Had Williams quit in 2012 after an extended subpar stretch, she’d have been a legend, with 13 singles Slams — the fourth most in tennis’ Open era, which began in 1968 — and 12 doubles titles that tied her for third, with Venus.
If Williams had stayed home after having a baby in 2017, she’d have filled the history books with her 23 single Slams, the most in the Open era, earning recognition as the greatest women’s tennis player but also among the best of either gender. By then, she was one of the most dominant athletes ever, earning comparisons not just to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, but to Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan and Tom Brady.
But Williams kept going, and while she has not won that elusive 24th Grand Slam, sometimes failing in spectacular fashion, she has grown into a cultural icon, not just for admiring sports fans and athletes but for working mothers and for Black women who have watched her carve her own path in a White world.
“It is Serena Williams’s complexity, even beyond her greatness on court, that has made her the most consequential athlete of her time,” writes journalist Gerald Marzorati in “Seeing Serena,” “and it is my hope that this book, in its way of telling, evokes and somehow deepens that complexity.”
Marzorati follows Williams through 2019 but uses a “prismatic” approach as he jumps in time, covering Williams’s tennis career, fashion aspirations, family life and social media presence. While he rallies late and fills the latter third with incisive insights about issues of race and gender and about Williams’s life in the public eye, his nonlinear writing often diffuses much of what originally made Williams so compelling.
The early meandering — including bland pages on former pro turned tournament director James Blake and a curious digression on a 1964 Susan Sontag essay — reflects a lack of focus that is distinctly un-Serena like.
For every enlightening scene of Williams as a child prodigy or embroiled in controversy, there is one that veers wide of the target. Marzorati argues that women match men’s power in tennis in part by noting that Williams’s first serve can be harder than either Novak Djokovic’s or Rafael Nadal’s. True, but misleading. Williams ranks among the hardest serving women in history while Djokovic and Nadal routinely serve 15 to 25 miles an hour slower than the most powerful men, such as John Isner or Nick Kyrgios. Women generally serve about 15 to 20 miles per hour slower than men so Williams’s pace actually demonstrates again what an outlier she is.
Marzorati is writing for the casual fan, concisely explaining the basics of tournament draws and scoring — tennis is “a game designed to thwart inevitability,” he writes, because great servers must also return and winning a set means starting over at 0-0 — but that makes his failure to fully put Williams’s professional accomplishments in proper context especially problematic. He takes our knowledge of Williams for granted, revealing crucial parts of her career in a scattershot manner. It is not until page 205 that we see the groundbreaking 2001 U.S. Open finals between Serena and Venus, their talent and charisma forcing an end to the practice of airing women’s finals midday, sandwiched between men’s semifinals. The sisters drew 22.7 million prime time viewers, numbers that rivaled the World Series and NBA Finals and changed tennis forever.
In the latter third, Marzorati’s wide-ranging approach blends well with his keen analysis as he covers everything from Williams’s aggressive play — “Causing stress, incessant stress . . . can’t be tabulated like rally length or service placement, but [Williams] … can undo an opponent by mentally and emotionally straining her” — to her locker room evolution, from isolation (in no small part because of racism and because of how the Williams sisters’ dominance intimidated other players) to finding close friends to becoming a revered elder. He even effectively draws connections between Williams and both Rihanna and painter Faith Ringgold, writing about topics like the struggle to reshape beauty norms and create a new identity for successful modern Black women.
If only Marzorati had started with a sharply focused narrative of Williams’s rise to greatness and beyond, it would have lent additional strength and power to the rest of his book, and strength and power have always been at the heart of the Serena Williams story.
Stuart Miller’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, Newsweek and Vulture, among other publications.
By Gerald Marzorati
Scribner. 272 pp. $26