Serena Williams: How I emerged from pit of despair after my sister’s death
Matthew Syed, Sports Journalist of the Year
Serena Williams has just pulled the leaflet from her large, purple handbag and handed it to me with a warm smile. “As Jehovah’s Witnesses, we believe it’s real important to share the Word of God,” she says. “If I am on a plane or something, I often talk to the person sitting next to me about religion and give them a tract. I always keep a few in my purse because you never know who you might run into.” I take it and promise to read it.
I am sitting with Williams on a soft couch in the Ritz-Carlton hotel, Doha. Williams is here to play in the end-of-season Sony Ericsson Championships, which start on Tuesday.
As she speaks, she is the world No 1 after a year in which she has won two grand-slam singles titles, including Wimbledon, to take her overall tally to 11. But on Monday she was overtaken again by Dinara Safina, of Russia. The margin between them is so tight that whoever performs better at this week’s tournament will finish the year at the head of the rankings.
I express my surprise at the importance of religion in her life. “You know, that was the No 1 thing in our lives growing up, even more important than tennis,” Williams says. “My mom is a really strong Jehovah’s Witness and my dad, although he’s not practising, made sure we went to Kingdom Hall every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. We always sat in the third row and never missed a service. Even today, it’s more important to me than anything else. My faith gives me balance and perspective.”
It has also seen her through some dark moments. Like the time she was jeered by a baying crowd of 14,000 in the final in Indian Wells in 2001, some spectators shouting “n****r” at a girl still in her teens. The reason? Her sister, Venus, had withdrawn from a semi-final against Serena because of injury. The announcement was belated and many disgruntled fans had already gathered in the stadium. By the time Serena played the final, they had not forgiven the Williams family.
“I still find it difficult to believe what happened,” she says. “I was just a kid going out there to play a match [against Kim Clijsters, of Belgium] and people were shouting things like, ‘Go home to Compton’ just because Venus had withdrawn. I cried into my towel on one of the change-overs in the second set and just asked God to get me through the match. I didn’t even care if I won or lost.”
Was there a racist component to the abuse? “There must have been when you think of the things they were shouting. It was all so unfair,” she says. “It really got to me. But then I thought, ‘Be tough, be strong, don’t let them destroy you’, and suddenly I had this really strong mental image of God protecting me. It was like he was out there with me, shepherding me through the rest of the match.”
Despite a torrid opening, Williams won in three sets. But it was what happened in the aftermath that is so deeply emblematic of this strong, passionate and extraordinary woman.
Interviewed on court, she first thanked her family and the sprinkling of spectators who had cheered for her. Then she said: “And to those of you who didn’t support me, I love you anyway.” For a 19-year-old who had just wept on court because of the unrelenting abuse, it spoke eloquently of deep resolve and big-heartedness. “Yes, I guess it took a lot to rise above all that negativity,” she says. “But that is the strength you get when you have been through so much to get to the top.”
Williams was brought up in the Compton area of Los Angeles, one of the most violent neighbourhoods in the United States, along with two sisters from her mother’s previous relationship and two full sisters, including Venus. She shared a single bedroom with her four siblings, but with only two bunks in the room she had no bed of her own.
“Isha and Yetunde [her two oldest sisters] had the two beds on top and Lyn and Venus the two down below. I had to sleep with a different sister each night, sort of alternating between their beds.
“But I didn’t see it as a negative. To be honest, I felt lucky because it gave me a chance to get real close to each of my sisters.”
Williams started playing tennis, along with her sisters, at the age of 3 after her dad watched a match on television and heard the commentator saying that one of the players had earned $40,000 (now about £24,000) in a week — more than he earned in a year. He and Oracene, Venus and Serena’s mother, decided that they would teach themselves to play so that they could nurture their daughters into champions.
They played on the public courts at a nearby park and often had to clear broken bottles and fast-food wrappers before they could start hitting. But they never missed practice. “We played all the time,” Serena says. “We would sometimes hear guns going off from drive-by shootings in the neighbourhood, but we just kept going.”
Was it tough to play so much tennis as a young child? “Sometimes it was a grind, but mostly it was fun,” she says. “Dad was so clever at turning the practice sessions into things we enjoyed, introducing competitive elements and stuff. He also helped us to understand that there is no short cut to success and that you have to work super-hard if you are going to make it.
“It also helped having Venus as an older sister. She was such a great player and a fantastic role model and I was in her shadow a whole lot growing up. The Bible talks of two kinds of jealousy, a good jealousy and a bad jealousy. I think I had a healthy jealousy of Venus. I wanted what she had, but I didn’t want to take it away from her. I just wanted to work hard to reach the place she had reached.”
Williams, 28, is an enchanting mixture of earnestness, frivolity and warmth. Her eyes are wide and welcoming and her boundless humanity shines through in every answer. Every now and again, she bursts into a fit of giggles, her eyes watering with mirth, and then, moments later, when the conversation has moved on, she takes on a look of almost comical seriousness. She is at once innocent and savvy; a fighter and a pushover; sexual and coy.
