Long before Williams won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, she was turning heads. Countless memories fade, but not, it seems, when Williams was involved.
By Matthew Futterman
From the time she was a young girl until this month, when she announced the approaching end of her tennis career on the cover of the September issue of Vogue, Serena Williams has always made a strong impression.
Ask people around tennis about their first encounter with Williams or their first glimpse of her, and almost invariably they respond with a memory so crisp and detailed that the moment might as well have happened last week.
Billie Jean King, the tennis icon and founder of the WTA, said in her 2021 autobiography “All In” that she first met a 6-year-old Williams and her 7-year-old sister, Venus, in April 1988 at a tennis clinic in Long Beach, Calif.
“Their mother, Oracene, told me that day that she and her husband, Richard, taught the girls to play and they all came to the clinic from their home in Compton to pick up some pointers,” King said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow,’ these girls have the ability to be the very best.”
Former and current tennis players and others who knew a young Serena Williams shared with The New York Times their first impression of her before she became a worldwide star by winning 23 Grand Slam singles championships.
The interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Former professional tennis player, ESPN U.S. Open analyst and Williams’s friend for more than 30 years
It was Morley Field in San Diego. My mom was a reporter covering a girl who was supposed to be a phenom at 10 years old. That was Venus Williams. I liked her name. I was 9. I wasn’t playing tournaments yet. This was a local San Diego tournament, and Venus was in the finals. It was easy to spot her father, Richard, and the family. They were the only Black people in a mostly white and Asian environment, standing off to the side.
The younger girls were playing a hand game. They looked fun to me. I had been going to jump-rope school, and I had two ropes with me. I was hoping to find kids for double Dutch while my mom worked. Venus and Serena were with their older sisters Isha and Lyndrea.
“Can you jump?” I asked Venus, the taller one with braids sticking out all over her head. The beads, I guess, would come later.
“I can jump,” she said.
Venus decided that Lyndrea and Isha would turn the ropes. Venus said, “She jumps first,” and pushed Serena into the ropes.
I laughed and jumped in with Serena. We jumped and jumped. No one missed.
That’s how it always was for us. We were always together giggling, telling stories.
Former Grand Slam doubles champion
I was at one of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No to Drugs” events at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. Serena and Venus were 9 and 10 and playing in the charity event. Serena was little then, but then they came to Baltimore to play my charity event and played against the Ripken brothers.
When they came to Baltimore, I invited Venus and Richard and Serena to stay and help me prepare for my next tournament. Serena was a little young, but I remember her power at maybe 12 years old, and that has been the heart of her career. She had that live, powerful arm, and the first time I saw that serve, I could tell she had the smoothest, most efficient and powerful service motion ever.
Tennis coach who brought the Williams family to Florida
It was in 1991 when I went to Compton, Calif. Richard called me. He knew I had worked with Jennifer Capriati. He told me I wanted to come to Compton to see his girls. He said, “I promise you won’t get shot.”
We went to a park, and there were people playing basketball and people passed out on the grass when we got out of the van.
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Everyone said: “Hey, Venus. Hey, Meek,” because that is what they called Serena. Richard pulled out this old cart of old balls and said he liked using old dead balls because he wanted the girls running and digging them out of the ground.
The first hour was a train wreck, and I didn’t see anything, but you don’t judge a book by its cover. We started playing competitive points. Me and Venus against Serena. Once we started that, the footwork got a lot better. There was a rage inside these two little kids once we kept score. They ran so fast they almost fell down. I said, “You’ve got the next female Michael Jordan,” referring to Venus, because she was older and better then. Richard said, “I got the next two.”
Tennis commentator and 1977 French Open mixed doubles champion
My first true memories of Serena’s greatness are from 1999, when she played dizzyingly good hardcourt tennis at Indian Wells, then Miami. The beads. Those beads were so damn cool. She looked locked in and fearless, beating Steffi Graf in the Indian Wells final and Martina Hingis in Miami. Then, she faced Venus in the Miami final. Venus got that one.
It was an awkward, uncomfortable thing for them to play one another and for me to call, but by the end of that summer, at the U.S. Open, sweet Jesus. I’m not sure there could have been a tougher draw than the one she got through. Oh, and did I mention the beads?
Former professional tennis player and the general manager of player development for the United States Tennis Association
It was a match against Irina Spirlea at the U.S. Open in 1998.
The skill, the poise, the power and willingness to finish forward with swinging volleys or regular volleys at the net. And, of course, her serve. My impression was: “She’s going to be great!”
15-time N.B.A. All-Star, Olympic gold medalist and tennis fan
I first met her in 1995. I was on Oprah Winfrey’s show with Venus, a show about athletes with potential. I don’t think Serena was actually on the show, but I met her backstage and we spoke.
Then when she started playing, I just remember my sisters and my cousins didn’t care at all about tennis, and then as soon as we all saw Serena, suddenly all they wanted to do was play.
For me, still, every time I think of her, it’s her walking onto the court for the first time in that catsuit, the black Puma catsuit.
Seven-time Grand Slam singles champion and tennis commentator
It wasn’t totally accurately portrayed in the movie “King Richard.”
I first met her when she was 8 years old, when she was brought to the court I was practicing on and then being told by my then-coach, Paul Cohen, and Richard Williams that her and Venus were going to be the two best players in the world. It was like, call me in 10 years, we’ll see what’s happening.
I didn’t walk away in disgust, or refuse to see Serena. That’s all I’m saying. I was there. Saw them. Why would I walk away after being told that I’m going to see two kids, 8 and 9, that are going to be future No. 1s? Like, I refuse to see these kids? For what? Because I’m a hothead? But that’s not correct.
18-time Grand Slam singles champion
She played in my first celebrity tournament. I had a celebrity event that was the fight against drug abuse and prevention of drug abuse. And she and Venus were living down here in Florida.
The first thing that strikes anybody is the power, the power in their games. The athleticism, the relaxed athleticism that they have and the way they move. Twelve and 13 years old, and they weren’t afraid to go to the net and volley. They had such an advanced game for that age. It was a different kind of a game than any juniors that I had ever seen. And they were very happy. Very happy. They were enjoying the attention, and they were enjoying going out there and playing tennis.
World No. 1 men’s tennis player
I’ve actually never hit with her, but I remember watching her on television as a kid. This was back when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were winning everything, and she was just like them. It seemed like she was absolutely crushing everyone she played.
I know she lost matches. Everyone can lose matches, but I remember with Serena you had to watch from the beginning if you wanted to see her because it always seemed like it was 6-2, 6-2 and over in 45 minutes.