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From SAVOY:Sister Slam
Forget about being the worldís best female tennis player. Charming Serena Williams, finally out from under big sisterís shadow, just might be the very best female athlete in the world.
by Roy S. Johnson
By the time I arrive to meet her just past midday, Serena Williams has already been sweating for hours. But thereís not a single tennis racquet in sight. Instead, the muscular, 5-foot-10-inch tennis star is enduring that very common female ritual: Sheís getting her hair done. Like the hours of laborious work that helped her win four Grand Slam tennis tournamentsóincluding Wimbledon and the French and U.S. Opens this yearóand achieve the worldís No. 1 ranking, this just has to get done. For the next few hours, amid the Saturday afternoon crowd at the Eclectic Salon in Los Angeles, we rallied over numerous topics, including her dad, Richard Williams, her sister, Venus, her abysmal love lifeóand just what this 21-year-old intends to do to the next player who sniffs that the Williams sistersí matches are fixed. When faced with an overhead smash (you know I had to ask about racism on the womenís tour), she chased it down and put it away.
SAVOY:You grew up light years away from all this in Compton.
SERENA:Not really. My dad made sure that we got to see a lot of different things in the world. Iíve always figured Iíd end up being somebody.
SAVOY:And where does that come from?
SERENA:My parents, my dad. They always taught us to believe in ourselves and shoot for the stars. Thereís no limit on what you can do. That really helped us. All of us [Serena and Venus have three other sisters] are pretty successful.
SAVOY:Your tennis fortune seemed to change overnight in 1999, after you won the U.S. Open, your first Grand Slam tournament.
SERENA:1999 was my breakthrough year. I won [the Evert Cup tournament, beating Steffi Graf in the finals, earlier in the year], and I won the U.S. Open. Iím a better player now, not only physically, but Iím more mature. In the past Iíd have a match point, and then Iíd lose. There were setbacks, but sometimes you have to take a step back in order to go forward. Now, I donít get very upset or angry on the court.
SAVOY:Describe your relationship with Venus.
SERENA:What would I do without my right arm? What would I do without my left eye? My legs? Thatís what she means to me.
SAVOY:Can you put being No. 1 into words?
SERENA:Itís very special. All my life, I dreamed of winning Grand Slams, and I told my dad I wanted to be not only number one, I wanted to be number zero! I was so young. But actually, I never kept up with my rankings because I [knew I was] better than a lot of players ranked ahead of me.
SAVOY:I read that one key to your turnaround in the last year was the elimination of some of the hobbies and social activities that may have been distractions.
SERENA:No, I really donít have a social life (she laughs). Nothing. I really was just upset because I had gotten injured [so much]. I wanted to do better, and I was tired of seeing people ranked ahead of me that Iíd never lost to. I finally said, ďLook, if itís the last thing I do, Iíve gotta be ranked ahead of these people.Ē
SAVOY:So, back to this no social life thing. Whatís the issue.
SERENA:I donít know. Maybe I intimidate men. Maybe Iím in the wrong. I donít go out. Iím extremely shy.
SAVOY:At one point, you were dating Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington. Now youíre not dating any one person?
SAVOY:All right, then. What particular type of man are you attracted to?
SERENA:Iíve become so jaded and so cynical that I donít know. I donít even care anymore, though. Iím living. I just worry about life right now. Sometimes I call my best friend, and Iíll be like, ďAndrea, Iím so lonelyÖĒ (She laughs.)
SAVOY:Donít give up.
SERENA:Iíve given up (she laughs). I gave up three years go. Iím going to be old in a cave.
SAVOY:Whoís your primary coach now?
SERENA:My dad. We talk every day.
SAVOY:At this stage of your career, how much of his coaching is skill-related versus strategy?
SERENA:Itís all about technique now, because now we really want to make sure that my technique is right. Heíll tell me to make are Iím looking at the ball, that I play in close, things like that. My dad studied. I remember waking up at night, and heíd be sitting in front of the TV watching film after film and trying to perfect things. He taught Venus and me our grips. Venus has a grip where she was holding it under her racquet a couple years ago. He actually changed her grip, [so that] now itís really solid.
SAVOY:Thatís interesting, because you donít hear much written about Richard Williamsí ability to coach.
SERENA:People are convinced that Black people canít do any better. How come they donít give credit to him? My dad was always my coach.
SAVOY:For betteróor to some critics, for worseóyou and Venus are the signature rivalry on the tour.
SERENA:Itís a rivalry/friendship.
SAVOY:Itís not a rivalry if one person is winning all the time, and Venus won the first four singles matches you played against each other. So then, itís something else.
