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Serena: The Other Side of Greatness

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I have just returned from a long two weeks at Wimbledon. I’d love to say I was sipping Pimm’s in the sun on Henman Hill or snacking on strawberries and cream in a pair of delicious beige chinos but instead I was making tiny cappuccinos for ‘debenture’ ticket holders (a new word I learnt – like dementia but with a b), feet throbbing inside my pleather loafers. Sunday 3rd July was supposed to be my only day off but thanks to plenty of English rain disrupting the tennis schedule, play was announced on ‘Middle Sunday’ for the first time since 2004 and for only the fourth time in the tournament’s 139 year history.

I arrived home that night feeling sorry for myself (I’m a hard worker but I LOVE a good whinge) and flicked on the TV just in time for Ryan White’s new documentary, Serena, chronicling the 2015 season of current world number one tennis player Serena Williams. I’d read about the documentary in a newspaper supplement which listed the typically dramatic American title, Serena: The Other Side of Greatness. It took a good bit of googling before I realised that Serena was its UK name and the film had only managed a showing at 22:35 on BBC 2. The majority of the country were probably climbing into bed, dreading the cruel inevitability of Monday morning when they could have been distracted by one of the most important and inspiring stories in sporting history.

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2015 was a year of spectacular success for then 33-year-old Serena which White seized the opportunity to document. Winning the first three majors of the year, she was one U.S. Open title away from achieving the first calendar year Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988. Her shock defeat in the semifinals to fellow thirty-something, Roberta Vinci, is inevitable to those who follow tennis but ironically it adds a particularly cinematic quality to White’s film. Comprised entirely of highlight reels, interviews and home-movie style footage, Serena offers glimpses of the tennis star’s personal life which is filled with family, karaoke and Disney films. While some have criticised its failure to dig deeper, for me it means we are not distracted from the most important parts of Serena’s life and legacy.

A proud Serena fan, I supported her from behind my little coffee counter. With one eye on the TV screen I’d applaud her brilliant shots and express my delight each time she won a match, edging closer to Graf’s open era record of 22 major singles titles. But debentures and workers alike responded with near unanimous negativity, complaining that Serena ‘is boring to watch because she’s so dominant’ or that she ‘looks like she doesn’t even want to be on court’. I couldn’t help but think that Serena is damned if she do and damned if she don’t.

In 2009 after being foot-faulted on match point during her U.S. Open semifinal match against Belgian darling, Kim Clijsters, Serena was defaulted for threatening the line judge. On that occasion it seemed Serena cared too much and on the whole the media didn’t use the incident to settle the debate about her passion for tennis (a passion which has been endlessly questioned over the past twenty years or so) but instead to point fingers at her ‘ugly’ attitude. John McEnroe is celebrated to this day for his furious on court outbursts but something tells me Centre Court ticket holders won’t be laughing about Serena’s potty mouth in thirty years’ time. It seems one way or another people will find an excuse to dislike Serena despite her remarkable achievements. Her sister, Lyndrea, isn’t afraid to challenge this resolve and in the documentary she confidently and eloquently asks,

‘What do you hate her for? You hate her for one incident? Or because she’s great? And you don’t want to see a woman, and someone of colour [be great]?’

Lyndrea’s bold and uncompromising statement demands that we question societal views on women and specifically women who are not white. Tennis is traditionally a sport for the privileged, upper echelons of lily-white society. Serena and her sister Venus began playing in Compton, California after their father Richard read a how-to book and decided that tennis was his daughters’ ticket to a better life. Footage of Richard pushing a shopping trolley full of tennis balls across a tired-looking court is a testament to his (and their) dogged perseverance. Years later Serena and Venus would hold the top two ranking positions in the world, simultaneously. During the documentary Serena recounts an experience during her fourth round match against Venus at Wimbledon 2015 where her mind drifted back to 1980s Compton and the childhood dreams of playing on the most important stage in the tennis world.

When Wimbledon spectators complained over their double macchiatos that Serena looked miserable and disinterested, I knew they had never truly considered the momentous journey of the Williams sisters – from Compton to Centre Court. Does Serena not care? Or would people be too afraid of disrupting their own comfortable belief systems to realise just how much Serena does care? How she couldn’t possibly care any more deeply?

In 2001 during the final of an important tournament in Indian Wells, Serena was booed throughout her win, coincidentally versus Kim Clijsters again. Venus had withdrawn from the semifinal against her sister due to injury and false allegations of match fixing were cast. Serena explains in the documentary that the whole stadium was 99% white people and they were all booing and shouting loud racial slurs. As the match ends we see a 19 year-old Serena roaring in the face of racism, celebrating with one finger high in the air as if she already knows that one day she would arguably be the greatest player of all time.

Fourteen years on Serena returned to Indian Wells explaining in the documentary that she met Muhammad Ali and was inspired by his extraordinary endeavour, not only to forgive but to befriend those who wronged him. Footage of Serena walking on court to rapturous applause, her head held high, typifies a sense of dignity in her character and as she sits down, overwhelmed by the unanimous support, her tears demonstrate vulnerability and integrity in equal measure.

Two seventy hour weeks at Wimbledon ended with sore feet, new friendships,and some hard-earned cash, but my favourite memories are of Serena. She finally won her 22nd Grand Slam title breaking her own record for the oldest major championship winner and irking lots of debenture ticket holders in the process (much to my amusement). I was lucky enough to sneak on court to watch her win a doubles match with Venus and finally witness in real life the most perfect serve in tennis. Escorted by security, Serena walked past me as she was leaving the court smiling modestly for her fans. I managed to muster the word ‘congratulations’ knowing I’d forever be kicking myself if I didn’t say something, anything, to express at least the smallest piece of my admiration.

After all, Serena Williams is my hero.

She transcends categories of identity which are normalised in our culture and by which society insists we be defined. She defies prejudices against women, against people of colour, against those who are born into families that are not blessed with privilege. This must never be overlooked. This must never be minimised. Serena gives us the hope to do things that seem impossible.

Ryan White’s Serena will make the hairs on your neck stand on end and even the dreariest of Monday mornings seem conquerable.

Serena is available on iPlayer until August 2nd.

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