Focused Serena Can Beat Taunts, Foes

By Greg Cote
Updated: March 28, 2007

MIAMI — The tennis match ended less than an hour after it began Tuesday. As the ovation swept in, Serena Williams raised her right fist high, and from that fist shot an index finger — which seemed redundant at that moment. Because if this was not the No. 1 women’s tennis player in the world who had just dominated Maria Sharapova, they need to vacate the title.

You almost wished Serena had raised a middle finger next, for the ”fan” who a day earlier at the Sony Ericsson Open had heckled her beyond mere rudeness, spewing hatred until finally the louse was removed from the Key Biscayne stadium.

It can be hard at times to separate excellence and race where Serena is concerned. She is candid and refreshingly brash. And she can be dominant, seemingly whenever she puts her mind to it, and from those things resentment can fester. The dunce-heckler didn’t invent that; he simply delivered a reminder that penetrated the hushed decorum of tennis about as subtly as a scream in church.

On Tuesday, Williams added authority and exclamation to her comeback with a 6-1, 6-1 dismissal of the No. 2-ranked player in the world in Sharapova, in the annual South Florida event considered ”the fifth major” in tennis. The match was over in less time than it takes you to watch CSI: Miami. Serena might be rated only No. 18, but you may officially make a paper airplane of the sheet and turn it into something equally as weightless as the official WTA rankings.

Nobody is better when Serena is motivated, healthy and of a mind to set her fashion line and acting career on hold and beam in on tennis.

Williams had announced the rekindling of her game in January by dusting Sharapova equally as impressively to win the Australian Open — her eighth Grand Slam title but only her second since 2003. And there will be more, plenty more, so long as the Serena who so casually set aside Sharapova on Tuesday, and who still is only 25, continues to appear.

There will surely be more resentment of that, too, in and out of tennis.


That fan’s rant here didn’t surprise Serena or Venus Williams’ father Richard, because the family grew up in tough Compton, Calif., and the father instructed his girls early in the lessons they don’t teach in school.

”They were taught about that a long time ago, when they were really small, 7 or 8,” Mr. Williams said following Serena’s match. “I wanted them to hear about [racism] from me before they heard it from somebody else.”

The Williams sisters continue a six-year boycott of the tour’s Indian Wells tournament over perceived racism there, where Serena had withdrawn from the 2001 event and Venus thereafter was booed vociferously, almost viciously. The hate mail received by the family is not rare, but it is not talked about much, either.

Richard Williams puts it plainly. He thinks plenty of people dislike his daughters (and hate in some cases is the right word) because they are strong African-American women excelling in a white sport.

Serena had spoken Tuesday of her trip to Africa last year — she plans to build a school in Senegal — and how spiritually free she felt there.

”When we first landed we had a layover in Nigeria, and I couldn’t wait. I wanted to get out of the plane and just take off my shoes and start running and never come back,” she said. “Because I just felt at home and at ease. I mean, I’ve never felt so comfortable. I’ve never been in a place where I felt happier, ever.”

Her father had heard her say that and thought he understood why.

Mr. Williams, like Serena, sugarcoats nothing.

”Isn’t that something? She’s born in America but goes elsewhere and feels more at home. It’s simple. If we are Americans we sure aren’t treated like it,” he said. “Even rabbits are treated better here than we are. If you shoot a rabbit out of season, you get a $500 fine.”

Mr. Williams is known for his outspokenness, and to many his generality may be off-putting or laughable — or even inspire anger.

But maybe not as much to people of color, or to someone who heard his daughter become the target of race-tinged heckling the day before as she played tennis in a packed stadium in America.


You had the feeling Serena wasn’t speaking only of tennis Tuesday when she said, “I don’t know anyone who’s won eight Grand Slams and had so many doubters in their lives. I guess just me. It’s OK.”

Tennis is better, certainly more interesting, when Serena is in it to win it. She is really, really good and knows it; the tour’s media guide calls her “self-described as very humorous with a great personality.”

She does not try to diminish or homogenize her ethnicity, as when she was asked Tuesday about her large loop earrings, and said, ”I’m an Around the Way Girl,” an obscure reference — obscure, at least, to many middle-aged white folks — to a 1990s LL Cool J song of that name that referenced the bamboo-style jewelry she wore.

She is as refreshing as she at times is resented.

As for the hecklers like the one this week?

”I have an orange belt in tae kwon do,” she reminded, with a smile. “Just in case.”