SERENA:Yeah, domination. Now Venus has five wins against me, and I have four against her, so itís definitely a rivalry.
SAVOY:Your match against Venus in the Wimbledon final earlier this year was by far the best of all your matches against each other. Before, your matches were criticized for being, at best, boring; at worst, fixed.
SERENA:No, itís definitely not boring. First of all, when we play each other, weíre on every cover of every newspaper in the world, every magazine. That really puts womenís tennis on the map. When someone else pays another person in the final, theyíre not on every cover of every newspaper. I donít care who it is.
SAVOY:About the matches being fixedÖ?
SERENA:People speculate because maybe they canít comprehend the love that Venus and I have for each other. For a while, I lost every match. If it were a setup, youíd think it would be more even, at least with me winning one match. But it was very lopsided. For peers to say that we stage matches is ridiculous. I mean, címon. Just becauseÖnever mind.
SERENA:Just becauseÖIím prettier that they are! (She laughs.)
Thatís what it all boils down to.
SAVOY:Many Black tennis fans are curious about the racism you and your sister have experienced on the tour.
SERENA:Well, weíve only been out of slavery for a little over a hundred years. So obviously you canít go anywhere and say there is no racism. Now, because of who [Venus and I] are and because of what weíve accomplished, I donít experience it as much anymore. But Iím sure itís there.
SAVOY:What about the finals at Indian Wells last year?
SERENA:Oh, yeah. I was supposed to play Venus, but she didnít play because she was injured. She kept trying to tell everyone that she wouldnít be able to play, but the trainers wouldnít see her. So when the word got out a few minutes before the match, the fans were not happy. I went to play the final, and they just started booing me. The moment I walked on, I was booed, for two minutes, maybe. I just couldnít comprehend how someone could do that to a 19-year-old. It was tough. I was playing Kim [Clijsters]. I lost the first set. I remember sitting on the sidelinesóI didnít want anybody to see, but I was beginning to cry. It was awful.
SAVOY:Did your opponent say anything?
SERENA:Iím sure it threw her off too. Sheís a really nice girl, and I get along with her very well. But she was young too. I ended up winning the match. When they gave me the mike, I said, ĎI would like to just thank everyone who supported me. And if you didnít, I love you anyway and Iíll see your next time.í Later, I almost started to cry in the interview room. I thought: Thatís ridiculous; you donít need to be crying. Do like your mom; sheís mean. My dad was very proud of me. He [said I had] the heart of a champion.
SAVOY:How were you raised to handle the issue of race?
SERENA:I was just raised as a normal person. I was raised to love everyone.
SAVOY:Clearly, not everyone was raised like that.
SERENA:Then I feel sorry for them, because itís such a myopic view to have, and itís just so shallow. It doesnít faze me because I realize thatís their mistake, and itís just keeping them in a small circle, whereas me, Iím going to expand, become a better person. Not just in tennis, but in life.
SAVOY:I donít know if you remember last year at the U.S. Open, when Lleyton Hewitt made a comment about (African-American player) James Blake, that he though a Black linesman had favored Blake in the match.
SERENA:Yeah, that was ridiculous. Thatís why [Black people are] stronger than a lot of people, because we have to deal with more stuff. If I was James Blake, Iíd never lose to Lleyton Hewitt again.[Blake did, in fact, lose to Hewitt in the 2002 U.S. Open.]
SAVOY:Your father made some comments at least a year ago, about having a conversation with the head of the Womenís Tennis Association about trying to get more Blacks involved in the hierarchy of the sport. Do you see yourself having any role beyond the court?
SERENA:I donít necessarily want to be a part of it when Iím finished. When Iím done as a professional athlete, I donít want to work with the WTA. I am actually running for a spot on the Playersí Council. Venus is already on it. Thatís where we can relay our thoughts and just have a lot of input. Venus does a lot work supporting the players, as well as leading the Olympic Council.
SAVOY:Okay, whatís up with your dad? With some of his, shall I say, eclectic comments through the years, was he simply taking some of the heat and attention away from you guys so you could grow and develop as players?
SERENA:Not at all, not at all. My dad was just being himself. People thought that was intriguing. Heís a great guy. He not only produced one champion, but two. Heís not even like any other of the rest of the tennis dad. Heís normal.
SAVOY:When you say he isnít like the rest of the tennis dadsÖ
SERENA:In the past, there have been problems with peopleís dads. But heís been the total opposite. Heís been a normal, loving parent, a great coach and an even better friend.
