Serving Up Equal Justice by Donna Gordon
Serena Williams’s serve is not what it seems. Though its raw power and velocity could easily decapitate a bird in flight, it has a surprising amount of lateral movement hidden inside, a major factor making it nearly impossible for opponents to return.
Two weeks ago I was lucky enough to stand on the other side of the net from her and witness that serve and everything that goes along with it at the 2015 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. I had won a contest cosponsored by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and Serena--who had been quietly working to fight racism. At a time when race is at the top of the national conversation--and you have corporations like Starbucks trying to enter, and a country divided about the events in Ferguson and Trevor Martin in Florida--Serena found a quieter referendum to mark her return to Indian Wells after a 13- year-boycott.
In 2001, Serena, then 18-years-old and slated to play against sister Venus in the semi-final—were targets of racial epithets and a booing crowed after Venus bowed out at the last minute with a knee injury. The crowd responded as if the turn of events had been premeditated, accusing Serena’s father and coach, Richard Williams, of rigging it. Serena was booed again after winning the final against Kim Clijsters.
Now, a mature woman at the top of her game with 18 grand slam titles to her credit, Serena’s choice to return to Indian Wells speaks volumes. “Thirteen years and a lifetime in tennis later, things feel different,” she said. “A few months ago, when Russian official Shamil Tarpischev made racist and sexist remarks about Venus and me, WTA and the USTA immediately condemned him. It reminded me how far the sport has come, and how far I’ve come, too.” (http//time.com/3694659/serena-williams-indian-wells/.)
The contest I won was administrated by the Omaze group—a company that specializes in pairing celebrities with groups that have a social mission. As a competent club player here in Boston, there was no way to prepare for what promised to be a larger than life experience. Our mutual support of EJI provided the basis for a common bond, but there was no way to predict what it would be like to meet Serena face to face.
It was 90 degrees on Wednesday afternoon when we met on practice court #10 set far off in the corner of the blazing tennis complex, allowing private street entrance for Serena and her camp to gain access undetected by the majority of fans.
Serena was accompanied by her familial entourage, including sister Isha, coach Patrick, assistant Grant, trainer Mackey, and dog Chip--along with a handful of security men. She came over to meet me from where I’d be watching on the sidelines, hugged me, then got down to the business of practice with new hitting partner Robbie. Watching her warm up, I quickly came to understand what sets her apart from the rest—a kind of physical presence alive with kinetic readiness. More power and more precision, how her sense of perfection leads to more refined results that seem to synch with her entire being.
The next day when we took the court at 8:30 in the morning and began to rally, a clear blue sky spread out evenly around us, I don’t know why, but I wasn’t nervous. Whether it was the recognition that we shared something in common in our love of the game, on the insistence of the ball coming back and forth over the net. Or the innate surrender to the promise of movement that requires hard work and instincts and footwork. After we rallied a little, she approached the net and gave me some tips: “My father always said to prepare early. I really like your swinging volley. Take the ball even higher.” But it was her serve that baffled me, while she held back her power, its mysterious movement reflected the complex character of Serena and her game.
Afterwards, she invited us to come and watch her practice on Stadium One where she would play the first match of her return that evening to an audience of 16,000. Looking down on her practice in that empty stadium was a little like watching a lone gladiator prepare for battle.
The next evening Serena faced her first match back at Indian Wells on that same stadium against Romanian Monica Niculescu, ranked 49th in the world. When she entered the arena the crowd cheered. Up close Serena was emotional, but soon got down to business. With a slow start, she eventually won 7-5, 7-5. She fired seven aces and won 18 of her 25 first-service points. When she found herself in the semi-final a few days later due to play world-ranked #3 Simona Halep, history strangely repeated itself, and Serena had to withdraw with a knee injury.
No champion is without controversy or criticism. But one’s measure of humanity is self-defining and has no parallel. People often talk about a champion as one who has been undefeated. But the defeats and returns afterwards, are what truly make one great. Serena’s powerful serve is no accident, it comes from a place of courage and humanity that no one else can touch.