Culture & Conversation Race

In U.S. Open Debacle, Serena’s Unrivaled Intensity and the Universal Messiness of Life

Ed Pavlić

Serena Williams' public achievements and struggles—often happening within minutes of each other—have shown us what it looks like to try, fail, win, slide, fall, lose, levitate, and come back down to Earth.

Naomi Osaka of Japan played great tennis and deserved to win the U.S. Open. Chair umpire Carlos Ramos inserted himself into the match, causing a controversy that spilled across the lines of tennis and into a fractious debate—yet another—about race and gender in our Trump-era lives.

Serena Williams is a tennis player. The U.S. Open is a tennis tournament. True. But, like Serena herself, Serena’s career has never fit neatly into the frame of tennis or anything else.

Many said that Naomi Osaka’s win was inevitable, that the controversy didn’t alter the outcome of the match. Maybe. Osaka was playing outstanding tennis.

It’s tough, however, to apply terms like “inevitable” to Serena. On and off the tennis court, she has turned herself out of tailspins far worse than Saturday’s situation started out to be. Leave life-threatening embolisms and childbirth complications to the side. As for what can happen on the court, consider Serena’s turnaround when down a set and a break—and halfway to being down two breaks—versus a young, British upstart player named Heather Watson at Wimbledon in 2015.

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On a dime, while the pro-Watson crowd jeered at her, Serena complained to the umpire about the noise, turned on her heel, and told the crowd “Oh, don’t try me.” She followed that comment with a level of play rarely seen in any competitive arena. “Competitive” might not be the term for what happened. Playing with mixture of ferocity and precision, the singular feature of her greatest greatness, the likes of which exists nowhere else in sports, Serena made her opponent across the net, the tournament, even the game of tennis as such, feel beside the point.

In that moment, as in many others across her later career, we watched a person in a rare, almost frighteningly intense, precise, and living relationship to the space immediately about her.

The fiasco instigated around Serena on Saturday has many causes, many tendrils, not all of them neatly compatible, few of them extricable from each other. But, again, that’s Serena. She’s rarely neatly anything.

Tendril number one: Please let’s allow that Serena is policed unlike other tennis players, but not unlike fellow citizens marked as “other” by institutions of power and authority from tennis umpires to teachers to ICE agents to police. The reasons Serena is policed: her Blackness, and not just Blackness but “her” Blackness, “her” woman-ness, her Black woman-ness, her whole person-ness, her Black whole person-ness, her Black woman whole person-ness. And, yes, because of her rage.

Tendril two: Serena is also utterly unlike other tennis players. Even just by the numbers, her greatness is off the charts. She has won almost as many Grand Slam tennis championships as all the other contemporary active players combined. If we compare her to individual singles players, Serena has 23; Venus has seven; and Maria Sharapova, the next closest, has five. No one would argue that Venus and Maria aren’t historically great tennis players. But even the nearest, greatest active players are nowhere near Serena, by factors of over three and over four, respectively.

But, wildly skewed as the numbers are, counting championships minimizes the differences between Serena and her would-be peers in tennis. Vexingly, her greatness has everything to do with winning tennis matches and is at the same time impossible to gauge with scales designed to measure the game of tennis. That’s why after a match like Saturday’s, as is the case often enough with Serena’s performances, none of the “tennis” questions really matter. When she wins or loses more quietly than she did on Saturday, no one really cares that much.

Tendril three: Unlike any other athlete, and maybe more than any performer of any kind—maybe the volcanic and volatile jazz great Charles Mingus is close—Serena has openly and publicly achieved her greatest achievements while simultaneously going back and forth across the line into flailing and spectacular failures. In moments such as when she struggled against Heather Watson, the umpire, and the pro-British Wimbledon crowd in 2015, Serena achieves both the depths of failure and the heights of excellence within minutes of each other—all the while enduring scrutiny magnified by the ways her body is marked and policed.

Serena has played tennis, a game reserved for the reserved, by amplifying and radiating energies—anger, love, intensity, glamour, failure—outwardly. As opposed to inward-looking, private, traditionally reserved tennis profiles, Serena’s outward and audacious presence has changed the image of what it means to play tennis.

