Ten months ago, she gave birth to her first child. Nine months ago, she was undergoing four separate surgeries, facing life-threatening blood clots. Five months ago, she returned to the courts. And on Saturday, Serena Williams met Angelique Kerber in the Wimbledon finals.
You’d say it was unbelievable, but this is Serena Williams we’re talking about. What’s unbelievable for anyone else is every day for her.
For Williams, this would make a better story had she won. But she fell to a younger and sharper Kerber in straight sets, 6-3, 6-3. Still, that doesn’t dim Williams’ excellence one bit.
Williams isn’t just one of the best athletes in American history, male or female. Let’s call it what it is: Serena Williams is the American Dream.
From Compton to the mountaintop
In this country, the theory goes, anyone can rise from the humblest of origins to the mountaintop with enough dedication and hard work. It’s a simplistic idea, sure, but if you boil success in America down to that primary-colors formula, it’s tough to argue that anyone has a better claim on the American Dream than Serena Williams.
She began playing tennis on a wire-net court in Compton, a cracked slab of asphalt that she’d sweep clean of crack vials before every practice. Her father Richard wheeled a grocery cart full of balls from their home every day. And when gunshots rang out—as they often did—Serena and her sister Venus would drop to the court and lie face-down until the shots faded. That’s about as humble as origins get.
Check her now: the absolute pinnacle not just of her profession, not just of her gender, but of all sports. Worth nine figures. Winner of 23 grand slam singles titles, the most in the post-1968 “open” era and one behind Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24. Thirty-nine grand slam titles overall. Four Olympic medals. A friend to both American and British royalty and an inspiration to a planet.
“I came up through Switzerland with the federation, she did it with her dad and her sister,” Roger Federer said last month. “It’s an amazing story unto itself — and then she became one of the greatest, if not the greatest tennis player of all time.”
And even at the mountaintop, the challenges don’t stop. Williams gave birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia just ten months ago. Motherhood’s a phenomenal trial even in the best circumstances. But Serena suffered severe medical setbacks; clots dotted her lungs, and she had to undergo four different surgeries. Even walking was a challenge. Here’s her husband Alex Ohanian on the reality of it all:
Walking to the mailbox was a painful, exhausting challenge for this woman just 9 months ago.
— Alexis Ohanian Sr. 🚀 (@alexisohanian) July 10, 2018
And here Serena was, back in the Wimbledon final after just three tune-up matches. “Miraculous” might not be a strong enough word.
First Set: Kerber stays steady as Williams stumbles
With every bit of the pre-match hype focused on Williams, Kerber flew in low and virtually unnoticed, even though she’s one of the few players to have beaten Williams in a grand slam final. Kerber, six years younger than Williams, took the Australian Open from a heavily-favored Serena in three sets back in 2016. Later that year, Williams took down Kerber in straight sets at Wimbledon, so the stakes, and risks, were apparent.
Kerber won the pre-match coin toss and opted to receive; that proved a wise choice, as she broke Williams’ serve in the first game by taking four straight points after going down 30-love. Williams looked sloppy and unfocused in the first two games, but got her feet under her with a victory in her second service game and broke Kerber to even the match at 2-2.
Three games later, Kerber again broke Williams to take a 4-3 lead. Williams piled up the unforced errors, finding the net and sailing returns long, and Kerber took advantage. Williams totaled 14 unforced errors to Kerber’s three, and the result was as expected: a 6-3 first-set victory for Kerber.
“What makes me great”
It’s worth noting that Williams isn’t sneaking up on anyone. She’s been winning majors since 1999. No player ever looks past her in the draw, no player ever assumes, “Well, if I can get past Serena—” Like the New England Patriots and Golden State Warriors, Williams is the perpetual target, the one everyone wants to beat.
Williams addressed that topic – the idea that everyone raises their game when they see her across the net – a week ago. “Every single match I play, whether coming back from a baby or surgery, it doesn’t matter – these young ladies bring a game I’ve never seen before,” she said. “It’s what makes me great. I always play everyone at their greatest, so I have to be greater.”
