Serena’s mental presence, in and after tennis

Her impact on pro tennis goes beyond race, gender, wins, or style. She uplifted others by the way she uplifted herself.

Serena Williams attends a New York City event in 2019.

The announcement this week by tennis great Serena Williams that she will step off the court for the final time after the coming U.S. Open tournament invites commentary about comparison and succession. Who will be the next great player? Will her form measure up? The New Yorker magazine recently described Coco Gauff, a rising American ranked 11th in the world, as having “near Serena-like first serves.”

That is perhaps inevitable. Over the course of a storied professional career that started in 1998, Ms. Williams and her older sister Venus redefined the power, aesthetics, and diversity of the game. The greater measure of her impact, however, may be less in the likeness of a swing than in the mental presence that she modeled: individuality over group identity, forgiveness over resentment, and legitimacy over disadvantage.

“Whatever you become,” Ms. Williams said in her autobiography “On the Line,” recalling what her mother often said, “you become in your head first.”

Only a small club of big-name pro athletes knows the cost of breaking the color barrier. Before the Williams sisters, that club was all-male – Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Tiger Woods. As young girls from the cracked community courts of Compton, California, they broke through the barriers of club tournaments with their rackets. But a professional tournament in 2001 marked a crucible. The sisters were taunted during the Indian Wells, California, event for their race and physical strength. Serena won, but refused to return for 14 years.

During that long interval, guided by her Christian faith, she wrestled to gain the power of forgiveness. Her return to Indian Wells reflected a recognition of a shared effort at healing. “I have faith that fans at Indian Wells have grown with the game and know me better than they did in 2001,” she said in the biography “Serena Williams: The Inspiring Story of One of Tennis’ Greatest Legends.”

“Indian Wells was a pivotal moment in my story, and I am part of the tournament’s story as well. Together we have a chance to write a different ending.”

There have been more pivotal moments since, like motherhood and the start of a new venture capital firm dedicated to supporting female entrepreneurs of color, that have begun to shift her focus. “I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me,” she wrote in Vogue this week. Yet there remains a continuity in that shift – a fierce determination to grow in the calm confidence that, as her parents taught her, uplifts others.

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