NEW YORK, NY, USA – “Wow,” thought Serena Williams, though not because she had just won the 1999 US Open, for what was her first Grand Slam singles title.
Of course, she was happy and excited and proud, and was not sure whether to “scream, yell or cry”, and ended up doing all three, but one thing she was not was surprised. She had had a feeling before the tournament that she might achieve her dream of winning it. She hadn’t shocked herself. The “wow” was because, shortly after coming off court at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, someone had informed the 17-year-old that then-US President Bill Clinton was on the line and wanted to talk to her.
Presidents have come and gone since the day she won that final with Martina Hingis, the then-WTA World No.1 – remarkably, Williams has landed majors while four different men have been in the White House: Clinton, George Bush, Barack Obama and then Donald Trump. Twenty years on and Williams is now almost 38, and a mother, a wife and a serial champion, with one child and 23 Grand Slam singles titles, which leaves her just one short of Margaret Court’s all-time record. But the one thing that has not changed in the intervening 20 years has been Williams’ poise and self-confidence. Watching the videos of 1999, you are astounded by how assured she already was of her game, and her composure when on the big stage – and she has backed herself ever since.
This summer in New York City, Williams finds herself playing for history, but has not that always been the way with her? She did not seem at all weighed down by history in 1999 when she became the first African-American woman to win a Grand Slam singles title since Althea Gibson in 1958, as well as the first African-American of either sex to land a major since Arthur Ashe in 1975.
But, at the time – playing in the stadium named after Ashe – there was a family angle that felt almost as significant; that she was the first Williams sister to score a Grand Slam singles title – she had got there before Venus. If Serena was not surprised by winning the 1999 US Open, you suspect that Venus, and a few others, would have been. No more could Williams be introduced as Venus’ kid sister, not now she was a Grand Slam singles champion.
No one can suggest that the younger Williams sister, with white beads in her hair and plenty of menace in her shots, had an easy path to her first major. Three rounds in a row – against Kim Clijsters in the third round, then against Conchita Martinez in the fourth round, and against Monica Seles in the quarterfinal – she came from a set down to win. She was living extremely dangerously against Clijsters, with the Belgian even serving for the match at 5-3 in the third set. Somehow Williams turned that around, driven by a desire to stop losing so early at the majors. Reaching the quarterfinals was a first for her at the majors, and she kept on going.
A determined, combative Williams defeated fellow American Lindsay Davenport in the last four, setting up a final with Hingis that had additional edge because the Swiss had beaten Venus in the semifinals, so blocking what would have been the first major final between two sisters since the nineteenth century. And also because Hingis and the Williams family had been attacking each other in the media during the tournament. While Williams had already won two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles, as well as a women’s doubles major with Venus, this was the moment that she truly arrived as a force in women’s tennis. Ultimately, Williams had too much power for Hingis, and beat her 6-3, 7-6.
“It’s just too exciting to compute right now,” Williams said.
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