— Jamie Johnson (@JamieoJohnson) July 7, 2018
It’s Serena’s return game on a grand scale: anything you send her way, she’ll fire back at you at twice the velocity. “Everyone comes out and plays me so hard,” she said. “Now my level is higher because of it because of so many years of being played like that.”
You don’t scare Serena when you bring heat. You just make her mad.
Second set: Kerber controls the match, 6-3
Even by Wimbledon standards, Saturday brought out white-hot star power. Everyone from Tiger Woods to Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King to Duchesses Meghan and Kate showed up for Serena, and by the second set, each one of them was sweating in the English sun for a match delayed more than two hours by the men’s semifinals.
Williams came into this Wimbledon with a 23-6 record in grand slam finals, with only her sister Venus having defeated her more than once. She began the crucial second set by trading service games with Kerber, but seemed to have difficulty finding her footing and sustaining rallies. Kerber, meanwhile, seemed to cover the entire court, and wasn’t cowed by Williams’ monstrous service game.
Kerber broke Williams to take a 4-2 lead, and suddenly, Williams was running out of time. Kerber won her service game to go up 5-2, just four points from the championship. Williams won her service game in four straight points, and that set up the most crucial game of the match: Kerber serving for the championship, up 5 games to 3.
Kerber won the first point, and following a long rally, Williams overpowered a net shot, a would-be winner, ever so slightly, pushing it long and leaving Kerber two points from the championship. At the end of the match’s longest rally, 20 shots, a brilliant drop shot from Williams cut Kerber’s lead to 30-15. Two points later, up 40-30, Kerber had the match on her racket, and finished it with a sleek serve that Williams couldn’t handle.
“It was such an amazing tournament for me,” Williams said afterward. “I was really happy to get this far. It’s obviously disappointing, but I can’t be disappointed. I have so much to look forward to. I’m just getting started.”
Off the court, Serena remains a champion
Off the court, Williams carries herself with a confident grace that doesn’t leave room for doubt or time for questions. She’s been a victim of racism, sexism, classism. She’s had her appearance dissected and her attitude questioned by critics and commenters who aren’t fit to bring her towels. She’s risen above it all, every time, and now uses her pedestal as a pulpit:
On the pay gap in tennis between men and women: “We work just as hard as men do. I’ve been working, playing tennis, since I was three years old. And to be paid less just because of my sex—it doesn’t seem fair. Will I have to explain to my daughter that her brother is gonna make more money doing the exact same job because he’s a man?”
On facing racism both on and off the court: “Growing up, I was told I couldn’t accomplish my dreams because I was a woman and, more so, because of the color of my skin. In every stage of my life, I’ve had to learn to stand up for myself and speak out. I have been treated unfairly, I’ve been disrespected by my male colleagues and—in the most painful times—I’ve been the subject of racist remarks on and off the tennis court. I have been treated unfairly, I’ve been disrespected by my male colleagues and—in the most painful times—I’ve been the subject of racist remarks on and off the tennis court.”
She’s also deeply involved in business endeavors – she calls buying property her “addiction,” which, if you can afford it, isn’t a bad addiction to have. She’s the chairwoman of the Board of Advisors of Oath (Yahoo Sports’ parent company). Among many other charitable efforts, she helped found the Yetunde Price Resource Center in 2016 in honor of her sister, who died in 2003 in a drive-by shooting, and she was one of many celebrities to help former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick address homelessness in the Los Angeles area.
More recently, after her own health scare, she’s taken up the cause of safety in childbirth for impoverished mothers across the planet. “What if we lived in a world where there were enough birth attendants? Where there was no shortage of access to health facilities nearby? Where lifesaving drugs and clean water were easily available to all? Where midwives could help and advise mothers after birth? What if we lived in a world where every mother and newborn could receive affordable health care and thrive in life?”
It’s all pretty heady stuff for anyone, much less someone who’s got a day job. But it’s all completely in character for Serena Williams. You can agree with her, or you can disagree with her. You can defeat her one match, but she’ll come back harder the next. She’s not going away.
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