Serena Williams announced this month that she will retire sometime after the United States Open. But 30 years ago, the player now considered one of the greatest ever to grace the sport, was merely one half of a promising duo.
In April 1992, Arthur Ashe, the three-time major champion and a longtime friend and colleague, invited me to Philadelphia. He wanted to show me something.
Arthur and I had worked together for HBO at Wimbledon for several years, and I had interviewed him many times for the magazine, World Tennis.
As soon as I arrived at the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis Center for an exhibition and fund-raising dinner, Arthur took me aside and said, “There are two little Black girls here and wait until you see them play. They’re sisters, their names are Venus and Serena Williams, and they’re from Compton, California. Oh, and they’re only 11 and 10 years old.”
That would be the first time I saw the Williams sisters play. Their story had already brought a bit of attention as the girls were top-ranked in Southern California junior tennis.
Their accomplishments would go on to enthrall tennis fans for the next 30 years, through 23 major championships for Serena and seven for Venus. Even their prescient father, Richard, who reared them to be superstars, predicted they would quit the game in their 20s. For Serena, he was off by two decades. Venus is still playing.
But on that afternoon, Arthur, eschewing his typical quiet dignity, had a huge grin on his face as he watched the sisters swat at balls fed by their father in front of dozens of fascinated spectators. They both wore crisp new Reebok outfits and had big white beads woven through the cornrow braids that cascaded down the backs of their necks.
Venus had arms and legs that could move in impossible directions. When she propelled her almost six-foot frame toward the net, which she did more than any other 11-year-old I had ever seen, she looked more like a hurdler than a tennis player.
Serena, then nearly a foot shorter than Venus, had neither the length nor the finesse of her sister. But boy, could she whack the ball. Sometimes it landed in the court. Serena also had a more pensive on-court presence, as if she had something to prove.
I recall being impressed by their on-court bravado, but unsure whether they truly had the goods to be top professionals.
When I had a chance to chat with their father, he told me that Serena was the better athlete and would, one day, be the better player. It was a refrain he would repeat many times over the years. He also told me that both girls would be ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the world. (Ten years later, they were in fact the two top-ranked players in the WTA rankings.) The girls said very little, opting instead to hide behind their dad’s imposing persona.
Suddenly, Richard turned to face Arthur. He wanted to assure Arthur that no matter how successful his daughters became in tennis they would never abandon their schooling. That clearly pleased Arthur.
Two weeks earlier, Arthur had announced that he had AIDS. He died 10 months later at age 49 and did not live to see the sisters dominate his sport. It would be another seven years before 17-year-old Serena won her first U.S. Open. A year later, Venus captured the 2000 Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles.
I have now known Serena for a little more than 30 years. I have praised her, and I have sparred with her as a reporter. I have criticized her behavior toward officials and opponents. But I have also marveled at her fierce determination and her extraordinary ability to hit a 120-mile-an-hour ace out wide when down match point.
I wish, on that day in 1992, that I had been wise enough to know where Serena was headed. But on second thought, I’m glad it’s been a big surprise.
Cindy Shmerler is a former managing editor of World Tennis magazine. She will be covering her 43rd consecutive U.S. Open.