All-American: Venus & Serena

Episode 8: Greatness

TV Commercial: Look. Serena Williams. Matrix. Serena. Matrix. Serena. Matrix. 


Cecil Harris: This is a direct TV commercial that first aired in late 2021. It shows Serena Williams playing tennis against six identical women. They're all positioned on different parts of the court. And Serena beats them all. This commercial is a tribute to what Serena has come to represent. She's a living superhero, a symbol of greatness in American culture. But when I first saw it, I thought, this is such a tribute to what it must have felt like playing Serena Williams in 2015, because at the time she could hit winners from virtually anywhere on the court. Her 2015 season was the greatest tennis season Serena Williams has ever played, and not just because of her dominance on the tennis court, but also because this is the season. We saw a massive shift in how America viewed her. As you've heard in this series, early in their careers, the Williams sisters were not so universally beloved. At times, they were even vilified. . But this 2015 season is where that all changed and even where some old wounds began to heal. I'm Cecil Harris, and this is All American. Venus and Serena. Episode Eight: Greatness. Serena entered her 2015 season on a high. She had just won the U.S. Open at the end of the previous season. So there was a lot at stake for Serena. When you're at the top, you have to work hard to stay there. I hopped on a call with my producer, Albert, to talk about why everything was lining up just right for Serena. 


Albert: Let's put Serena in context. It's 2015. Tell me how old she is and how how well she's playing. 


Cecil Harris: Serena began the year at age 33. She would turn 34 at the end of September. And that's usually the age where tennis stars are starting to wind down their in the twilight of their careers. But Serena was extremely motivated to continue winning major titles and very fit. And that combination of her still being extremely motivated, very fit, hungry to win more major titles really produced the best tennis I've ever seen Serena Williams produce. She was at her absolute best in 2015, and she want everybody to see it. Serena's first major tournament of 2015 was the Australian Open in January. 


TV Announcer: Have we ever seen anything quite like her? She's a phenomenon, an icon, a legend. Ladies and gentlemen, Serena Williams. 


Cecil Harris: Serena raised her first place trophy at the 2015 Australian Open in front of adoring fans in Melbourne. 


Serena Williams: I love you back. I really do. 


Cecil Harris: This was her 19th major tournament title, and it was her second major tournament win in a row. This win was putting her on track to achieve some historic records. The first was winning a grand slam. A grand slam means winning all four major tournaments in the same year. In order to do this in 2015, Serena would need to win the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Her win at the Aussie Open meant she was on pace to do this, but only five players in the history of tennis have ever done it before. It is a massive feat and in 2015, if anyone could do it, it would be Serena Williams. The second record Serena was chasing was the all time record for Grand Slam titles. This simply means winning the most titles ever in tennis. The all time record is 24 titles and it's held by Australia's Margaret Court. Serena now had 19 titles to her name. So if Serena could win all four majors in 2015 and get that Grand Slam, she would be within reach of that all time record. But before Serena would compete in the next major tournament, there was something else standing in her way. 


Scott Price: In the spring of, you know, four days after winning Australia, suddenly she announces that she's returning to Indian Wells. 


Cecil Harris: This is Scott Price. You heard from him in a couple of our earlier episodes. He's a former writer for Sports Illustrated. And in 2015, he was following Serena closely for the magazine. 


Scott Price: And that was a titanic announcement in the Williams family history. You know, Indian Wells was radioactive. 


Cecil Harris: And it was big news in the tennis universe. Her return was grabbing headlines. CNN even made a profile piece about it. 


Serena Williams: I no longer want to let an unfortunate single incident overshadow all the great memories that my family has created there. 


TV Journalist: Serena says it is that attitude that motivates her return to Indian Wells. Fans there still bristle at being called racist stigmatize, they say. For the last 14 years, they wait with the reception. No one can predict. 


Cecil Harris: If you'll recall from episode four of this series, the Indian Wells tournament in 2001 was ugly. The crowd was completely hostile toward 19 year old Serena and her family. 


TV Announcer: And then his father, Richard, coming down. It's quite amazing. Joe Jerry, alongside of me, Simon Reed, there's Venus and the crowd. An American crowd booing an American family. 


Cecil Harris: The optics of this moment were clear. A largely white crowd was booing a black family. Plus, Richard. Venus and Serena have all said they heard the N-word shouted during this match. 


Serena Williams: I mean, it was hard. And I just remember I was losing and I didn't even care. I was like, I don't want to win. I just want to get out of this with dignity. 


Cecil Harris: Serena has rarely talked about this moment, but in 2021, she spoke about it on red table talk. 


Serena Williams: I just remember getting in the car and I was just bawling. I was at the gas station. There was no celebration. And I was just like crying and crying and crying. 


