Niagara Gazette

June 23, 2013

SINGER: The making of a great champion

By B.B. Singer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Tennis courts around here aren’t as thronged as they were back in the day — the sport having lost some of its regional popularity. But the recent French Open on TV was truly worth watching, not least for the exploits of one Serena Williams in winning the 2013 championship.

Despite all her demonstrated prowess, Ms. Williams has been somewhat underestimated for her repeated feats at major tennis venues around the world. Just muscular, just a big serve, etc. Pretty good at underestimating myself, I admit I didn’t expect that much when I picked up her autobiography (“On the Line”); but wow!

What a person! And what parents — two gems from the get-go. Her book shows as well as for Tiger how much a good, strong father counted for her, and in fact, Serena dedicates the book to her “daddy.” Ms. Williams reveals herself here as psychologically aware and mature well beyond her years (the great star is only 31!). And she’s implacably honest with and about herself, as I guess all great athletes must be.

Unique is the right word for Serena, and I wouldn’t want to compare her to this or that great, or cavil at why she has only won only so many French Opens, or missed this or that tournament. (Despite terrible injuries and other problems, she has already copped a massive bag of Grand Slam victories in her young life!)

Serena is unique even in the healthy, respectful rivalry she always had with a celebrated sister, Venus. And we should of course salute her fine mother, who knew how to make each of five daughters special, allowing their specific dreams to become realities.

In Serena’s riveting book there is a sweet, early part on how at 8 she nervily snuck into her first tourney, ending up against Venus in the finals (first swallow of a long summer!) Being bigger, older, and more experienced, Venus won easily, and Serena was happy for her, but disappointed in herself. She saw Venus’ gold trophy and wished she could have it instead of the silver one awarded to runner-ups. So Venus concocted a story to the effect that she preferred silver, handing the gold one to her sister! Sweet or what?

So family played a big role in the making of this tennis honcho–having at least one good parent (as even the besmirched Lance Armstrong did) crucial. It isn’t degrees that make such figures–not by a long shot. Despite their rivalry, Serena lauds Venus as the best big sister in the world, and her parents as utterly “supportive,” and as one reads, one sees that without good parents, you may not have good siblings, either–the two often linked.

But of course like many greats (Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, you name it), Serena had to go through a goodly amount of hell in her life. One part was braving the slings and arrows of know-alls who figured she and Venus threw matches in favor of one or the other. In their noble way the sisters wouldn’t counter these lies–how can one counter such things?

The parents (Serena’s dad from Louisiana and mom from Michigan before moving to LA) had endured much as well. Both wanted a better life for their daughters, but in the right way. Yes, they directed them, but with love and with rational demands.

As you push on in the book, you get to a part where Venus had to pull out of a tournament at Indian Wells, and Serena in the finals was then hooted and racially taunted. She never appeared there again, even at the risk of being fined or suspended. Injustice? Of course it exists aplenty, but injustice overcome is perhaps even more significant.

Besides sister Venus’ role in Serena’s development and phenomenal career, her oldest sister, Tunde, was like another mother to her, spurning tennis to become a nurse and mom of three, yet also intensely proud of Serena.

In sum, one shouldn’t take for granted either where Serena came from nor what she made of herself to reign today as number one in women’s tennis. (It ain’t just muscles and a big serve!)

B. B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.