Serena's mantras

Serena's mantras

Lead review

Serena's mantras

Serena (left) and Venus Williams(right).I once talked to Venus Williams about the differences between herself and her sister, Serena. She thought about it for a while and then she suggested in her giggly way that it was a matter of inspiration versus perspiration: everything had always come easily to her, the elder sister by a year and three months, but ‘little’ Serena had to work for her success.

“You know I was always really very, very good,” Venus said at the time, grinning. “Serena, on the other hand, wasn’t very good at all. She was small, really slim and the racket was way too big for her. Hopeless. She started playing especially good tennis at around 15, which was soon enough — I mean, she won the US Open two years later — but still it was quite late compared to me.” She then summed up the distinction in shorthand: “You know,” she said, “I was always Venus...”

Identity of her own

Serena, though, as this memoir makes clear, wasn’t always Serena. Her book allows us to see how the younger half of the greatest sister act sport has known came out of the shadow of ‘V’ through a process of intense self-invention. Serena recalls at one point how she was once asked how many grand slam titles she thought she would have won had Venus, her greatest rival, not stood in her way.

She answered that she did not think she would have won any at all; Venus was her spur — her great advantage in life was that she knew from a very early age that if she could just beat her sister then she could beat anybody in the world.

She learnt through this to be at her best when everything was against her. Throughout her career, Serena has been in the habit of writing down inspirational words on Post-it notes and sticking them to her racket bag. Sometimes they read like text messages from Martin Luther King: “Show no emotion,” she will write, “UR black and U can endure anything. Endure. Persevere. Stand tall.” Or: “Be strong. Be black. Now’s your time 2 shine. Be confident. They want to see you angry. Be angry, but don’t let them see it.”

Beyond tennis

Racial politics are often a taboo subject in sport, but Serena suggests that she routinely employs them as part of her on-court identity. When she and Venus first broke into the game, their father, Richard, said that his girls were “ghetto Cinderellas gatecrashing the lilywhite world of tennis.” Serena, in particular, has always worn this idea close to her heart.

Richard Williams inevitably looms large in Serena’s account of her early life, which was characterised by daily two-hour practice sessions from the age of three on the rough public courts of Compton, Los Angeles. Richard, a former sharecropper from Louisiana, planned his daughters’ careers prenatally. He has said that he chose to bring up the family in Compton so they could “see first hand how their lives might turn out if they did not work hard and get an education.”

For this and much else, Serena is grateful to her dad — for all her titles and money (she is the richest sportswoman in history), she says she was never happier than when she was piling into the family’s decrepit VW van after school, a shopping trolley full of balding tennis balls wedged between the seats.

If that was the best of times, the worst of times came many years later, also on the streets of Compton, where Serena’s oldest sister, Yetunde, was shot and murdered in a gang confrontation involving a drug-dealing boyfriend in 2003. Serena writes frankly about her grief, if not about the detail of the incident. She says that she slowly lost all her motivation for tennis, spent far too long at Stan’s Donuts near where she lived and by 2006, after a series of injuries, her only off-court “aerobic activity was shopping in Rodeo Drive”; with a world ranking of 139, she was ready to quit.

Two things dragged her back to the top of the game: her faith — the Williamses are lifelong Jehovah’s Witnesses (and, given their story, why wouldn’t they believe they are among the chosen?) — and a ‘roots’ trip to West Africa, to the slave castles of Ghana, which, Serena suggests, helped her to restore her pride and self-esteem, and reignited her extraordinary desire to win.

You don’t learn how to hit a topspin backhand by reading this book, sadly, but you do discover Serena’s Post-it mantra for success: “Hold serve, hold serve, hold serve. Focus, focus, focus. Be confident, be confident, be confident. Hold serve, hold, hold. Move up. Attack. Kill. Smile.”

Nobody has ever done it better.


QUEEN OF THE COURT: an autobiography by
serena williams
Serena Williams
Simon & Schuster, 2009, pp 272

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