Harris: Serena's impact extends beyond tennis
Serena Williams spoke French for only a few moments after dispatching Maria Sharapova in straight sets to win the women's French Open final, but it endeared her to fans that she cared enough to learn their language.
The best tennis player in the world has become its best politician as well.
Good enough to be recognized by her first name here and abroad, Williams appreciates her standing in life, along with her lofty status in tennis history.
Since doctors discovered a blood clot in her lung two years ago, Williams takes nothing for granted. She appreciates being able to play tennis at all — much less at the highest level the sport has known. Hence, it was important for Williams to speak in French after winning her second French Open women's title, and first in 11 years.
It's 16 major titles and counting for Williams, who should be favored to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open this summer. If she doesn't win those tournaments, it also will be big news. That's how important she is to the sport.
Winning those tournaments would raise Williams' career total to 18 Grand Slam singles titles and tie her with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. From there, Williams, ranked No. 1 in the world, would need to win one more major to equal Helen Willis Moody and four more to match Steffi Graf's 22 major titles. Margaret Smith Court is the all-time leader with 24 singles titles.
NBC tennis analyst John McEnroe, who knows something about tennis greatness, said during the French Open that Williams is the most talented women's player in history. Whether she wins the most major titles is irrelevant, McEnroe emphasized. Better enjoy watching her while we can because we won't see another women's player like her.
“The level she's at when she's playing well, I don't think anybody can beat her,” McEnroe said.
Saturday's victory was Williams' 31st in a row, the longest single-season streak in 13 years. If that isn't enough, Williams' enduring legacy — combined with seven Grand Slam singles titles won by older sister Venus — is that of perhaps the greatest American sports success story.
The Williams sisters, raised in gang-ravaged Compton, Calif., have become the face of women's tennis. Combined, they have won 53 Grand Slam titles (including singles, women's doubles and mixed doubles).
To fully appreciate Serena's greatness, it's important to understand what she endured to reach the top.
“I remember going to California to write a story about Venus when she was nine and Serena was seven,” said Darrell Fry, a former sportswriter with the St. Petersburg Times, who later became the director of corporate communications for the Women's Tennis Association Tour and is the sports media director at Walt Disney World. “I was wearing an adidas shirt to the interview, and my aunt said you cannot go over there dressed like that. The shirt was red, and she would not let me go out of the house wearing that red shirt (gang members in Compton and surrounding areas were being killed for wearing red). I went to their house, and I was thanking God I didn't live there.
“What struck me was how astute those little girls were coming out of that environment,” Fry added. “Venus talked about how she wanted to be an astronaut. They were like two prep school girls, talking about school work and learning and dreaming.”
Fry said he was overwhelmed by Serena's raw athleticism the first time he watched her play tennis.
Remember, Venus was originally considered to be the tennis phenom among the Williams girls. Serena was the younger sister who tagged along.
“I've never seen a little girl that age have muscle definition like Serena did. She was probably more cut than I was. It blew me away,” said Fry, who believes he wrote the first newspaper feature article about the Williams sisters. “Venus was older, she obviously was the better player at that time, but I was struck by the fact that Venus' muscles were not as defined.”
Richard Williams made a bold prediction about his young daughters to Fry, who didn't believe him at first. Two decades later, he knows better.
“When they were only nine and seven, and Venus was getting most of the attention, Richard was telling me over and over again that Serena was going to be the better player,” Fry said. “Even at that age, he knew.”
What Richard Williams knew then is what most of us have discovered about Serena, now 31 and playing the best tennis of her life.
As older sister Venus continues to struggle with health problems, Serena proudly carries the family name.
In tennis circles, the Williams name has become royalty.