‘Twice as good” is a phrase that some know so well, but which others, those who have never needed to be taught about it, may not recognise at all.
When Michelle Obama used it in her commencement address at Tuskegee University last year, the writer Britni Danielle described it on this websiteas the “one mantra many black parents drill into their children’s heads throughout their life”. Be twice as good. “It goes that as black folks in America, we’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as far as our white counterparts,” Danielle wrote. “Some semblance of this speech has been handed down for generations.” In his famous essay Fear of a Black President, Ta-Nehisi Coates described it as an “old admonishment” black parents would have to give their children, and lamented it as a necessary lesson on which “acceptance depends”.
Whether or not Richard Williams used those precise words, he certainly instilled their spirit into his daughters as he drilled them in rudiments of tennis on a public court in Compton. You could hear their echo in Serena Williams’s extraordinary remarks after her Wimbledon semi-final, when she was asked how she felt about reaching, and losing, the finals of both the Australian and the French Open earlier this year. “For anyone else in this whole planet, it would be a wonderful accomplishment,” Williams said. “For me, it’s not enough. But I think that’s what makes me different. That’s what makes me Serena.” She mentioned those feelings again after winning the final. “One loss per tournament which really isn’t bad, and anyone else on this tour would be completely happy about it.” Anyone else but her.
This, of course, was Williams’s 22nd grand slam title, which means she is now equal with Steffi Graf, as the most successful player, male or female, of the modern era. She said she had been suffering sleepless nights, struggling with the pressure she was putting on herself. There may be more ahead. Soon enough, surely, Williams will win a 23rd title and overtake Graf altogether. Beyond that, the only record left for her to break is the one belonging to Margaret Court, who won most of her 24 grand slam titles in the mid‑1960s, when tennis was still an amateur sport. Along the way Williams will also break Martina Navratilova’s record for the winning the most grand slam matches.
This was a wonderful final, far harder fought than the straight-sets scoreline suggests, and Williams did not disagree when one journalist suggested it was the best she had been involved in here at Wimbledon. Kerber is the 15th woman Williams has played in a grand slam final, and one of only five to have beaten her. That was at the Australian Open in January, when the score was 6-4, 3-6, 6-4. That night Kerber confused Williams with her southpaw serve, which stays low and spins away from the American’s two-handed backhand. It sometimes seemed Williams would have found Cyrillic an easier read. Then in the rallies, instead of being suckered into trying to out-slug Williams, as some of her other opponents have done, Kerber confounded her by hitting soft balls at sharp angles.
But of those five women who beat Serena in a grand slam final, only one, her sister Venus, ever did it again. And in the intervening months Williams and her coach Patrick Mouratoglou had been figuring out what they would do differently next time around. And while they undoubtedly made a couple of tactical adjustments, the main changes seem to have been in the way she was thinking about her own game. “This tournament I came in with just a different mind frame and mindset,” Williams explained. “I knew that going into this one, I just needed to keep calm, be confident, just play the tennis that I’ve been playing for well over a decade.” The biggest lesson from the loss in Melbourne, Williams said, had nothing to do with Kerber’s serve. “I also learned that you can’t win everything, even though I try really hard. I do the best that I can. I still am not going to be perfect.”
At one point in the second set, Williams confessed, she took a “really, really deep breath” and told herself “if I can just play my game, I know I have a really good chance at winning this match”. Her power and accuracy from the baseline, the speed with which she swept in to the net, they were all too much for Kerber, who was overwhelmed, inexorably, like a sandcastle in the oncoming tide. At 3-3 in the second set Kerber had a break point, a chance won with a popped cork of a forehand pass, celebrated with rapturous applause by the crowd. Williams set herself, served one ace on the outside and then another ace on the inside. Kerber turned to the crowd, spread her arms, and shrugged in frustration. “What am I supposed to do with that?”
Truth is, twice as good does not even begin to cover how much better again than everyone else Williams has become. She is the best there has ever been.
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