From the time she was a young girl until this month, when she announced the approaching end of her tennis profession on the quilt of the September issue of Vogue, Serena Williams has all the time made a powerful impression.
Ask people around tennis about their first encounter with Williams or their first glimpse of her, and almost invariably they respond with a memory so crisp and detailed that the moment might as well have happened last week.
Billie Jean King, the tennis icon and founding father of the WTA, said in her 2021 autobiography “All In” that she first met a 6-year-old Williams and her 7-year-old sister, Venus, in April 1988 at a tennis clinic in Long Beach, Calif.
“Their mother, Oracene, told me that day that she and her husband, Richard, taught the women to play and so they all got here to the clinic from their home in Compton to select up some pointers,” King said. “I remember considering, ‘Wow,’ these girls have the power to be the easiest.”
Former and current tennis players and others who knew a young Serena Williams shared with The Recent York Times their first impression of her before she became a worldwide star by winning 23 Grand Slam singles championships.
The interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Former skilled tennis player, ESPN U.S. Open analyst and Williams’s friend for greater than 30 years
It was Morley Field in San Diego. My mom was a reporter covering a woman who was alleged to be a phenom at 10 years old. That was Venus Williams. I liked her name. I used to be 9. I wasn’t playing tournaments yet. This was an area San Diego tournament, and Venus was within the finals. It was easy to identify her father, Richard, and the family. They were the one Black people in a mostly white and Asian environment, standing off to the side.
The young women were playing a hand game. They looked fun to me. I had been going to jump-rope school, and I had two ropes with me. I used to be hoping to search out kids for double Dutch while my mom worked. Venus and Serena were with their older sisters Isha and Lyndrea.
“Are you able to jump?” I asked Venus, the taller one with braids protruding throughout her head. The beads, I suppose, would come later.
“I can jump,” she said.
Venus decided that Lyndrea and Isha would turn the ropes. Venus said, “She jumps first,” and pushed Serena into the ropes.
I laughed and jumped in with Serena. We jumped and jumped. Nobody missed.
That’s the way it all the time was for us. We were all the time together giggling, telling stories.
Former Grand Slam doubles champion
I used to be at one in all Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No to Drugs” events on the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. Serena and Venus were 9 and 10 and playing within the charity event. Serena was little then, but then they got here to Baltimore to play my charity event and played against the Ripken brothers.
Once they got here to Baltimore, I invited Venus and Richard and Serena to remain and help me prepare for my next tournament. Serena was somewhat young, but I remember her power at possibly 12 years old, and that has been the center of her profession. She had that live, powerful arm, and the primary time I saw that serve, I could tell she had the smoothest, best and powerful service motion ever.
Tennis coach who brought the Williams family to Florida
It was in 1991 once I went to Compton, Calif. Richard called me. He knew I had worked with Jennifer Capriati. He told me I wanted to return to Compton to see his girls. He said, “I promise you won’t get shot.”
We went to a park, and there have been people playing basketball and folks passed out on the grass after we got out of the van.
Everyone said: “Hey, Venus. Hey, Meek,” because that’s what they called Serena. Richard pulled out this old cart of old balls and said he liked using old dead balls because he wanted the women running and digging them out of the bottom.
The primary hour was a train wreck, and I didn’t see anything, but you don’t judge a book by its cover. We began playing competitive points. Me and Venus against Serena. Once we began that, the footwork got loads higher. There was a rage inside these two little kids once we kept rating. They ran so fast they almost fell down. I said, “You’ve got the following female Michael Jordan,” referring to Venus, because she was older and higher then. Richard said, “I got the following two.”
Tennis commentator and 1977 French Open mixed doubles champion
My first true memories of Serena’s greatness are from 1999, when she played dizzyingly good hardcourt tennis at Indian Wells, then Miami. The beads. Those beads were so rattling cool. She looked locked in and fearless, beating Steffi Graf within the Indian Wells final and Martina Hingis in Miami. Then, she faced Venus within the Miami final. Venus got that one.
It was an ungainly, uncomfortable thing for them to play each other and for me to call, but by the tip of that summer, on the U.S. Open, sweet Jesus. I’m unsure there might have been a tougher draw than the one she got through. Oh, and did I mention the beads?
Former skilled tennis player and the overall manager of player development for the US Tennis Association
It was a match against Irina Spirlea on the U.S. Open in 1998.
The skill, the poise, the ability and willingness to complete forward with swinging volleys or regular volleys at the web. And, in fact, her serve. My impression was: “She’s going to be great!”
15-time N.B.A. All-Star, Olympic gold medalist and tennis fan
I first met her in 1995. I used to be on Oprah Winfrey’s show with Venus, a show about athletes with potential. I don’t think Serena was actually on the show, but I met her backstage and we spoke.
Then when she began playing, I just remember my sisters and my cousins didn’t care in any respect about tennis, after which as soon as all of us saw Serena, suddenly all they desired to do was play.
For me, still, each time I feel of her, it’s her walking onto the court for the primary time in that catsuit, the black Puma catsuit.
Seven-time Grand Slam singles champion and tennis commentator
It wasn’t totally accurately portrayed within the movie “King Richard.”
I first met her when she was 8 years old, when she was dropped at the court I used to be practicing on after which being told by my then-coach, Paul Cohen, and Richard Williams that her and Venus were going to be the 2 best players on the planet. It was like, call me in 10 years, we’ll see what’s happening.
I didn’t walk away in disgust, or refuse to see Serena. That’s all I’m saying. I used to be there. Saw them. Why would I walk away after being told that I’m going to see two kids, 8 and 9, which can be going to be future No. 1s? Like, I refuse to see these kids? For what? Because I’m a hothead? But that’s not correct.
18-time Grand Slam singles champion
She played in my first celebrity tournament. I had a celeb event that was the fight against drug abuse and prevention of drug abuse. And he or she and Venus were living down here in Florida.
The very first thing that strikes anybody is the ability, the ability of their games. The athleticism, the relaxed athleticism that they’ve and the best way they move. Twelve and 13 years old, and so they weren’t afraid to go to the web and volley. That they had such a sophisticated game for that age. It was a unique form of a game than any juniors that I had ever seen. They usually were very glad. Very glad. They were having fun with the eye, and so they were having fun with going on the market and playing tennis.
World No. 1 men’s tennis player
I’ve actually never hit along with her, but I remember watching her on television as a child. This was back when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were winning the whole lot, and she or he was identical to them. It appeared like she was absolutely crushing everyone she played.
I do know she lost matches. Everyone can lose matches, but I remember with Serena you had to look at from the start should you desired to see her since it all the time appeared like it was 6-2, 6-2 and over in 45 minutes.