The narrative of triumph over adversity is deeply inscribed into the consciousness of the United States, and tales of sporting endeavour generally subscribe to this obsession. Jim Thorpe, Little Mo Connolly, Billy Mills, and in recent times Lance Armstrong, are just a handful of American sporting legends whose "stories" involve their overcoming obstacles en route to their enshrinement as national icons.
I would argue that during the past year the name of Serena Williams could legitimately be added to this list, although her status as a national icon remains debatable. Despite her phenomenal 2002, she is, to many observers, little more than one half of the "problematic" Williams sisters who have "taken over" women's tennis with their power and their attitude. However, such a view belittles her achievements.
Serena Williams was born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1981, the youngest of five girls. Lyndrea, Isha, Yetunde and Venus preceded her, and soon after her birth her parents, Richard and Oracene, relocated to Compton, a rough suburb of Los Angeles. Under the guidance of their father, Venus and Serena were groomed on crowded public courts to become tennis players.
Although they both achieved early success, Richard was determined that his daughters would not suffer burn-out like Tracey Austin or Andrea Jaeger. They were encouraged to concentrate on their studies and participation in tournaments was strictly limited. Whenever they did compete the results were predictable. Both girls were extraordinarily talented, and once they turned professional they began to rise quickly through the national, and then the world rankings.
In 1999, a 17-year old Serena Williams became the first of the sisters to secure a Grand Slam title when she won the US Open. However, the media story was not so much Serena's win, but Venus's disappointment. The older sister had been expected to triumph first, but Serena's meteoric ascent surprised everybody. The following year Venus asserted herself, capturing both Wimbledon and the US Open, a feat that she repeated in 2001. Although Serena failed to win any Grand Slam titles in 2000 or 2001, her play continued to develop and it became increasingly clear that, of the two sisters, Serena had the better all-round game. The question was, did she possess the mental toughness and the desire to win?
2002 began with Serena withdrawing from the semi-finals of the Australian Open having twisted an ankle. However, after this initial setback, she won each of the remaining three Grand Slam titles and is ending 2002 as the world's No1 player. One might well ask, what is so remarkable about this? In modern times both Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova have matched Serena's feat. In fact, in 1988 Graf not only won the Grand Slam of the Australian, French, Wimbledon and the US Open titles, she also won Olympic gold. It was a feat of such sporting audacity that even today Graf's 1988 season remains under-appreciated.
But Serena Williams's 2002 deserves to be mentioned in the same company as this achievement. In order to understand the magnitude of what Serena Williams has achieved we need to go back not to Graf nor to Navratilova, nor to comparisons with any other players past or present, but we have to return to the American narrative of triumph over adversity.
Tennis, like golf, is a sport whose gated boundaries have been defined by race and class. When the "commoner" Fred Perry won his first Wimbledon in 1934, he overheard a committee member of the All-England Club apologise to the Australian runner-up; "This was one day when the best man didn't win." Although Perry was an Englishman, the committee man was embarrassed that somebody as "uncouth" as Perry, the son of a Labour MP, should have secured victory on Wimbledon's patrician grass.
The patrons of tennis are almost always well-heeled, often royal, and there is an air of social exclusivity which pervades the sport. It is also a sport in which, at the top level, one can usually count the number of non-white participants on the fingers of one hand. The exceptions—Althea Gibson, Evonne Goolagong, Arthur Ashe—have been distinguished as much by their graceful accommodation of the tennis world's questionable mores, as they have by their tennis excellence.
Serena Williams is a young black female of decidedly blue-collar parents who entered the sport without making any self-deferential gestures or apologetic nods towards the "keepers of the game". Her parents knew that if their daughter were to successfully participate in the lily-white world of tennis then her talent would have to be such that it demanded respect, for most would look askance at their gawky black child. Richard and Oracene dared to imagine their daughter in such an environment, but they also knew that in order for Serena to survive talent alone would not suffice. They would have to arm her with a fierce self-confidence that some might interpret as arrogance, for they knew that she would be jeered, mocked, ignored and resented. And they were right.
En route to that first Grand Slam victory in 1999, Serena Williams was drawn against the former Wimbledon champion, Conchita Martinez. During this early- round match, I remember sitting courtside at Flushing Meadow and being appalled as the American crowd loudly cheered the Spaniard and booed one of their own. The following day the stories in the press made reference to the hostility that the "Williams sisters" had to endure, without acknowledging that there was only one sister on court at the time. This clumsiness was compounded by a reluctance to mention the world "racism". In fact, her father aside, only Martina Navratilova has had the courage to come right out and call it what it is.
It is not as though the US likes its sporting heroes to be shy retiring flowers; witness John McEnroe, or the current bad boy, Andy Roddick. It's just that if they are perceived to be full of "attitude" and black then they are of course, to the tennis cognoscenti, as "uncouth" as the working-class Fred Perry was in an earlier era. I watched the 18-year-old Serena Williams beat Martinez, and the manner in which the young girl handled the crowd spoke volumes not only about her maturity, but about the vision and foresight of her parents.
Of all Serena Williams's achievements in 2002, perhaps the one that will have the most lasting impact is the simple, but ultimately complex, gesture of her finding the strength to step out of the shadow of her older sibling. When Serena beat Martina Hingis and won the US Open title in 1999—thus becoming the first of the sisters to win a Grand Slam title—the thunderstruck look on Venus's face left onlookers in no doubt as to how deep and dark that sisterly shadow really is. During the course of this year, having beaten her sister in three consecutive Grand Slam finals, it is clear that Serena no longer lives in anyone's shadow.
And what of the year ahead? Well, immediately there is the Australian Open in January, and should Serena win she will be the first player in 15 years to hold all four Grand Slam titles. She has already established herself as the most dominant player in the modern game, and her 21-year journey from the streets of Compton to the apex of the tennis world is in many ways a more remarkable story than that of Tiger Woods. En route she, like Woods, has had to negotiate the vagaries of race and class, but Tiger Woods has never had to suffer Americans cheering for foreigners to beat him, nor has he had to step out of the shadow of a talented and strong-willed older sibling. And, one should also remember that Tiger Woods is male.
Were Serena Williams a 21-year-old white American middle-class young man who had just won three Grand Slam titles in the space of a single year, she would be the most famous sports personality in America. Serena Williams knows precisely why she is not lauded in this manner, but inside she is smiling. After all, she is not playing in order to earn the kind of media attention and dollars that usually drives sportsmen and women. She has nothing against making money or receiving endorsements, but her father helped her to understand the realpolitik of American life before she had even entered her teens.
Like many African-Americans before her—Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown—Serena Williams knows that her task is to quietly fulfil her destiny. Being overlooked and under-appreciated is just part of the deal. Being accused of being aloof or full of attitude is fine by her. Her eyes are fixed firmly on the prize. Around the corner lies greatness.