I kept up with Serena, watching her matches with my fist in my mouth, biting down when she wasn’t playing well, pumping it in the air when she was. To this day, there’s no other athlete that I feel such visceral emotion for.
In 2018, my sister and I decided last minute to splurge on tickets for the US Open women’s final, to watch Williams attempt to match Margaret Court’s record for the most Grand Slam wins. She was playing against a 20-year-old Haitian Japanese player named Naomi Osaka. The sports experts assured us the odds were in Williams’s favor.
But it was a terrible night. First, I got to Flushing egregiously late. I was the one with the tickets, so we missed a good chunk of the first set and my sister was absolutely livid.
Second, and worst of all, the match was infamously horrible. Williams was making a lot of unforced errors. She knew she wasn’t playing well; we knew she wasn’t playing well. So when the umpire gave her three code violations, which ultimately cost her a point and a game, it set her off. “You’re going to take this from me?” she yelled at the event referee. Her tears of rage and frustration on that court made my own eyes water. The match ended with a despondent Osaka receiving her trophy amid thunderous boos from the crowd. Williams tried to course-correct; she told the crowd not to boo Osaka, it wasn’t her fault, but I felt the bitter aftertaste of that defeat.
After that moment, I quietly wrote Williams off. I decided she didn’t have it in her to win. But I also couldn’t bear to watch a less dominant Serena, a Serena whom young European women I’d never heard of could now beat commandingly, women who no longer feared her. My sister and I mordantly joked that whenever we watched her she lost, so maybe we should stop.
Fast-forward to this week. I didn’t watch Monday’s match; I was too conflicted. But then friends started texting me to ask if I was watching, and I decided that if Wednesday night was the last match of her career, the least I could do was witness it. So I did. And she confounded my expectations yet again. Watching her play with nothing to prove to anyone, but still with that fire and determination in her belly, all my adolescent belief and thrill at the talent of her play came flooding back.
On Friday night, she competes against Ajla Tomljanovic, an unseeded opponent. They have never played against each other before.
Serena could beat her. She has the capability and no doubt the will. But even if she loses, she’s indomitable. I mean, she’s Serena. ●