SAVOY:It does not appear to have affected your game, but how do you and your family handle the criticism?
SERENA:Weíre a real close family. We know to lean on each other for moral, spiritual and all-around support. We go to our family. In the beginning, there was a lot of negativity. Thatís just [people trying] to hold you back. My mom told us, donít read the press, just play your game.
SAVOY:Youíve developed a good relationship with Zina Garrison. How has she helped you as a mentor?
SERENA:Well, she went through a lot as far as the racism [on the tour.] Fortunately, I didnít have to experience it to that level. The same people who were running the tour when she was playing, I believe, are still running the tour now. But I think the climate is different. Iíve never really experienced the frustration [she did.]
SAVOY:But if the same people running the tour now are the ones who were running it when Zina playedÖ
SERENA:I never said that the people who are running the tour are racist. The people who run the tour have been really nice to me. I think itís more the players who are [racist], not the people who are running the tour.
SAVOY:What do you rely on Zina for now?
SERENA:Sheís helped me realize a lot of things, like why I needed to stay calm in matches. And she tells me that I need to be in shape.
SAVOY:Why were you losing to Venus, and how did you turn it around?
SERENA:It was mental.
SAVOY:The ďbabyĒ sister mentality?
SERENA:Yeah. It wasnít because it was set up (she smiles).
SAVOY:In future matches between you two, should we expect to see more matches like the great Wimbledon final?
SERENA:Well, I think with such similar style games, our matches arenít gonna last long. In the French Open [earlier this year] when we played each other, I was so tired. At one point, I just didnít care whether I won or lost, thatís how tired I was. I had played two clay court tournaments ahead of that, and clay really works your legs. I had a torn [hamstring]. Venus was tired too because she had played a lot. But at Wimbledon we had rested up, se we were fresh.
SAVOY:You said you have similar styles, but you have different skills. Sheís tallerÖ
SERENA:ÖIím quicker. Like at the net, Iím really, really quick. But Venus can hit any ball. Venus is the type of player that will stab a person, draw back and stab, and draw until they eventually die. I would just shootíem, and then go about my business (she laughs).
SAVOY:Some players clearly do not like losing to you. Some of the post-match comments uttered by players you and Venus beat have been vicious.
SERENA:Maybe people are jealousódown to the bone. You canít be successful being jealous of people. You have to actually go out and do something about it, not just give up. I didnít get jealous [when people were beating me]. I went out and I worked hard. Nothing is given in this business. I work hard for everything. People are jealous? I donít care, really. Better for me.
SAVOY:Talk about some of the things that your success has allowed you to experience. What are your indulgences?
SERENA:My middle name is El Cheapo. Iím on a budget, saving for a rainy day. I donít have any indulgences. Iíve never even bought a car. If I [get a car when I] win a tournament, I trade it in.
SAVOY:Any specific tennis goals youíd like to achieve, like Tiger Woods has in trying to break Jack Nicklausí record for majors?
SERENA:The Australian, French and U.S. Opens, Wimbledon and the Olympicsólike Steffi Graf did, the Golden Slam.
SAVOY:What about Martinaís record of Grand Slam victories?
SERENA:I donít think Iím going to catch Martina, and frankly, I donít want to play that long. I would like to do other things. I donít see myself playing for 15 years [until Iím] 30, 35. I wonít be playing that long.
SAVOY:You think youíll play another 10?
SERENA:I donít even want to play that long. Actually I have an acting class that Iím taking. Iíve done a couple of TV shows and Iím doing some more, so Iím really excited. I have this [agent] at William Morris who got me one script--Men in Black II. It would have been fun, but my schedule just never allowed it.
SAVOY:How do you want the game to be different after the Williams sisters leave it?
SERENA:The game is already different. People are hitting harder, running faster and groaning louder (she laughs). Weíve changed [the game] the way Martina Navratilovaís changed it. Physically.
SAVOY:Thanks largely to you and Venus, women now overshadow men in tennis. You have some fans on the menís tour, most significantly Andre Agassi, as opposed to your friend McEnroe.
SERENA:I donít talk about John McEnroe. He says things [about us] so he can be in the press, because his good time is over. If thatís what you have to do to make it, stab and break someoneís elseís backÖhey, Iím not sure itís going to bless you.
SAVOY:Is there an ultimate Williamsí moment in tennis?
SERENAFor Venus and I to be in the finals, all four Grand Slams, starting in 2003.
SAVOY:So, you just wanna tick everybody off!
SERENA:If theyíre already angry, letís keep Ďem mad. Bring it on. Thatís what makes it good.