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Steve Flink: The Book on Serena

10/27/2009 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

When athletes write autobiographies while they are still out in the field of competition, they try to give the public a sense of who they are, how they have been shaped, and why they have been able to achieve a level of success reserved only for elite performers. These books can still be entertaining and even enlightening as the subjects briefly reflect upon past glories before moving on toward other pursuits. The lives of these high profile individuals are in a state of constant flux, but it is not such a bad thing when they pause along the way to put what they have done in sharper perspective.

The latest tennis champion to write an autobiography is none other than Serena Williams, who takes us on a journey through her upbringing, and across the spectrum of her pro career. In her book, “On the Line”, she covers controversies and her close relationship with her sister Venus, explains from her standpoint the role of her two parents in the development of her career, examines some of her actions and inner feelings, and, in the process, keeps the reader immersed from beginning to end. To be sure, this is not a complete portrait of Williams, who remains somewhat mysterious and bewildering. But her book, written with collaborator Daniel Paisner, covers a lot of ground, and is often gripping. Williams makes an honest attempt to look at herself forthrightly, to analyze what she has done on and off the court without sugar coating her conduct.

In the opening chapter, we are reminded that Serena’s parents have been lifelong coaches for herself and her older sister Venus. As Serena writes, “My parents taught themselves the game so they could teach it to us. It’s one of the first things people mention when they talk about my career or Venus’s--- and yet for some reason it’s not always seen as a positive. I don’t get that, because there’s nothing wrong with learning something and passing it on to your children.”

Serena repeats the frequently told story that her father Richard had heard about Virginia Ruzici--- the 1978 French Open champion—garnering $40,000 for one week of tournament competition. Williams--- a man of modest means--- found it astonishing that a player like Ruzici could make that much money in a single week. He came home and said to Serena’s mother, “We need to make two more kids and make them into tennis superstars.”

The rest, of course, is history. Venus and Serena Williams did indeed become tennis superstars, and then some. Both have resided at No. 1 in the world. Serena has secured 11 majors in singles while Venus has captured 7 Grand Slam singles events. Together, they have won all of the major doubles championships. Richard Williams guided them with an entirely unconventional approach. As Serena says in the book, “ My Dad saw tennis as a way to open doors for his daughters, probably thinking that the more doors that were open to us, the better, so he ordered some instructional books and videos and taught himself to play the game. His idea was to kind of make it up as he went along. He’d do his homework, borrow what he liked from this or that coach, and find his own way to pass it on to his daughters.”

Not only did Richard Williams have to educate himself about the game, but he also was raising his five daughters in the largely impoverished town of Compton, California in the years before Venus and Serena moved with him and his ex-wife Oracene to Florida to advance their tennis training. In California, the five girls shared a room with only four beds.  Serena is self deprecating about her early relationships with her siblings, acknowledging “I don’t know why they put up with me, but they did. Lord knows, I didn’t make it easy for them. Actually, I was kind of horrible (I wouldn’t have put up with me!). Some of the stunts I pulled were off the charts”.  Example: Serena once accidentally broke her piggy bank. Mysteriously, some of the piggy banks belonging to her sisters began breaking as well. No one knew who had done it, until Serena confessed more than a decade later. Her explanation? “I’d smashed my sisters piggy banks because mine was broken; I couldn’t stand it that they had something I didn’t have. It was the only way I knew to cover this lost ground.”

Another revealing passage in the book concerns Serena playing a match at age seven against a player who seemed to have trouble remembering the score. The other girl was ahead 5-2 in a set, but Serena insisted it was 5-2 in her favor. They briefly argued about it but Serena won the dispute. “I look back and can’t even recognize my own behavior. I’ve tried to understand it. Yes, I was pampered at home by my big sisters. Yes, I was used to getting what I wanted. Yes, I like to win, no matter what… Maybe I just didn’t want to lose.”

In any case, Serena felt compelled to win despite knowing she had deliberately distorted the score. She did manage to take the set 7-5 after her opponent rallied to make it 5-5, and “somehow allowed myself to feel good about it afterward. I’d backed myself into an impossible corner, and while I was there I convinced myself that I deserved to win, that I was a better player than Anne, that the win meant more to me than it would have to her. All of this nonsense to justify my princess-prima donna behavior. And after I held on to legitimately win the final two games to win the set, I went right back to thinking I had more integrity than my opponents, because I never cheated them on the lines. Even in this match, I didn’t cheat on the lines. If my shot was out, I called it out. If her shot was in, I called it in. I just gave myself a bunch of games when she wasn’t looking. I was becoming a real player, but I still had a lot to learn.”

