"Seeing Serena" by Gerald Marzorati; Scribner (272 pages, $26)
Game, set, matchless.
For years, no one could touch Serena Williams. She’s won a record 365 women’s singles matches at major tournaments, four Olympic gold medals, and was ranked best women’s singles player in the world eight times.
And the last time, in January 2017, she not only reached that honor at 35 — the oldest female player to ever hit that height — she did it while two months pregnant.
Could she regain that ranking after a dangerously difficult delivery, time off the court, and the stresses of starting a family? And after a poor 2018 showing, including a losing and harshly criticized, U.S. Open appearance?
That’s the question that Gerard Marzorati’s “Seeing Serena” asks.
The book focuses on Williams’ 2019 season, as the 37-year-old tennis star set out to break the record of a legend. Over her career, Margaret Court had won all four major tournaments — Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the French Open, and the Australian Open — a stunning 24 times.
Williams stood at 23.
Marzorati spent that year shadowing Williams’ attempt, covering major tournaments from Melbourne to Flushing. He spoke to commentators, colleagues, and coaches. But, he did not talk to Williams, except for a few questions lobbed to her at postmatch press conferences. This is not an authorized record of that season.
It is, though, more than that. It is an analysis of the life that led to it.
It’s a life that rewards closer scrutiny, too. The story of how Serena and sister Venus grew up on the hard streets of Compton, Calif., playing tennis on courts strewn with broken glass is well-known. But the whole truth is more complicated.
Their father moved the family into crime-ridden Compton on purpose. Previously, they had been living a quiet life in Long Beach. But then Richard Williams impulsively decided that he was going to turn his youngest girls into tennis champs.
A cheaper mortgage meant more money for training. And he figured a tougher neighborhood would get his daughters “used to combat,” too.
“How much easier would it be to play in front of thousands of white people,” he asked, “if they had already learned to play in front of scores of armed gang members?”
The Williams’ new house was tiny, with their five daughters crammed into four narrow beds. Their weeks were filled with tennis lessons, school, more tennis lessons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses meetings. By preschool, Serena, and her sister Venus, who is 15 months older, were practicing for hours.
By 1991, the family moved to Florida, where Serena and Venus — then 9 and 11 — landed scholarships at a top tennis academy. Both were already great players, although Serena was amazing, delivering serves that were often impossible to return.
“The serve is essentially a throwing motion,” said her old coach Rick Macci. “And Serena — the arm, the hips, the weight transfer — looked like a pitcher already at 9. Serena, even then, had that serve. Venus used to tell Serena that she’d never beat her. That turned out not to be true.”
Although the sisters were best friends, they were highly competitive. Serena competed with everyone.
“She had to be first at everything, even if it was running to the water fountain,” Macci recalled. “They would play tag. Serena? Only kid I ever saw, all those years, would tag with a closed fist. A fist.”
Serena turned pro at 14, and that competitiveness served her well. By 1999, only her second full year on the main tour, she was ranked fourth in the world. Just three years later, she won Wimbledon and, after defeating her sister, the U.S. Open, too. It earned her a No. 1 ranking, an honor she would reclaim over the next two decades.
There would be struggles ahead, though, sometimes with judges, sometimes with her own anger.
The U.S. Open in 2018, her first attempt to tie Court’s record, was a particular low point. Williams was playing Naomi Osaka in the final when the chair umpire noticed Williams’ coach trying to signal her from the stands. That wasn’t allowed, and the umpire issued a violation.
Williams charged over to the official. “I don’t cheat to win,” she snapped. “I’d rather lose.”
The set continued and continued to go badly for Williams. She threw her racquet, which necessitated a penalty of one point. She told the umpire he was a thief and a liar. That brought another code violation.
Williams, who was already behind, lost that second set, the match, and the Open. She partly blamed sexism.
“I’ve seen men call other umpires several things,” she said. “I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and all kinds of stuff. For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game … He’s never taken a game from a man who said ‘thief.’”
If Williams had been treated differently because of who she was, it wasn’t the first time.
From the start, she had been slammed for her hairstyles, her clothes, her body. Some people even whispered she was really a man. She brushed it all off. “I just work hard,” she said. “I was born with this badass body, and proud of it.”
Ignoring critics, she continued to forge her own path. Williams started a fashion line. She had romances with Drake and Common. Then, she married internet entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian and had a daughter, Olympia. She spent time in favorite cities, like Paris. And, of course, she played blistering tennis.
But then something like the fight at the Open would bring back all the criticism, and with a new stereotype: The Angry Black Woman.
After Williams’ loss, SNL star Leslie Jones did a skit portraying Williams as a loud-mouthed Amazon. At least it was parody. But what was it when an Australian newspaper caricatured her as an apelike creature with giant lips?
The racism never quit. Neither did Williams.
And so, in 2019, she took another run at Court’s record.
It was an effort. Williams lost the Australian Open, twisting her ankle in the final. A virus sidelined her from competition at Indian Wells, and a knee injury forced withdrawal from tournaments in Miami and Rome. She lost at Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open.
Williams blamed only herself. “Serena did not show up today,” she said at the U.S. Open’s postmatch press conference. Her postpandemic play has been spotty, too, although she’s still ranked eighth in the world.
Williams may never match Court’s record, but she has plenty of her own. She holds the most Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles combined among active players. Last year, the Tennis Channel named her the greatest female tennis player ever. She’s still in the game.
She has inspired two generations of tennis players and continues to inspire more.
“It’s not even just tennis, I think, but track and field, or swimming or playing the piano,” says Tracy Austin, a former tennis prodigy. “It’s not just girls of color. It’s little girls who don’t belong to country clubs. It’s a recognition that ‘I can pave my own way, even with things stacked against me.’ That’s her impact.”
And it continues to be felt, as powerfully as one of her impossible serves.