Black and White
Wimbledon is a special place for me. It’s the tennis tournament where my daughters, Venus and Serena, have won the Ladies’ Singles Championship ten years out of the past twelve. Yet, on that rainy Saturday morning in August 2012, anxiously looking down from our family box while Serena played her finals match on center court, I couldn’t help thinking that we almost didn’t make it here at all.
Wimbledon is the oldest tennis tournament in the world, first played in 1877. It is the grandest of the four Grand Slams—including the French Open, the Australian Open, and the U.S. Open. It’s the only one still played on grass, the game’s first surface, the reason it was originally called “lawn tennis.” Yet, with the terrible illnesses and foot problems Serena suffered in the past
year, I never dreamed I’d be watching her compete here for the championship—in fact I feared I might never see her play again.
During those dark days of her illness, there was actually a time I feared Serena was going to die. The doctors said they could not rule that possibility out. She had blood clots in her heart that could be fatal. I didn’t know what to think or what to do. Then, hope grew, but just as Serena started to recover, she got an infection in her stomach and had to have a drain tube put in to help her heal. This was after two surgeries on her foot and toe.
My children have been the center of my life since they were born, so I was beside myself with pain and fear. I never thought about tennis during those gloomy days. I just wanted my little girl to live. When you see someone you love more than anything in the world so close to death, especially your child, you’d willingly die to save her. All during the first matches of the tournament, it was unbelievable to me that we were here. Serena felt it, too. A few times before her early matches, she became a little shaky and nervous and I had to remind her of her confidence and about being a champion. I wrote a poem to her.
Step forward so you can see
the light of day and know
you are capable of
conquering fear, defeating feelings of inadequacy,
and rising above life’s circumstances.
One who is able to prevail
is a shining example of
power, strength, and confidence.
It’s just a matter of faith.
I wanted Serena to understand that where she came from was great, where she was going would be terrific, but right now
she should be elated just that she was here. I told her to forget about winning the tournament or losing the tournament.
“You go out there and you put your best foot forward,” I told her. “Not the one you cut up—put the other foot forward.” It made her laugh.
When Serena won the semifinal, I felt sure she would win the tournament. I didn’t think anything could stop her now. Others were not so sure. I was walking the grounds before a tough match when a man said to me, “Your daughter could lose this next one, you know.”
I said happily, “No, it’s impossible. She can’t lose.”
“But it’s such a tight match.”
I waved that away. “That doesn’t matter. It’s impossible.”
I knew he thought I meant “losing the match” was impossible. I didn’t mean that at all. Serena couldn’t lose a thing because just her being alive and here at all was a miracle. Everything else was small by comparison, immaterial. When Serena played Zheng Jie in the third round and the girl gave her such a hard time, I yelled out to Serena on the court, “Serena, relax and beat her like you did your sickness.”
She looked at me with a twinkle in her eyes and went on to beat that girl.
When Serena got to the finals, she had such an easy victory in the first set I thought there was nothing to worry about. That’s unusual. I’m like any other parent. I always worry. Even after all these years, it’s terribly hard for me to watch my daughters play a match. But this one was going well. The first set was a blowout, 6–1. Then Serena faltered in the second and began making errors. Little by little, the set got away from her. She made small mistakes—a blown volley, a double fault, a down-the-line forehand long, and suddenly Agnieszka Radwańska broke her and evened the match at one set apiece.
I hate rain delays, but this one gave me an opportunity to go talk to Serena. Venus went with me. There is a special champion’s area in the locker room but I couldn’t go back there, so Serena came out. We all stood in the lobby near the polished wood staircase that leads up to the balcony where the champions greet the crowd after they’ve won. It didn’t matter that there were tournament officials and members all around us, and thousands of fans outside.
“Serena, play her the same way I would play her, and you’ll beat her,” Venus told Serena.
Serena listens to Venus before she listens to anyone. Venus is not only her older sister, she’s the assistant coach, maybe the whole coach. Venus meant “play her all out.” Use your serve. Use your power. Think of yourself as a winner. Venus uses her big serve to pull her opponent wide and then blows her off the court with three or four strokes. She gave Serena a final hug and whispered, “There’s nothing in the world that can stop you now.”
That left just my daughter and me. Inside, I believed this Wimbledon final was going to be her greatest victory. I felt it with a sureness I could not explain. I got close to Serena and said, “You know you are a champion, and you know you can win. The three other girls you played before her, they couldn’t beat you, and you’re not gonna beat yourself here. You’re representing life at this time, and it’s your life. You know you’re the best. Now, you go back out there and play to celebrate what life has given you.”
She looked at me, smiled that smile, and said, “I will, Daddy.”
I gave her a last hug and she went back to the locker room to prepare, and then back onto the court for the third set. Back in the box I kept saying, “Don’t worry. Serena will win this
match easily.” Our family box was near enough to Radwańska’s family that we could hear them yelling for their own girl. One of them said, “Can you believe how she’s playing? She got a set on Serena. We could win this thing!”
I think some of the people in our box got a little worried. I tried to encourage them. It’s the Williams way, my way, to take your trials and turn them into triumphs, to turn your contests into victories, to fight and never let anyone else define or defeat you. Down on the court, Serena looked up at me and smiled. I knew she had gotten the message. It was as if I could read her mind. I beat this sickness, I can beat this girl, and she did.
Serena won the championship and raced through the stands up to the box to hug me and her mother and sisters. I could not keep tears out of my eyes. I had brought two pairs of very dark sunglasses with me so no one would see if I cried. I gave that right up. I cried deeply when she won, but not because of her victory. Serena had survived death. She beat back all the evil forces of hell, stayed right here, and made this earth her heaven. I was so proud of her because I knew how hard she had fought to live, to give herself the opportunity to show how great she was once again.
All that and more I felt that morning so far from the place I was born and raised in Shreveport, Louisiana. Wimbledon, with its white rule and its traditions and its royalty, was the other end of the world. Yet, were things so very different? In tennis, just as in Shreveport, there was a crowd and I had often heard it grow ugly. I was never sure for whom it cheered. Many people said to me, “I’m not pulling against your daughter, we’re just pulling for the underdog.” It only reminded me how when we first came up, people pulled against us even when we were the underdog.
On that glorious morning of victory, the complexity of
life could not help but cross my mind. I was elated. I felt stature, unique. I felt like a young father, not my seventy years. Watching Serena race up to the family box, and every time she hugged me, I got a chill. My life had been so unique and special. Amidst the applause and cheers, I sat back for a moment and thought how blessed I was to have the two champions I predicted I would have, and how far we had come.
And because of that, I thought about Shreveport, where it all began . . .