Williams describes an incident where her father left a cart of oranges by the court when she was practicing as a kid with Venus in California. She started picking up the oranges and serving them over the fence, and then began smashing the rest of the oranges that were sitting in the cart. Writes Serena, “We tell this story now and laugh about it, but at the time it was upsetting to me that I could have acted to brazenly, so heartlessly… Now, as an adult, I recognize that my actions here offered a glimpse into the mind of a competitive athlete. At least, it offered a glimpse into my mind. Into me, and the young athlete I was slowly becoming. I’ve tried to understand it, and what I’ve come up with is you need a wild streak if you hope to be a serious competitor. You need a kind of irrational killer instinct.  You need to put it out there that you’re reckless and unpredictable, not just so that your opponents take note, but so that you take notice, too. You’ve got to convince yourself that you’re capable of anything, that you will not be denied, that you will do whatever it takes to accomplish whatever it is that you’re out to accomplish. You need to surprise yourself, too. And you’ve got to embrace the wild, rash abandon that finds you and lifts you and transforms you in the heat of a cutthroat moment. It’s almost like you’ve got to get to that weird place where you can’t recognize your own behavior.”

There is almost a cruel irony in those words, which came back to haunt Serena in some ways during the U.S. Open this year. She probably did not really recognize her own behavior on the evening she lost to Kim Clijsters in the semifinals, when she turned into a dark corner of her soul and went into a reprehensible rage at a lineswoman who called a foot fault on her when she had lost the first set and was down 4-5, 15-30 in the second set. That foot fault occurred on a second serve, and put her down 15-40, and her deeply abusive tirade against the lineswoman who made the call cost Serena the match on a point penalty. The “wild, rash abandon” had sent Serena into a state of mind she could not control or even comprehend, and her refusal to fully own up to the unacceptability of her behavior was one of the most distressing moments in all of 2009, not only for those who unabashedly admire Serena, but also for those who have not necessarily embraced her across the years.

The book was published too soon for Serena to address that frightening moment, but she covers a lot of territory on other matters. One of the more intriguing chapters for tennis fans will be the one she wrote on the famous 2001 incident at Indian Wells, California. In the semifinals of that Tier 1 event, Serena was due to meet Venus in the semifinals. As Serena recounts, she had won that tournament two years earlier, toppling Steffi Graf in a magnificent three set final. On this occasion in 2001, the tennis world eagerly awaited a Venus-Serena semifinal clash, which was scheduled to be televised live on ESPN at 9PM EST.

Venus had injured her knee in the previous round. According to Serena’s account in the book, when she and her sister arrived on site at Indian Wells that morning, Venus told a WTA Tour trainer that she did not think she could play her match against Serena. Serena writes that protocol calls for the trainer to speak with the tournament director about any potential withdrawal or default from a match. Serena contends that Venus kept trying to get the trainer to agree that she could withdraw, but “she got a kind of stiff-arm from the trainer, who kept telling her to hold off on making any kind of final decision.”

Serena asserts that tournament officials were stalling. In her account, she says that Venus told her after her pre-match warm-up that she (Venus) had told the officials two hours earlier that she could not play. Finally, five minutes before the match was due on court, an official announced that Venus was withdrawing with an injury. Infuriated fans did not take the news lightly. The sisters held a press conference to explain what had happened from their point of view. Then Serena met Clijsters in the championship match, and was booed by spectators still dismayed by the unexpected withdrawal of Venus Williams from the semifinals.

Serena describes the negative fervor of the fans, recalls hearing the word “nigger” a few times, and felt as she was a “target” for those spectators who remained angry about the semifinal disappointment. When her father and Venus came to their seats to watch the final, Richard Williams exacerbated the situation. As Serena writes, “Daddy didn’t help matters, I’m afraid. When he got to his seat, he turned around and pumped his fist in the air in a gesture of defiance. I’m sure he meant to send a clear message that he and his family would not be beaten down by something like this.”

Williams writes about her come from behind, three set triumph over Clijsters under the most arduous of circumstances, how she continued to get booed “no matter what I did”, and recalls leaving the court in tears despite her victory. “The tears just blended in with the anguish of the match,” she explains.  She remembers leaving with her family that day in silence, overcome by emotions and disbelief. She then tells the readers of her book why she has not played that tournament since the 2001 event. “I don’t care if they fine me a million dollars, “Serena writes. “ I will not play there again.” She elaborates, “I have a responsibility to those little girls who look up to me, just as I have a responsibility to myself. They might not even know what happened at Indian Wells in 2001, but I’ll know. And I’ll know that if I don’t make a small stand on this, it will be harder for them to make their small stands when they grow up….. You don’t get past racial tension by forgetting about it. You don’t just ignore this kind of prejudice and hope it goes away. That’s not how it works. If you sweep it under the rug, one day you’ll lift the rug to redecorate and there it will be….. You don’t make these stands to accomplish a specific goal, I’ve come to realize. You make them because they’re right.”

Many of us who follow tennis closely and write about it for a living have a different take on what transpired at Indian Wells in 2001. It may well be that Richard Williams, Venus Williams and Serena Williams were subjected to racial taunts and crude behavior. It may also be that they could have handled the default situation with much more understanding and concern for the justifiably agitated fans. The view here is that the Williams family were not simply innocent victims on that occasion. While I respect the enduring pain the entire Williams family must feel about the incident, it is hard to imagine that Serena and Venus would take such a stand if the tournament in question was the U.S. Open. Had the same kind of controversy erupted at the Open, would they have stayed away for the rest of their careers? And why carry on a grudge for so long, when most fans have long forgotten about the episode?

