Serena Williams has been a ‘trending’ topic over the last couple of weeks, not just for her record-breaking achievements but for what other people are saying about her. Thankfully, the sports writers are being kind this time around, falling over themselves to find new superlatives to describe her complete dominance of women’s professional tennis. Other commentators have been less kind, displaying the types of sexism and racism that have followed her around for most of her career.
The coded racism has surprised even world-weary cynics like me, who think we have seen and heard it all. Imagine being hated for being so good at your job that you make everyone else look ordinary, or because you don’t look like the people you work with. What must it feel like to be taunted for having outrageous feminine curves and, at the same time, be accused of ‘looking like a man’? Even Caitlyn Jenner couldn’t be mistaken for Serena Williams on his best day, much less any male athlete I’ve ever seen.
However, Serena is on top of the world and having the time of her life. I doubt she is giving the haters much thought now that she has proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she is the greatest woman to have played the game. But, it wasn’t always like this. Along the way, she has climbed many hills and fought several battles against the doubters; the ones who batter your confidence, wound your self-esteem and try to kill your dreams.
Often, doubters assume a thoroughly respectable form – a teacher, a parent, a close friend or even an achiever in your field – someone who should know better. Many a time, they are being kind; trying to save you from yourself; or preventing you from being hurt or disappointed. Other times, it’s because they don’t believe you are the right race or gender, don’t have the right background or education, or don’t conform to society’s rules for success in a particular area. In the case of the Williams sisters, it has been almost all of the above.
Let’s look at a few examples of what they have had to endure:
- When Venus and Serena first burst unto the scene, appearing in the big pro tournaments, I remember how their ‘crazy’ dad, Richard, was patronised and ridiculed for suggesting that his daughters would be No.1 and No.2 and would play each other in a Grand Slam Final. Oh, how they giggled in the studio at his eccentricity!
- When Venus Williams won her first professional tournament and told reporters, “I have a younger sister who is better than me.” Oh really?
- When Richard and Oracene Williams coached the girls themselves and made sure that they avoided the junior tennis circuit. Everyone else ‘knew’ that they had to attend an expensive tennis academy and play all the other budding young champions to succeed.
- In 1992, when Venus was 12 and Serena 11, Richard confidently predicted that Venus would win Wimbledon and Serena would win the US Open, and that Serena would become the better player eventually. In the same TV interview for Trans-World Sport, Serena was asked which player she would most want to be like. “I’d like other people to be like me,” she replied. Some people thought the comment was cute and harmless, while for others this was the start of the ‘arrogance’ the girls were accused of for many years.
My favourite ‘doubter’ has to be Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon Men’s Champion and a respected tennis commentator. It was 2007 and Serena Williams had just returned to the circuit after nearly a year off, pursuing other interests such as fashion design and acting. She had played just three matches in a small tournament, before arriving in Melbourne for the Australian Open, ranked no. 81 in the world. When the media asked about the likelihood of a successful comeback, Serena said that it was “just a matter of time” before she was dominating the sport again.
Writing for The Times, Cash could hardly contain himself. Under a headline that read, ‘Williams is lost cause’, he boldly declared, “For all her talk, Serena Williams will never return to the top again.” According to him, Serena was ‘deluded’, had a ‘limited attention span’, had ‘no patience’ and lacked the ‘fortitude’ required to persevere. On behalf of the players who had conformed to the tennis world’s expectations, he was incensed. “To make such a crass statement on her arrival in Australia was an insult to Amelie Mauresmo and Maria Sharapova, who have risen to the top of the game in her absence,” he fumed.
Two weeks later, Cash was ‘eating humble pie’ (his words) and admitting he had gotten it completely wrong. Serena had swept all before her, defied the odds and become the 2007 Australian Open champion. Since that improbable triumph, she has gone on to win one or two Grand Slams every single year except 2011 when she survived a series of life-threatening illnesses, including a blood clot close to her heart. To his credit, Cash the doubter gave her the ultimate tribute, calling her, “Quite simply the strongest female player the game has ever known.”
If you’re not a tennis fan, should you care about any of this? I think so; especially if you’ve always had a burning desire to be great at something. Not just good, but great. The lessons in Serena’s story are as powerful as any epic I have seen onscreen and we would do well to emulate them. So, here goes:
- Believe in yourself and your talent
- Focus on one thing at a time
- Work with the resources you have until things get better
- Practice day and night until you are the best you can be
- Make sure to pursue something you enjoy, or you might quit when things get tough
- Don’t be afraid to be different or to be the first
- Get a good coach or mentor who believes in you, even when you don’t believe in yourself
- Surround yourself with family and friends who will cheer you on from the sidelines
- Ignore the naysayers, even if they are so-called experts
- Keep getting up and going out, even when you don’t want to
- Don’t get distracted by success or failure; stay focused
- Keep some balance in your life – family, friends, pets, rest, travel and other interests
Very few of us have a Richard Williams in our lives, deflecting the doubts and fears, and standing up to naysayers on our behalf, with absolutely rock-solid belief in our ability to achieve our dreams. Most of us have to do this for ourselves.
It’s easy to look at this 33 year-old millionaire with the world at her feet and believe that, but for a lack of sporting talent, we would be there also. Truth is, most of us would not be willing to pay the price – the pain, injuries, repetitiveness of practice, strict diet, fierce competition, unforgiving crowds, constant travel, unfriendly locker room, slights, criticism, racism, sexism, body shaming and insults.
So, whatever you do, make sure it’s worth the price you will have to pay for greatness. Never let anyone write you off, no matter how many times you’re down and no matter how many times you have to make a comeback. It’s not over until you say it is. Just ask Serena Williams.
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