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Serena Williams Brought Latest Fans to Tennis. Are You Certainly one of Them?


Tell us about your experience watching Serena Williams play in the shape at the tip of this column.

If you watch Serena Williams play from the comfortable remove of a front room, she pops from the screen. All that willpower, athleticism and skill, at the same time as she ages and fades.

If you watch Serena Williams play live and up close, in a packed stadium during a good match on the largest stage — now, that’s something else altogether. That’s an event, a happening, a mixture of Broadway and Cannes and the Met Gala, with an entire lot of forehand winners and sometimes a soap opera mixed in.

Those performances will stop now that she is “evolving” from the sport, as she announced this month, to pursue a life beyond tennis and maybe have a second child. But her legacy goes far beyond what she did between the lines: It’s clear within the stands of each tournament that Williams’s glitz and drama beckoned to fans of all types, including large swaths who only listen to sports when she plays.

To be at a Serena match — amongst masses of attendees, particularly brown and Black spectators making their first foray to an expert match — was to feel a way of latest possibility for a sport long steeped in whiteness.

Take the U.S. Open, as an illustration. Since her ascension to tennis’s upper reaches when she won there in 1999 at age 17, Flushing Meadows has been a special stage for Williams and her fans.

In 2016, bidding for an Open-era record twenty third major singles title, the general U.S. Open attendance figures showed nearly 1 / 4 of fans there have been Black, in response to the USA Tennis Association. In 2017, with Williams’s profession on hold as she sat out to offer birth to her daughter, the variety of Black fans at Flushing Meadows dropped by 10 percent.

That’s the Serena effect.

“The magnetism of Serena attracts all types of latest fans,” said Chris Widmaier, a U.S.T.A. spokesman. “But you possibly can actually see the outsize and indelible impact that she has had on Black Americans of their relationship with tennis.”

Widmaier has been working communications on the Open for 20 years. He has seen Williams play everywhere in the world and figures he has watched her greater than every other top player.

“When Serena would walk on the court and also you had the power to be courtside, you’ll get chills,” he said. “You simply knew you were within the presence of greatness. And it didn’t matter at which point in her profession. That’s what I at all times felt.”

Williams’s matches at all times made viewers feel. And while her profession — and that of her sister Venus — has drawn onlookers of all types, it has had special resonance for Black fans and others traditionally on the margins of the tennis scene.

The tennis star is retiring after a protracted profession of breaking boundaries and obliterating expectations.

If that’s you, I need to listen to your story. Especially should you made the pilgrimage to see Williams play in person. Even when “up close” was the nosebleed seats on the Olympic tennis stadium in Rio. Or should you made it to considered one of the smaller tournaments on the WTA Tour, without the Grand Slam crowds and costs.

Were you there at Indian Wells in 2001, as many within the majority-white audience booed Williams during her championship win? Were you there 14 years later, when she ended her boycott of that desert event?

What moments and pictures from Williams’s profession, good and bad and utterly astonishing, keep on with you? What compelled you to see her in person?

For me, when I feel of Serena, in fact, I also consider Venus. Watching them together was sports as beautiful alchemy. Just the appropriate mix, even when their matches were sometimes stuffed with nervousness and imperfection.

On the U.S. Open in 2008, Serena and Venus were about to clash in a quarterfinal match on a hot, humid Latest York evening. Two hours before, I watched as fans gathered outside the stadium. Yes, it was still a mostly white and well-heeled crowd, nevertheless it was also Black, Latino, Asian, every hue, every class.

It felt supercharged. The air surged with electric excitement and anticipation. I heard many say they’d not have ventured to Flushing Meadows that evening if not for Serena. Adding Venus to the combination sealed the deal.

The sisters placed on a show. There have been early pockmarks of sloppy play, but in the long run, the evening sizzled with excellence, and Serena affirmed her superiority, winning, 7-6, 7-6.

Looking back on the arc of Serena’s profession, the swings of that match are a trademark. She has at all times been capable of manufacturing clumps of errors in batches — after which turning up the winners when every little thing counts. That’s a part of the wonder.

On the grounds of essentially the most significant events, it often felt just like the competition had probably not stepped into high gear until Williams placed on a high-pressure spectacle.

Serena brought the thrill, whether she won or not. It began from the moment she’d leave the players’ tunnel and walk before the fans. In case you were there on the 2018 French Open when she entered that red-clay center court wearing her tight black, Wakanda-inspired bodysuit, the texture within the stands, the swooning and gasping and awe, will probably be in your mind for good.

God, I loved that moment. It gave me goose bumps.

In her boldness and bearing, Williams has at all times jogged my memory of my undaunted nieces and cousins and my late paternal grandmother, Peggy Mae Streeter, a strong Black woman born one generation from slavery. Wearing that bodysuit — reveling in her complete self, with that trademark “I’m gonna do my thing, regardless of what” type of attitude — Williams, it looked as if it would me, was channeling their unbreakable spirit.

I’m actually not the just one to look at and feel that way. She spoke for herself and in doing so, spoke to us.

It’s strange, but I looked as if it would have a knack for being within the stands when Williams was surprisingly upended. The loss to Elina Svitolina on the Rio Olympics in 2016. The time she blew a 5-1 last-set lead and succumbed to Karolina Pliskova on the 2019 Australian Open. With each loss, on the grounds of those events, you possibly can feel energy and fervour drain from fans once they realized she would not be around.

When, in 2019, Williams worked in vain to fend off Bianca Andreescu, the talented young Canadian, I used to be considered one of the 23,000 who jammed Ashe Stadium for what can have been her last Grand Slam final.

Serious about it now, I can still hear the proud and melancholy sound of Williams’s straining breath as she served to remain within the match, facing a 3rd match point. I can feel her gasping exhale echoing across the stands. I can remember Andreescu dialing up a forehand reply, just as I can recall Williams’s lunge as that forehand spun by for a winner.

Game, set, Slam, Andreescu, 6-3, 7-5.

You needed to be there to feel the poignancy. A collective, mournful groan underlay the standing ovation applause for a latest and deserving champion.

This was the last word tennis champion on her last legs, coming up short, fighting to the tip. I’m thankful to have been there as a witness.

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