and look for some spiritual depth and authenticity. Yearning for something better that has eternal meaning. You will not be satisfied until you gain some experience of something real beyond yourself. I have no doubt that Serena, the women’s tennis giant, is starting on the next chapter of her life. For us the women folks, it is hard to imagine an international tennis tournament without her.
QUESTION: As you grow and develop your career, do you intentionally strive to inspire the young generation to want to be as professional as you are?How do you do it?