Pressure is a privilege. ~Billie Jean King
Every time Serena Williams steps on the court, there is pressure. Every time she does so in a Grand Slam, the pressure amps up. She, along with her coach, team, fans and most tennis fans expect her to win. Even the casual fans expect her to win.
But, like in this year’s French Open ,where she fell to Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza (7-5, 6-4), Williams doesn’t always win.
It’s the third straight Grand Slam that Serena has failed, and I use that word loosely, to win the title. That’s what we’ve come to expect from her. A clay title at Rome in May signaled that Williams was ready to repeat in Paris. Heading into the the French open Final against Muguruza having only dropped one set, in her quarterfinal match against Yulia Putintseva (5-7, 6-4, 6-1), most expected Williams to once again emerge victorious.
Except those few who watched Muguruza in Paris. The Spaniard (also Venezuelan) only dropped one set in Paris and that was her first round match Anna Karolina Schmiedlova (3-6, 6-3., 6-3). Muguruza rolled into the final against Williams looking...well...Williams-like.
It was a dream come true for Muguruza. She can now say she is a Grand Slam champion. Muguruza had to go through a great champion to do it in Williams, but she did it...convincingly. If you think about it, that’s what champions are supposed to do. They inspire others to greatness.
What Serena Williams has done for women’s tennis isn’t complete yet. Her game has demanded the rest of the women on the tour raise theirs. No player can compete with Williams week-in and week-out. One can see how just in the Grand Slams alone - the last three all had first-time winners.
They are learning how to win. From Serena Williams.
But, how does Serena Williams learn?
What makes people tick? What makes them do the things they do?
2015 was an incredible year for Serena Williams.
Champion at the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, a semi-finalist at the U.S. Open and a return (semi-finalist) to Indian Wells. By most standards, it was a successful tennis campaign for the 21-time Grand Slam titlist.
But, Serena Williams has a different set of standards.
What made her tick in 2015? A film entitled “Serena" The Other Side of Greatness”, an Epix original documentary, which is set to debut on June 22, 2016, seeks to answer that question.
One of the most glaring lessons of her sustained dominance and excellence is that she thrives on pressure. Tell her she can’t do something, count her out of a point, game or match and she will show you that it can be done. The pressure she puts on herself is greater than the external pressures that come from her fans, the media, the larger popular culture and her race.
At least it appeared that way until that fateful September night against Roberta Vinci.
The film “Serena” chronicles Serena Williams’ stellar 2015. But, her 2015 never would have happened without her beginning. Her beginning helps frame where and who she is now. The year was 1995 when Williams was only 14 years old.
21 years ago.
“I’m not ready to be done yet. I have too much to accomplish,” says Williams as she lays on a training table while receiving treatment from a trainer. “I have too much to accomplish.”
That type of focus is what we’ve come to know from Williams. Her vision, her goals, her motivation come from within. But, there is a small degree of vulnerability that we see in the Ryan White film.
“My whole life, I’ve hated working out,” Williams says as she heads to a workout.
That workout leads to a humorous moment that would slow down some athletes...but not Serena. She is focused on the year ahead, which leads us to where 2015 began with an Australian Open title.
We get a few glimpses into the personal life of Williams throughout the film, in between tournament coverage.
The love she has for her dog, where she keeps her Olympic medals, her fondness for karaoke, pop culture references and dancing are all a part of the private life the film aims to share.
Although dating rumors have swirled since Williams teamed up with coach Patrick Mouratoglou, there is no denying it is a formidable tennis partnership.
“Patrick gets me,” she says. “He understands my game. He understands me emotionally.”
Nowhere is this more evident than after her U.S. Open loss.
“She’s ashamed of herself, which she shouldn’t be, but I know how she thinks,” says Mouratoglou. “She feels she’s disappointed everyone.”
“Whenever I’m headed into the Grand Slams, it’s the lessons from my dad that I remember,” says Serena. From the time they were kids first starting out, Richard Williams was a large, looming presence over her and sister Venus’ tennis lives. He was a part of the team, but now he is “just dad”.
We are introduced to other members of her team, including her agent Jill, her coordinator Zane, her physio Flo, her best friend Val, sisters Isha and Lyn, nephew Jair and mother Oracene. It was Oracene, along with her chef Annie, who helped nurse her back to health as Serena battled illness at the French Open.
There are some lighthearted moments throughout the film. But, it also isn’t afraid to at least partially address some of the controversy that followed Serena. Whether it was fighting sickness or the return to Indian Wells, “Serena” the documentary evaluates each with historical footage and Serena’s own recollections.
“I remember the whole stadium was 99% white people and they were all booing,” recalls Serena. “There were racial slurs used and they were loud too.”
The incident at Indian Wells isn’t the only “controversy” the film touches on. In addition to her body image and others’ opinions of it, the 2009 U.S. Open line judge incident explores Serena’s overall on-court intensity.
Is it because she’s black? Is it because she loves drama? Ultimately people will judge for themselves, but for Serena’s team there is but one answer.
“Instead of looking at that intensity as like, ‘Oh Serena is so intense and angry on the court,’ how about [looking at it as] if she gives a *#$!,” says her agent Jill.
Sisterly love on opposing sides of the net is a complexity that only Serena and Venus Williams understand. The film captures a bit of it during their time at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. They laugh, joke, horse around and enjoy each other’s company, even on the day before they face off. Sisters for life, respectful opponents for but a day.
“For a moment I was out there and I was thinking, ‘Wow, I am on Center Court. I’m playing Venus. I’m at Wimbledon,” recalls Williams. “I grew up eight, nine thousand miles from here in a small neighborhood, in a small house. I didn’t even have my own bed. And I always dreamt of playing my sister on this court and I’m here.”
After Serena’s victory over Venus at the U.S. Open, her car driver echoes what so many have come to believe about her and the Williams sisters.
“The Williams sisters, Serena, is one of the biggest reasons why I’m a tennis fan. A lot of times, being African-American, we lack a certain confidence to do things,” he says. “She’s a great example of if you put your will to it, you can do anything you want to do. There are others but in her game, she’s the one. She makes us proud.”
The beads and the innocence have long since gone. But, the love and passion Serena has for tennis is still there. It is intense and fueled by pressure. Tennis legend Billie Jean King’s words always resonate with Serena. Pressure is a privilege. Whether it is external or internal, pressure makes Serena tick.
Lack of understanding can lead to judgment and criticism, particularly of high-profile athletes. Fair or not, many people have judged and criticized Serena Williams the player, and person, because of who she is and how she has acted.
But to get a better understanding of the woman, and one of the modern generation’s most dominant and accomplished athletes, watch “Serena” and at least try to understand what makes her tick.