Cecil Harris: After the racist treatment the Williams family endured at Indian Wells in 2001. They vowed they would never return to the tournament. 


Scott Price: It was a blight on the sport because if for no other reason, every year when a new wells came around, people say, Why is this? Why, why? Why are the Williams sisters playing Indian Wells? You know, this is the fifth major. But there was an accusing sort of finger pointed, you know, silently from the Williams family at Indian Wells every year we're not here. And you know why we're not here. So it was it was a it was a scar. It was an absolute scar in the sport. And it was a scar that could only be healed and a wound that could only be healed by Serena. 


Cecil Harris: As the most dominant player in tennis and in the Williams household at the time. Serena's return to Indian Wells would be a clear gesture. 


Scott Price: And nobody in her family wanted to do it. They didn't want her to do it and they didn't want to go with her. The hurt was too bad. So Venus and Richard were not ready to go back and or seeing told me I never would have gone back. I mean, she never would have done what Serena did. She said not because I didn't forgive them, but because of my own integrity. If they didn't think I deserved to be there, then I don't need to be there. 


Cecil Harris: The move to return to the tournament wasn't a simple one for Serena, especially because her family was not completely on board with the choice. But Serena was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, and she told Scott that because of her upbringing, she felt she had to forgive. 


Scott Price: I mean, Oracene said to me, you know, to to learn to forgive. She has a real problem with that. It was a big step for her. She's the kind of person who would get revenge on you, and it was never going to end. So Serena internally had to go against Serena. And finally, you know, Richard said to her that it would be a mistake for her not to go back. That clearly she needed to do it and they weren't going to hold her back. 


Cecil Harris: Serena also told Scott that part of her motivation to make such a magnanimous gesture to Indian Wells was the killing of 18 year old Michael Brown just the year before. In 2001, Serena was around Michael Brown's age when she endured that racist treatment at Indian Wells, and she told Scott in 2015, quote, We still have young black men being killed. Someone needed to do something. And I thought then that there was something greater than me and tennis. I needed to go back there and speak out against racism. She knew her return would get a lot of media attention. And even with all the anticipation for her return, Serena told Scott that she kept wavering about the decision. 


Scott Price: Should I go? I don't know. She had a panic attack in her bedroom two days before. Maybe I shouldn't go. What if it's horrible? What if they boo again? How can I get out of this? 


Cecil Harris: But Serena stood firm on the morning the tournament started. Serena held a press conference to discuss her decision to return. 


Serena Williams: In order to see her again, we have to be able to really let go of everything, any kind of let go a long time ago. And I kind of forgave, but I still wasn't at a point where I was ready to come back to Indian Wells. 


Cecil Harris: The stadium was packed for Serena's first match. Richard and Venus didn't make the trip, but Serena's older sisters, Isha and Andrea were there. So was always saying this was the moment Serena had been scared to confront for 14 years. Finally, she stepped onto the court. 


TV Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the number one player on the site, Serena Williams. 


Cecil Harris: To Serena's surprise, the crowd was incredibly warm. She played her match and won it in two sets. 


Scott Price: And the crowd cheered her when she came on. The crowd cheered her throughout and the crowd stood up and gave her a standing ovation and cheered when she walked off. 


Cecil Harris: It was a short match, but it was a long time coming. And Serena continued to advance in the tournament. But once she reached the semifinal, she had to pull out of competition because of an injury in 2001, when Venus had to pull out of the tournament because of an injury, she was criticized by the tournament's director. She didn't have the chance to speak for herself, and the crowd booed her. This time around, the Indian Wells tournament made sure that nothing like that happened again. They offered Serena a chance to explain herself to the crowd. 


TV Announcer: I want to first say welcome home. You belong here. We love you and welcome back to India Wells. 


Cecil Harris: After the correspondent welcomed Serena back, he asked her to tell the crowd what was going on with her physically.  


Serena Williams: Couple of days ago in my practice, I just really injured my knee and I fought through it and I kept playing. And today I just was struggling just to just to even walk. And it was it was really sad because, you know, I really just felt four months ago I decided to start this journey and come back here and a place that I've had so much success. 


Cecil Harris: Serena told the crowd that it was great to be back, to be able to build new memories, and she promised she would return the next year. 


TV Announcer: Serena, on Behalf of everybody here at Indian Wells, we wish you a speedy recovery. We love you. This is always home. And please know there's an invitation for you. Ladies and gentlemen, the number one player in the world, Serena Williams. 


Cecil Harris: Clearly Indian Wells officials wanted to get this right. They wanted the whole world to know how sorry they were for how the Williams family had been treated 14 years earlier. At this point in her career, Serena was going on two decades of playing tennis. She had 19 Grand Slam titles in singles and four Olympic gold medals to her name. But she told Scott that this was the most important moment of her career. 


