Serena Williams’ serve is not what it seems.
Though its raw power and velocity could easily decapitate a bird in flight, it has a surprising amount of lateral movement hidden inside — a major factor making it nearly impossible for opponents to return.
In March, I was lucky enough to stand on the other side of the net from her to witness that serve (and everything that goes along with it) at the 2015 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. I won a raffle put in motion by Serena to benefit the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Serena had already been quietly working to fight racism in a variety of ways. At a time when race is at the top of the national conversation — with corporations like Starbucks trying to partake and a country divided about the events in Ferguson and Trayvon Martin in Florida — Serena found a quieter referendum to mark her return to Indian Wells after a 13 year boycott.
In 2001, Serena, then 18-years-old, and Venus were slated to play against each other at Indian Wells in the semi-final. They were the target of racial epithets and a booing crowed after Venus bowed out at the last minute with a knee injury. The crowd responded as if the turn of events had been premeditated, accusing Serena’s father and coach, Richard Williams, of rigging it. Serena was booed again after winning the final against Kim Clijsters.
Now, a mature woman at the top of her game with 19 grand slam titles to her credit, Serena’s choice to return to Indian Wells speaks volumes. “Thirteen years and a lifetime in tennis later, things feel different,” she said in an interview with TIME. “A few months ago, when Russian official Shamil Tarpischev made racist and sexist remarks about Venus and me, WTA and the USTA immediately condemned him. It reminded me how far the sport has come, and how far I’ve come, too.”
The raffle I won was administered by Omaze, a platform that raffles off once-in-a-lifetime experiences with public figures to raise funds for their charities and causes.
Even as a competitive tennis player at a club in Boston, there was no way to prepare for what promised to be a larger than life experience. Our mutual support of EJI provided the basis for a common bond, but there was no way to predict what it would be like to meet Serena face-to-face.
It was 90 degrees on Wednesday afternoon when we met on practice court #10, which was set far off in the corner of the blazing tennis complex and allowed private street entrance for Serena and her camp to gain access undetected by the majority of fans.
Serena was accompanied by her familial entourage including sister Isha, coach Patrick, assistant Grant, trainer Mackey, and dog Chip, along with a handful of security men. She came over to meet me on the sidelines, hugged me, then got down to business to practice with her new hitting partner, Sylvester “Robbye” Poole.
Watching her warm up, I quickly came to understand what sets her apart from the rest — a kind of physical presence alive with kinetic readiness. More power and more precision, how her sense of perfection leads to more refined results that seem to synch with her entire being.
The next day, I got to take the court with Serena at 8:30 in the morning. We began to rally and the clear blue sky spread out evenly around us. I don’t know why, but I wasn’t nervous. Maybe it was the recognition that we shared something in common in our love of the game, on the insistence of the ball coming back and forth over the net. Or the innate surrender to the promise of movement that requires hard work and instincts and footwork. After we rallied a little, she approached the net and gave me some tips: “My father always said to prepare early;” “I really like your swinging volley;” “Take the ball even higher.” But it was still her serve that baffled me. While she held back her power, its mysterious movement reflected the complex character of Serena and her game.
Afterwards, she invited us to come and watch her practice on Stadium One where she would play the first match of her return that evening in front of an audience of 16,000. Looking down on her practice in that empty stadium was a little like watching a lone gladiator prepare for battle.
The next evening Serena faced her first match back at Indian Wells in that same stadium against Monica Niculescu who is ranked #49 in the world. When she entered the arena, the crowd cheered. Up close you could see that Serena was emotional, but soon she got down to business. With a slow start, she eventually won 7–5, 7–5. She fired seven aces and won 18 of her 25 first-service points. When she found herself in the semi-final a few days later to play Simona Halep, ranked #3 in the world, history strangely repeated itself and Serena had to withdraw with a knee injury.
No champion is without controversy or criticism. But one’s measure of humanity is self-defining and has no parallel. People often talk about a champion as one who has been undefeated. But the defeats and returns afterwards are what truly make one great. Serena’s powerful serve is no accident. It comes from a place of courage and humanity that no one else can touch.