Billie Jean King: What Makes Serena Williams So Watchable
I’ve seen many generations come and go in tennis, and every time you see a great player retire, it’s really difficult. But the news that Serena Williams is moving on from tennis is particularly hard because of what she represents.
Her presence and politics raised the game. The technique, power and rhythm of her serve are unbelievable. It sets the tone for the intensity of her game. I don’t care what happens after that; I’m just there to watch her serve.
I’ve known Venus and Serena Williams since they were 7 and 6 years old. I first met them in April 1988. We had about 1,200 kids that day for a clinic in my hometown, Long Beach, Calif., near where the Williams sisters grew up, in Compton. You could tell then that they were special. And it was more than their form. I saw that they really listened, they actively listened. You could tell they were really in it. They had amazing concentration.
I had Serena serve that day, and I told her: Don’t change a thing.
She’s the GOAT, the greatest of all time — or at least the greatest of her time, since every generation gets better. Serena has changed how tennis is played. In her time, the serves have gotten so much better in women’s tennis, and I think she’s the reason: She has pushed the other players to improve. When you have a great serve, it keeps you out of trouble. When she’s down 30-40 or 15-40, she can throw in a couple of aces, and before you know it, it’s deuce again.
In 1970, I was one of the Original Nine women players, who, with Gladys Heldman, created our own tour. That was the birth of women’s professional tennis as we know it today. Then in 1973 I founded the Women’s Tennis Association. We wanted to make it possible that any girl in the world who was good enough would have a place to compete — not just play, compete. We wanted to be appreciated for our accomplishments, not only our looks. And we wanted to be able to make a living playing tennis.
And so Serena is living our dream. When I watch her, I think, “Thank you, God.” She has been an amazing representative, a fantastic leader helping women, particularly women of color. She’s not afraid to speak her truth.
She’s extremely, extremely competitive. I’ve never seen someone who hates to lose as much as she does — which I love. The champions can raise their game when it’s tight or when they’re down. Serena is totally that person.
She also has what I call the it factor. Serena has that it factor in neon lights. You can tell she loves to entertain. She loves the attention and knows how to cope with it. A lot of kids will get this attention, and then you see them just fold. She thrives on it.
Serena is very good at letting people in via the media and social media. That’s what the kids like today. They like to know when you brush your teeth! She’s very good at sharing her life with them. She has accomplished so much, and she has also had some hardships, including the murder of her half sister, the racism that she has endured as a Black woman and the complications she suffered after the birth of her daughter. She can relate to a lot of different people, and people can relate to her because of what she’s been through. It doesn’t matter if you’re into tennis or not: You’re into Serena.
Every time I see the other women from the Original Nine and we talk about the state of our sport, we say, “Isn’t this great?” They’re living the dream. We are always looking to the players who can help further the sport, but more important, who can help further equality and use tennis as a platform for changing the way we think, changing what we see as possible and making the world better. Serena has brought the idea of gender equity, inclusion and diversity forward. She has inspired people to live their dreams.
In her article for Vogue where Serena announced her retirement — which she calls “evolving” — there’s this line that stuck with me. She said, “I’ve built a career on channeling anger and negativity and turning it into something good.” She’s absolutely right. It’s good for people to be angry, as long as it’s about something important. But use your anger; turn it into something positive.
I’ll be cheering Serena on from the stands at the U.S. Open this week. I think she could make even a bigger difference in the second part of her life than the first. I feel like she’s just beginning.
Billie Jean King won 39 Grand Slam titles, including 20 Wimbledon championships. She founded the Women’s Sports Foundation and the Women’s Tennis Association and was the first female athlete to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She founded the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative and is a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Angel City F.C. and the L.A. Sparks.
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