She cuts the tension in the stadium with her pensive pace, tracing the shot in her head as she crouches low to receive a serve. Her skirt flapping against her thighs in the wind, she steals a glance at the family box to nod at her support system, her father. Then, in a split second, she leaps at the yellow ball charging towards her. She smashes, she grunts, she groans, she grins. She wins. With half a piece of popcorn stuck inside my throat, I am up on my feet in the audience stand at the US Open, pumping my fist into the air, like I'm the one rejoicing on centre court. Perhaps I am. When Serena Williams wins, I win. You win. Everybody wins.
It was November 1992 when a reporter asked an 11-year-old girl standing on the public courts of Compton, California, which tennis player she would want to be like. With her hair weaved in curly short braids, she smiled through the gap in her front teeth. "Well, I'd like other people to be like me," she said. Williams knew from the start that she was going to be a legend. She knew what it takes to be one. She became one.
When a reporter asked [11-year-old Serena] which tennis player she would want to be like, she smiled..."Well, I'd like other people to be like me."
Now let's bring in the numbers for this world champion. Williams holds the most major singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles combined among active players, male or female. Her record of 36 major titles puts her fifth on the all-time list and second in the open era, with 21 in singles, 13 in women's doubles and two in mixed doubles. She is the most recent player, male or female, to have held all four major singles titles simultaneously, the fifth woman ever to do so and only the third player, male or female, to achieve this record twice, after Rod Laver and Steffi Graf. The number two player in the singles circuit, Maria Sharapova, has not beaten her in 11 years. Eleven years. A decade when Beyblades were cool and Britney Spears went bad girl with her song "Toxic."
But winning hasn't come easy for the black beauty who has always been subject to racial slurs and body shaming. Her muscular physique doesn't sit too well with many who prefer the likes of her lithe Russian nemesis, one who makes more money in endorsements than she does. In an utterly offensive comment, sportswriter Jason Whitlock slammed Williams for "smothering her beauty in an unsightly layer of thick, muscled blubber" in his 2009 Fox Sports column. He further elaborated on her "oversized backpack," saying he was not fundamentally opposed to "junk in the trunk", but he "preferred a stuffed onion over an oozing pumpkin".
Instead of talking about her exhausting training hours, persistent struggles with blood clots, tormenting diet regime and infallible grit, commentators choose to discuss her breasts, which, as Matthew Forman claimed in his piece for the Telegraph in 2006, "are registered to vote in a different US State from the rest of her".
Williams doesn't care. She chomps on the slurs like her breakfast dose of celery. Celebrating two decades as a pro this year in a form that's dominant as ever when other players her age are out to pasture, the four-time Olympic gold medallist shrugged her clothes off and turned her ridiculously toned back for Pirelli's iconic 2016 calendar. In her case, strong is definitely beautiful.
[W]hen the audience interrupted her with their deafening support for home favourite Heather Watson, she hissed, "Don't try me." There was pin-drop silence thereon.
But what makes Williams so endearing is not her perfections. It's the shards of emotions that we see in her that makes her ordinary yet extraordinary. There is grace, yet there is humour in her. She is fiery yet laidback, clumsy yet impeccable, ruthless yet resilient. And sometimes, just sometimes, her anger gets the better of her. She has threatened line judges, raged at chair umpires and demolished rackets when matches haven't gone her way. At Wimbledon this year, when the audience interrupted her with their deafening support for opponent and home favourite Heather Watson, she swung around and hissed menacingly at the stands, "Don't try me." There was pin-drop silence thereon. After all, who wants to mess with Serena Williams?
And contrary to popular belief, she even hurts like all of us. The athlete broke down in tears after a glorious win at the Indian Wells this year, a tournament that she returned to after 14 years of boycotting it. When the crowd 14 years ago booed and hurled racial epithets like "if it was '75, we'd skin you alive" at the impressionable teenager, her sister and her father, the Williams family decided to never set foot in the California stadium again. But, at 34, with an astronomical career behind her, she stepped onto the white lines again, this time with a heart of forgiveness. She did it to write a different ending to the years she spent crying to herself in the locker room, afraid to face the hate of the crowd. Today, those times seem to have been in another lifetime. Today, she graces her throne as Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year, bringing back the honour to an individual female athlete in almost three decades. Today, she is queen.
That is why when Serena Williams wins, I win. You win. Everybody wins.
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