Watching the meltdown of the great Serena Williams on the court at the finals of the US Open Tennis tournament the other night almost brought tears to the eyes.
You could see it coming like a horror movie playing out in slow motion.
Serena was already the greatest women’s tennis player of the age by far. She had recently taken time out from her sport to have a baby. After a difficult childbirth, she was only now beginning to find her way back to competitive form. In perspective, she was on the home stretch, going for glory, mostly. She was rich, and she had already won virtually all the honours available to be won. She was running against herself, pushing herself to see how far and how long she could go. Technically she was about to supplant Margaret Court as the woman with the highest number of ‘Grand Slam’ victories in history.
Majority of the people in the stands were there to cheer her on, and to watch history unfold.
History would unfold, but not the history that had been anticipated.
Serena’s opponent was young, dark, athletic, and powerful. In many ways she looked and played as the young Serena used to look and play, many years ago.
The match was going badly for Serena. She had lost the first set, beaten emphatically with the sort of power and accuracy with which she herself used to run other opponents off the court. In the second set, she had begun a fightback. First, she surged ahead. But her young foe had smelled blood and was not going to lie down and roll over just because she was on the court with the biggest name in women’s tennis. She began to claw back the points.
Serena at this point was at full stretch. She was putting everything she had, all the skill and spirit of all her years, into the effort to stare down her younger self, to overawe and overpower her. Naomi Osaka would be a champion someday. But it did not have to be today, surely. Today was supposed to be for her – Serena. She would match Margaret Court, and go on to surpass her.
All her life had been a struggle up the slope. She had broken many walls, shattered many barriers. On this same court where people were applauding her now and urging her on, she had been booed for being black. On several courts all across the world, umpires and officials and crowds had conspired to frustrate her and her sister Venus as they struggled to reach the top of the game. Today was supposed to be a culmination, a coronation.
All these would be going through her mind as she fought with every sinew to turn the game around.
But the girl across the court had her own history to make. She was not going to knuckle under.
Everyone watching was beginning to get the weary, almost sickening sense of inevitability that it was not going to be Serena’s day today.
And then disaster struck.
The last, little straw that broke the camel’s back.
The umpire made a ruling that Serena’s coach, from the stands, had made a gesture that meant he was coaching her. Coaching on the court was illegal. He docked her a point.
You could see the smoke of anger begin to rise out of Serena’s ears. She walked to the umpire and hotly denied she had been coached by anyone. She – an old warrior, knew more than anyone that the call was not going to be reversed. But she went on and on, arguing, getting more and more worked up.
She went back to her line, played a few points.
The fuse was burning, and everyone could see the explosion was near.
With every moment that passed, even when she played a winner-shot, the tennis was ebbing away, and the fire was burning her soul. An atavistic rage was gathering, and it was going to burn the last vestige of hope of becoming the greatest on this day.
She struggled to rein it in. And then she succumbed.
She had struggled too much, fought too much. All her life was an endless fight. She had broken through the glass ceiling that held women athletes down, she had broken through barriers of fame, money and victories black girls were not supposed to cross. Sometimes she had despaired and dissolved into tears. More often the barriers had merely stoked her inner grit, making her dig deep for a hidden primordial reserve that helped her to plough right through. In
time the audiences that had booed the black girl began to applaud the black champion and claim her as their own. The umpires that appeared to deliberately make the bad line calls disappeared into history or sheepishly asked for her autograph.
But in her mind,this was one provocation too many. She had seen other players – men, who got coaching simply get a warning without being docked a point in a game where they were fighting for their lives.
She went back to the umpire – again, and again. She shouted more. She smashed her racket on the court, twisting it into an ugly tangle of fiber and string, as irredeemable as her hope of winning the tennis. She demanded an apology. She called him a thief – he had stolen her point, her game, her moment.
The game was clearly gone, as was the last shred of your favourite champion’s composure.
Knowing something of how the human mind could manifest in a moment of unbearable pain, you worried she could scream, she could tear her hair out, she could tear her dress, she could hurl a missile, she could bang her head on the tarmac.
Mercifully none of those things happened.
Once the last prospect of victory had disappeared, the burden was lifted off her shoulder, and she could breathe again. Slowly she began to regain her composure.
In the victory ceremony, she calmed the audience, begged them to stop booing. She embraced the victor, her opponent who was in many details her younger self, just beginning to power her way up a slippery slope that was sure to be laced with prejudice, misogyny and countless other challenges. Already, the press were calling her ‘Japanese’, omitting to say she was equally Haitian. She would have to make her own way and define herself. She could roll with the image the media were painting for her, or she could embrace her father in the eye of all the world and let them know she was black too, and proud of it, so that she should properly be described not just as the first Japanese to win a Grand Slam, but also the first Haitian to win a grand slam. But perhaps such things did not matter to the new champion – Naomi Osaka. Everybody had to make their own way, according to their lights.
Serena will be back, surely. Almost inevitably she will get past the Margaret Court landmark and be acknowledged as the greatest ever.
She was out of line – whatever the provocation, and she lost it – and that was not in reference to the game.
Never, never, would she or any of her fans who watched her on this day forget the day the sphinx melted into a hot flowing lava that was so excruciatingly painful to behold.