In any event, while the Indian Wells chapter will surely be a fascinating one for longtime fans of the sport, the most poignant material in the entire book surrounds the tragic death of Serena’s oldest sister Yetunde in 2003. As she movingly describes the death of her sister, it is no longer so difficult to understand why Serena’s career drifted to far off course after she dominated the game so comprehensively in the preceding years. Serena had been virtually unstoppable at the big events from the French Open of 2002 through Wimbledon of 2003, winning a “Serena Slam” in that stretch, sweeping five of the six majors she played, defeating Venus in all five of those final round contests.

Knee surgery had prevented Serena from competing at the 2003 U.S. Open. Shortly after that Open, she found out that her older sister had been shot to death in California. She writes passionately about the grieving process that took place after her sister passed away. As she puts it in the book, ““Tennis was about the last thing on my mind, just then. Forget that I wasn’t physically ready to pick up a racquet. It just didn’t seem all that important. A lot of people ask me if maybe tennis would have been a good way to power through all the grieving, but that never occurred to me. When I get angry or hurt or frustrated, I don’t go out and play tennis. I reach out for my family, for my friends, for whatever love and support I can find.”

Another intriguing section of the book is about the incentive she had found to establish herself as the game’s dominant player. Curiously--- or maybe not so curiously—a broken romance may have fueled her to play the best sustained tennis of her entire career. The man with whom she was involved was a football player. She refers to him only as “So-and-So”, which is understandable and amusing in light of the fact that she felt he treated her abysmally, breaking off their relationship abruptly and inexplicably, making Serena feel both dismayed and worthless.

The painful breakup in her “first serious relationship” occurred in the fall of 2001, and Williams then put her heart and soul into carving out important victories on the court from that moment on. She won the year-end WTA Tour Championships in Germany, and that carried her into 2002 on a wave of confidence, leading in her mind to the widely acclaimed ‘Serena Slam” of 2002-2003. As she writes of that stretch, “Tennis would be my salvation, I decided. I would not be beaten down by this guy, I vowed. In the little match book I keep, I kept his name in the margins. It reminded me I had something to prove to him.…... In my head, it had gotten to where it was all about him, about lifting myself from the dirt he left me lying in after the way he treated me.”

In summing up that period, she says, “Four Grand Slam tournament titles in a row. Each on the back of an unfortunate piece of rejection and dejection--- and each a reminder that it’s in the picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off and pushing ourselves forward that we find our will, our drive and our purpose.”

Another instance of Serena being absolutely determined to demonstrate her big occasion greatness--- no matter how many skeptics were lined up against her--- was at the 2007 Australian Open. She had ended 2006 at No. 95 in the world, and was flagrantly overweight when she arrived for the first major of the following year as the No. 81 ranked player. But Serena willed her way through that fortnight, spurred on by all of the critics who lambasted her in the newspapers for being so far out of shape.

She recollects that she was twenty pounds heavier than she wanted to be at that point, and recalls how a Nike representative warned her that if she did not perform well in Melbourne, the company might drop her sponsorship level down. Serena turned all of the negatives into a positive and set up a final round appointment with Maria Sharapova. Prior to that meeting, she heard Tracy Austin say that Sharapova “would have no problem with me once the match got underway. I heard that and thought it was such a mean, unnecessary thing to say. After everything I had been through. Being asked after every match why I was so out of shape. Being told by my sponsors they were going to cut me loose if I didn’t perform. Being forced to defend my time away from the game. And on and on.” Williams cut down Sharapova 6-1, 6-2 with ruthless efficiency for the crown.

Throughout the book, Serena Williams has only the most effusive praise and offers the utmost respect for her older sister Venus. Venus comes across as a person of immense sensitivity and decency, and a sibling who only wants the best for Serena. In Serena’s eyes, Venus was always out there setting the pace, raising the bar, encouraging her sister to win without ever being envious. As Serena writes, “Without V to lead the way, it would have taken me longer to get where I wanted to be. And then, once I started having some success on my own, I still looked to Venus. If she won a major, it was up to me to win the next one. If she went out early to practice on the morning after a big win, I went out early to practice. Really, I don’t know where I’d get that drive were it not for Venus.”

It must be said that Serena Williams clearly put an enormous amount of effort and passion into writing this book. She wants this book to be revealing, and it is. She is exploring the journey of her life as she probably never had done to this extent before. She is often brutally honest. Whenever I read one of these autobiographies, I want to hear the voice of the player, to feel as if that person is speaking naturally. There were times when I I had the feeling I was listening to co-author Paisner rather than Williams, but that is a small criticism.

On a larger scale, her personality and point of view came through loudly and clearly. To be sure, she is a complicated and sometimes baffling woman, a champion of deep conflicts and sweeping contradictions. But in this book she has made a genuine attempt to allow sports fans to understand what she has endured and how she has coped with being an African American woman in an overwhelmingly white sport. For that, Serena Williams must be applauded.

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