But, far beyond Arthur Ashe Stadium, far beyond the game of tennis, she’s also changed the way it’s possible to look while we try, fail, win, slide, fall, lose, levitate, and come back down to Earth. Indeed, Serena has done much to redeem what it is to struggle, to really openly, honestly struggle. To fucking fight, and not tactically, connivingly, all off back behind stage somewhere, but in the open.

Tendril four: Choking on their previous—in no ways reserved—biases against Serena and her family and basically everything about how she/they have gone about what she/they have done, the Chris Everts of the tennis world now want Serena to be a graceful queen champion. Maybe we’d all prefer that. Likely Serena would. But that’s not what she is. And the “graceful queen” image stifles the oft-stifled reality of how models of reserved female (and Black people’s) “grace” have been masks for bitterness, for rage turned inward, for blood silently swallowed.

Serena, instead, is gracious, not graceful—and in ways we are perilously unable to recognize and communicate about. This graciousness was fully on display after Saturday’s match in her caring presence on the stage with Naomi Osaka, in her casting aside of irrelevant questions, and calling for an end to the boos coming from the stands.

In all her brilliant, troubling, and (in the end) redeeming raveling and unraveling, Serena serves as a model for so many things, things well beyond tennis. I’ll just name the two that have kept me watching, almost at times breathing along with her since she was a teenager.

First, she serves as a model for the basic, messy reality of all our lives. The ways that the mostly invisible routes to our achievements often don’t travel the itinerary we’d prefer, our successes laced with pain, luck, distraction, anger, coincidence, and obsessive rehearsals of all kinds of things that don’t directly apply to the venue of performance at all. Serena’s rage on the court isn’t neatly about tennis; her skills at precision targeting that rage are only partially about technique with a racket.

Crucially, in contravention of what’s called an “individual” sport, such intimate skill with rage is not something honed by “individuals” at all; it’s familial, social, and historical. In ways that confound American commentators, much of that isn’t at all a matter of “individual achievement.” It has everything to do with how bodies—one’s own and those around us, overlapping with us—move through history. Turns out, like everything else in life, tennis isn’t played on tabula rasa. Serena’s presence in the game and world, the way she’s carried the world into the game, has forced vivid and at times clashing elements of this into view unlike any presence before her.

The key point about Serena is that most of us keep most of this messiness backstage, pointed inward, private. Some of the mess remains out of sight and out of bounds even to ourselves and our loved ones. Meanwhile, Serena’s openly—at times radically, painfully—fraught presence coexists with her excellence and her graciousness in ways that connect us all to our own and each other’s tangled messiness. This sets feelings in motion that many in the audience would rather deny and hide, from ourselves as much as from each other.

Serena’s presence calls us into those spaces, often unnamed, unaddressed. She proves that we can do more than just OK with a fuller, messier version of ourselves and our worlds than we’ve thought possible. We can excel out of it; maybe we can only excel by making, somehow, that fuller, more complex story public, by forcing a fuller version of ourselves to be part of the world. Maybe that’s part of what things like graciousness and mercy—as opposed to grace and sympathy—are really made of. Maybe those connections are part of the difference between real style and surface fashion, between pride that wants out from behind the mask and vanity that ends up dependent upon its disguises. I think so.

And, second, Serena serves as a model for all people called upon in whatever way to work at a level for which there’s no guide, carrying a weight for which there’s no scale, who, in order to breathe at all, must work with intensities found unacceptable by the “norms” that surround and suffocate them. Surround and suffocate us. Surround and suffocate me, damn straight.

She’s a model for people who must work toward a kind of presence astraddle the categories used to frame and interpret the world. Categories defended by authority, policed. Categories in defense of which all of us can be deputized even while we suffer the amputations they impose. Serena does all of this in front of fractious factions of spectators and commentators who are paid to make (reductive, often flat-out false) sense of things while also flailing and often-enough failing to make sense of their complexly riven and challenging lives.

In ways I’m sure she’d rather not, Serena’s dazzling and disturbing performances of how struggle, failure, and, at times, excellence co-exist make all kinds of borders permeable, fractures even boundaries we’re authoritatively told are solid, unassailable walls. We need to clarify and keep a record of these boundary-defying struggles, which are all victories. Because the failures and forfeitures are piling up against the walls around and within us all.

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