Scott Price: She said, you know, everyone always asked, what was your greatest moment in tennis? And I always said, it hasn't happened, but I think it has happened now. And that was going back to Indian Wells and playing. It released a lot of feelings I didn't even know I had. I was really surprised at how emotional I got and how relieved I felt after everything was said and done. So it was letting go. 


Cecil Harris: Although Serena says that returning to Indian Wells was her greatest moment in tennis, she certainly tacked on a few more that same season after Indian Wells. Serena won the French Open in June. So. Lewis. And a month later, she won Wimbledon two. She's done it. Serena's 2015 season was headed in a historic direction with wins at the Australian Open, the French Open and now Wimbledon. Serena had three of the four titles she needed to complete the Grand Slam, the last tournament she needed to win the 2015 U.S. Open. Serena breezed through the first few rounds of the open, and once she made it to the quarterfinals, she found herself up against a familiar foe, her sister, Venus Williams. 


TV Announcer: She has a rival as her sister. Her sister. 


Cecil Harris: The announcers of this match had a huge prime time event on their hands because the sister act was back. Venus versus Serena the Williams Ball. Many years earlier, tennis fans used to complain about seeing the Williams sisters playing each other. They said that the sisters were too similar and that it wasn't an interesting match up. Now, more than a decade later, this was the match to watch. Or, as the broadcaster called it, the place you want to be tonight. 


TV Announcer: Where you are, where we are, where the Williams sisters are. Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King. 


Cecil Harris: The camera panned and showed the many celebrities in the crowd. 


TV Announcer: Kim Kardashian who apparently had tea with Serena yesterday. 


Scott Price: It was an extraordinary sort of nod from Celebrity America. 


Cecil Harris: Here's Scott Price again. 


Scott Price: Not only not only are you one of us, but you're doing something here that really none of us can really ever get to. I think it's almost like the celebrities that were there all wanted to tick a box and say, yeah, I was there at the U.S. Open the year Serena won the Grand Slam. 


Cecil Harris: We started this podcast series in 2002 at this very tournament. And at the time, the crowd was actively rooting against the sisters. Now, at the U.S. Open in 2015, the crowd was there in full support of them. 


Scott Price: It was absolutely the most electrifying atmosphere of the entire tournament up to that point. Everybody understood the event and the moment. 


Cecil Harris: More than a decade earlier, the sister act and a Grand Slam event was commonplace. In fact, in 2002, Serena and Venus played each other in the final of three major tournaments. But as the years went on, the sister act became a rarity. 


Cecil Harris: Serena defeated her sister in three sets. But it was the first time in the tournament that Serena was pressed in a match. 


Scott Price: They both played at a high level. But Venus's demeanor throughout was was intense. She had never said before, at least as far as I could tell publicly, that Serena is the best ever. And, you know, after the match she did. You could see she wanted to give it everything she had against Serena. So at the end, they meet at the net. And Serena is happy with the win, but subdued. You know, by the time she made it to the net. Venus was already smiling. And Venus said, I'm so happy for you. I'm so happy for you. 


Cecil Harris: If not for Serena and Venus, there would have been a total drought of American tennis going back more than a decade. By 2015, no American man had won a major tennis tournament in 12 years. Together, the Williams sisters were the best American tennis players of the 21st century. The crowd gave them standing ovations before and after this match. This was a sign to me that America was finally giving the Williams sisters their due. And it wasn't just a celebration of Serena and her chance to finally win a Grand Slam. It was also a celebration of Venus. Both sisters were still playing at an extremely high level two decades after their careers began. 


Scott Price: But the crowd absolutely let the sisters know how much they loved and appreciated everything that they've done for their entire careers and what they had given them. And also, I think to a certain extent said we understand how hard it's been that, you know, maybe we misunderstood just because you were so good, both of you. Maybe we never really understood how how tough it was, nevertheless, for you to walk the walk that you guys took through the opener over all these years and through tennis all these years. So I can't put a price on what that meant to them. And I think to it was good for the American tennis crowd, the U.S. Open crowd, to have a chance to be able to show them that. 


Cecil Harris: Now that Serena had beaten Venus in the quarter finals, she was one step closer to winning the U.S. Open and achieving that historic Grand Slam. 


Albert: Can you set the stage for us of Serena entering the semifinals at the 2015 U.S. Open? 


Cecil Harris: It was really the first time I saw the ESPN hype machine go into overdrive to publicize a female athlete. Yeah, you would see the teasers on SportsCenter. The tease on ESPN's other programing see Serena Williams on her march toward a Grand Slam. Serena was the overwhelming favorite to win her semifinal match at the U.S. Open. She was playing against Roberta Vinci, who was world number one in doubles. But that's a big difference from being world number one in singles. When Vinci is responsible for covering the whole court, she is not nearly as formidable. So, Roberta, then she was just like the opponent. Muhammad Ali against an opponent. You know. 