The watershed moment in her life occurred on September 14, 2003, when Yetunde, her eldest sister, was murdered in Los Angeles. It happened when Williams was in Toronto for a television show and would eventually plunge her into deep depression. Waking in despair each day, she plummeted down the rankings, reaching a low of 140, a personal and emotional nadir that makes her renaissance all the more extraordinary.
“I still find it difficult to talk about what happened with Tunde,” Williams says. “She was nine years older than me and was like a second mother. She called me ‘kid’ and took me clothes shopping and stuff. I could be kind of naughty growing up, but she was always so forgiving, just smiling and putting her arm around me. Even after we moved to Florida we saw each other a lot. She was personal assistant to Venus and me for a time.”
Yetunde was killed in a drive-by shooting of the kind that Serena had heard reverberating around the neighbourhood when playing on those public courts in Compton. Her sister had been out with her new boyfriend, a gang member, when someone started firing into the car. The bullets were meant for him. Yetunde was 31.
“I was sharing a room with Lyn [her sister] in Toronto when I found out,” Williams says. “We just couldn’t take it in. I had been talking to Tunde on the phone earlier that day and she had been real excited about what was going on in her life, and mine. I just couldn’t make sense of it. It was like something out of a dream.
“I took a little time off from tennis, but then I threw myself back into it. I think that happens when people face tragedy: either they plunge themselves into their jobs to take their minds off what has happened, or they grieve properly. I didn’t grieve properly.”
Two years later, Williams ground to a halt, the emotional trauma finally catching up with her. “I needed to take time out from tennis because I had an injury to my leg and had all sorts of emotional and spiritual wounds,” she says. “I started to see a therapist because I was in a bad place and needed to talk things through. After a while, I started getting my energy back again. God helped with that.”
So, too, did Africa. Williams took a long trip to Ghana and Senegal in 2006, taking tennis clinics and giving out polio vaccines before heading to the coast to see the slave castles. “These were where they held the slaves before shipping them to America,” she says. “It was unbelievable to think that my ancestors had endured such suffering before they even got to America and were put into bondage . . . it put things in perspective, but it also made me think. If my people could endure that kind of suffering, I could endure anything.”
Energised like never before, Williams flew to Australia to play in the first grand-slam tournament of 2007. She was ranked No 81, unseeded, and many pundits had written her off, including Chris Evert, who had written an open letter in Tennis magazine criticising Williams for her outside interests, such as fashion design. “You are tarnishing your legacy,” Evert wrote.
Williams was also a few pounds heavier than normal, something picked up on by the Australian press. “I never really read the newspapers, but I couldn’t really avoid what they were saying about me,” she says. “One of them called me a ‘fat cow’. I was like, ‘Is this for real?’ It wasn’t easy.
“Even now I have days when I look in the mirror and go, ‘Wow! I need to lose weight here and I need to lose weight there.’ But I know that I am never going to be a size two. I am curvy: I have big boobs and a big butt. I guess that is attractive to some guys. But it’s tough when you read people being so personal about the way you look.”
True to character, Williams rose above the negativity, racing through the rounds before powering her way through Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-2 in the final. It rates as one of the most extraordinary comebacks in the history of women’s tennis. “It was pretty unbelievable,” she agrees, beaming. “And you know what? It felt great.” Since then, Williams has won three further grand-slam singles titles.
Her only serious recent setback occurred at this year’s US Open, when she was foot-faulted on a second serve when two points from defeat in her semi-final against Clijsters. Williams exploded in a fit of rage, cursing at the lineswoman and being penalised a point, handing the match to her opponent.
“It was out of character and I really regret it,” she says. “I am a passionate person and I just lost it because it was an iffy call at a key moment. I wrote the line judge a really long letter of apology and she understood.”
I ask about her love life. Do you have a boyfriend? “I always say I am dating my racket because I spend so much time playing tennis that I don’t have much time for anything else,” she says, giggling. “Besides, I am a psycho when it comes to dating. Like if a guy doesn’t call me when he says he is going to call me, I get all emotional. I guess that is because of what happened with So and So.”
So and So? That’s Williams’s name for her first boyfriend — she refuses to say his real name because a friend told her that it is easier to get through a bad break-up if you don’t speak your ex’s name.
An American footballer, So and So finished their budding relationship in 2001 when he simply stopped taking her calls. They had just spent two weeks in each other’s company after 9/11 and Williams had fallen deeply in love, but he pulled the plug without even bothering to explain why.
“I suffered a lot when that happened,” she says. “I just couldn’t understand why he was so cruel. I think my run of grand-slam titles [she won four in a row between 2002 and 2003] was partly about showing him that I didn’t need him to get on with my life.” Are you over him now? “Oh, God yeah. But I think it is because of what happened with him that I still have trust issues with guys.”
After the interview, we play a friendly game of table tennis. Williams takes to it fast and shows her competitive edge, refusing to stop until she has returned one of my spin serves. After the session she leans forward to kiss my cheek and offer a hug.
“You want to know my message to people?” she says. “If you want to achieve your dreams, you gotta work real hard. There’s no lottery ticket to success. Sure, sometimes you fall down — and I have fallen an awful lot.
“But then you have to live the words of Muhammad Ali: ‘Being a champion isn’t about what you do when you are on top; it’s about what you do when you are knocked down.’ ”