Of all the pearls of wisdom delivered by the person who gave his name to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York, the most enduring and ubiquitous is this:
“Pressure is a privilege – it only comes to those who earn it.”
Serena Williams, 40, more than deserved it. But that doesn’t mean the pressure can’t also be a huge burden.
On Wednesday night, after beating No. 2-ranked Anett Kontaveit, 26, in three sets, Williams looked divinely relieved, more so than she has in a long time, perhaps since winning her first Grand Slam at Arthur Ashe Stadium in 1999.
Its name comes from the Latin serēnus, which translated to serene and tranquil, but also clear, bright, cheerful and joyful. Against Kontaveit, Williams played like she was all of those things. She performed as the greatest of all time.
And she knew it too. There was a palpable sense of calm and playfulness in his banter with ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez during the on-court interview following his thrilling match against Kontaveit. With a crowd of 29,959 who could barely contain their admiration providing the wind at Williams’ back, it was not accurate to say that Williams had found a way to win. She just… did it. Even with 40 unforced errors ultimately without consequence.
She slipped. She has stolen. She dominated. She succeeded.
Even though the first set went to a tiebreaker and Kontaveit won the second set, it looked like she barely had a chance.
“Do you surprise yourself with your level? [of play] right now?” Fernández asked. The GOAT let out a small laugh and a genuine smile widened across her face. Williams was clearly satisfied and having fun.
“I mean, I’m just Serena, so you know,” she replied, with a look that indicated her modesty was completely ironic, because she had what else to be modest at this point, anyway. way.
“Well, I’m a really good player,” she beamed. “You know, that’s what I do best. I like challenges and I take up the challenge.
But the real breakthrough of the night was: “I consider it a bonus,” Williams said of the two singles wins she has picked up so far at this year’s US Open. “I have nothing to prove. I have nothing to gain. And I have absolutely nothing to lose.
The weight of this divine pressure is common for women with the kind of singular talent that Williams possesses. Both audra mcdonald and Barbra Streisand, two of musical theater’s great divas, opened up about their struggles with him. It can be debilitating, dizzying, even paralyzing, to recognize the adoration and expectation that the public has for their idol, and to realize that the idol is you. What if you screwed up? What if you let everyone down? What if you end up looking stupid? How about proving your enemies right?
When they can overcome this anxiety, something incredible happens: the door to a universe of possibilities opens and it is no longer terrifying to walk through. Whether or not she gets her 24th Grand Slam singles title, Williams has done the hard part. She walked through the door and it is comfortable – cozy, even.
“Honestly, I haven’t played like this since 1998, really,” Williams said Wednesday night. “Literally, I’ve had an X on my back since 1999, so it’s kind of fun. I really like to get out there and enjoy it and it’s been a long time since I got to do that.
Relieved of the burden of pressure, Williams is finally enjoying the privilege of being herself. And for a little longer, we have the privilege of witnessing it.