TV Announcer: Oh, the one way you don't Want to see Serena start a match if you're an opponent is with an ace because that relaxes her so much in any match. 


Cecil Harris: And Serena won the first set easily 6-2


TV Announcer: Arena. Put it in anyway. More screaming. She's got the game. She's got the set. She's on her way here today at the U.S. Open. 


Cecil Harris: But then the weight of great expectations really got to her. And the first thing I noticed that Serena was having trouble moving. And it's as if, you know, her body got heavy, her legs got heavy, and she struggled to play her game and she was fighting herself. And then she as a veteran in that on Serena's level, as a tennis player, but a veteran, I'm sure she could see that Serena was struggling because then she is. Game plans just seem to be keep the ball in play. And Serena's making so many mistakes, she could give me this match. 


TV Announcer: Hey. There will not be a calendar grand slam at this U.S. Open. The 43rd player in the world has taken out Serena Williams. 


Cecil Harris: The crowd at this semifinal match was shocked. You could just hear how disappointed everyone was. They wouldn't be seeing history. It was a stunning upset. But it was also relatable. We've all dealt with disappointment in our lives. And here was Serena Williams having to deal with the disappointment of not getting something that she really wanted badly. It just didn't happen. The Grand Slam is so rare, it hasn't been done since Steffi Graf in 1988. And who knows if we'll ever see one again in tennis. All season, tennis fans around the world were seeing a superhuman dominate. But now at home, the U.S. Open crowd was seeing the human version of Serena, and it seemed they loved her all the same. Serena didn't have to win to earn America's affection. She had their hearts, but she also had something else, something called a Serena slam. 


Albert: Can you explain what the Serena slam is? 


Cecil Harris: Serena won the 2014 U.S. Open. She won the 2015 Australian Open. She won the 2015 French Open. And she won the 2015 Wimbledon. That's four in a row. That's the Serena slam. She had all four major titles at the same time in 2002. Serena won the French Open. That's where it started. She won the 2002 French Open. She won 22 Wimbledon. She won the 2002 U.S. Open. And she won the 2003 Australian Open. That was her first Serena slam. Serena winning her second Serena slam 12 years after her first put her in the conversation of the greatest of all time alongside Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky, U.S. Bolt, Tom Brady, Pele. She belongs in that conversation because her greatness stands the test of time. She did it over an extended period. It's impressive enough to win all four major titles consecutively in your twenties. But she did it more than a decade later in her mid-thirties. And that's really what makes you an all time great. 


Venus Williams: Serena Williams. She's a little sister for me, and she always will be. And thank you so much for asking me to present this award. 


Cecil Harris: At the end of 2015, Venus Williams presented her sister, Serena, with Sports Illustrated's highest honor Sportsperson of the Year. Serena took the stage in a strappy black gown. She thanked Jehovah God, her family and her manager because they all helped her get to this point. 


Serena Williams: When I first learned that I would be sportsperson yes, sportsperson of the year, I could not believe it. It had been over 30 years since the last time I had recognized a woman '. 


Cecil Harris: Before Serena This award was called Sportsman of the Year, no matter who received it. After her, the name was officially changed to sports person for good. Women were finally being elevated in the discussion of GOATs the greatest of all time. And that's because of Serena's accomplishments. Giving Serena this award and changing the name of it was an ode to this idea that women belong in the conversation about greatness and sport. 


Serena Williams: I've had people put me down because I didn't look like them. I look stronger. I've had people look past me because of the color of my skin. I've had people overlook me because I was a woman. I had critics say I will never win another grand slam when I was only at number seven. And now here I stand today with 21 Grand Slam titles, and I'm still going. 


Cecil Harris: As Serena said, she still had more major titles to chase. The following year, she won Wimbledon. Then in 2017, she won the Australian Open. Serena was just one major tournament title away from tying the all time record of 24 Grand Slam titles. Next time on All American, Serena goes for 24. And controversy erupts yet again. 


Cecil Harris: All-American is a production of Witness Docs from Stitcher. This episode was written by Jordan Bell with reporting and production by Albert Chen. Our mix engineer is Casey Holford, who also composed our original music. Our senior producer is Jordan Bell. Our story editor is Joanna Palmer. Our executive producer is Camille Stanley. Extra production support from Nora Ritchey, Gwen, Igor Vega and Manolo Morales. Fact checking by Kelvin Sea Bias. Legal support from Sidney Freeman and Thomas Burke at Davis right Tremain. I'm your host, Cecil Harris. Don't forget to subscribe to the show and leave us a review wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening.