What Serena Williams communicates on the tennis court

This past summer I thought, again and again, about the rare range of things Serena Williams communicates on the tennis court. Never before has an athlete, or just about any other kind of performer, really, operating at that level—and, in a separate question: has anyone operated at this level?—included the audience in anything like the range and depth of process and pathos, the vulnerable dissonance that scurries about in the depths of what it takes to attain such an extreme level of craft. Like memory, craft at this level is never attained, can’t be kept, and so must be recreated again and anew in the moment.

If craft—as opposed to mechanical technique—bears some similarity to style—as opposed to the vanity of surfaces, of disguises—then, possibly, it, too, exists in an inverse relationship to “make believe.” We’ll come back to the “make believe” connection at the end. For now, let’s imagine that to develop a craft requires myriad confrontations with realities of world and self in order to become something alive and awake in the moments when it encounters its toughest tests. Style and craft can’t be borrowed or bought, they have to come out of the person, the real person doing the crafting and styling. Ergo the notion of “wood shedding” and the mythos of Thoreau at Walden, Charlie Parker in the Osarks and Robert Johnson off at the crossroads playing dice with Legba. Of course, according to the myth, this smelting of self and world into craft is done off by one’s self, in private, mostly in silence. In David Bradley’s lost classic, The Chaneysville Incident, John Washington refuses Judith’s early offer to help him think through what’s on his mind, “Struggling,” he informs, is “natural and necessary, but it’s vulgar and ought to be done in private.”

But, what if the wood shed is public? Where do you hide your rituals, your failures? Well, what if you don’t? What if you can’t?

Enter, Serena Williams, en route to play for a record-tying 22nd major championship at this year’s U.S. Open, marching her way, nearing 34 years old, toward tennis immortality. When has any athlete demonstrated the many-shaded vulnerabilities inherent in excellence in this way? No one ever has. Watching Serena Williams is the closest thing watching an athlete has ever been to reading Adrienne Rich’s “The Phenomenology of Anger.” Among the stages of a woman becoming conscious, which she had come to realize meant of women becoming conscious, Rich imagined burning the myth of silent seclusion, “Thoreau setting fire to the woods.” In this funeral for the secluded, individual genius, Serena adds the shed to the pyre.

It all depends upon something Serena is able to do with an invisible, but palpable, envelope of space complexly involved with and closely surrounding herself that figures something we rarely get to watch, something, though, I suspect, we all have a version of the need to do: to summon and craft an energy—maybe it’s simply (simply!) our presence in space, in the world—that we’re never in control of but that we need to steer and, finally, to ride inside of: our body as historical moment.

And, Serena accomplishes this in tennis, and women’s tennis, at that, that veritable reserved, country club table of “reserve,” a space reserved for the reserved. Here and there, sure, there are infractions against this reserve, a Golden Mean punctuated by post-McEnroe-ian, petulant, rebel-without-a-cause-isms.  At times, maybe there is a cause, take Nick Kyrgios, for instance, part of whose historical moment as a non-white (Greek-Malaysian) Australian was illuminated when his behavior at Wimbledon provoked super star swimmer Dawn Cash to opine that he should leave Australia and go back to the country of his father, Greece. No matter, Serena’s career provides an alternative to the myth of the reserved and clarifies something about for whom that myth has been reserved. 

In a very beautiful essay called “The Light of the South West,” Roland Barthes wrote: “I enter these regions of reality in my own way, that is, with my body; and my body is my childhood, as history created it.” If style is the way one travels in one’s embodied, inherited, historical moment, and craft, like style, relates directly to one’s ability to navigate those moments, then what of the politics of style? And, let’s allow that that classical reserve—ok, let’s just call it whiteness—means absent, means one stands in the empty space next to one’s self, maintaining what we hear called “composure,” which, paradoxically, is what allows a person to stand as themselves, an individual. That crucial space has been the perilous privilege, one whose costs we seem still unable to face, of white people, men most of all, and tennis has been but one of its many display cases.

Enter Serena, again, so radically present. She brings a dazzling, at times disturbingly intense, frayed and fissured depth of labor to the surface—no less than poet Elizabeth Bishop’s vaunted, stoical fish—and makes it articulate. She rips it at 123 mph within a Hawk Eye-measured centimeter of where she wants it to go, then turns a few steps and does it again and, often enough, again, in service games that barely take more than a minute. A historically strong array of talented professional women such as the great Maria Sharapova, who hasn’t beaten Serena in a decade, at times, watch in dejected disbelief. Serena wraps that up in style, beauty, a copiously black women’s beauty, and, when need be, adds salt—also a copiously black women’s salt—and we watch her win. And, also paradoxically, she damned near always wins; this is because the vast majority of her losses, such as her most recent loss in Toronto to Belinda Bencic, are examples—at times spectacular pageants—of self-defeat. Arguably as much as any soul singer, or poet, Serena’s presence carries these episodes to her audience with a sense of extreme proximity and availability. So it all becomes a story the audience (especially on TV) doesn’t merely observe but undergoes in a rare way. That’s often what a good poem or novel, or ballad, is supposed to do. In tennis, the sense is this isn’t supposed to happen. In tennis, an audience celebrates victory and victors—along with silent Swiss things like Rolexes—and, the rest, well, as with daylight drunkenness, the sense is it’s bad manners to act like we noticed. More than noticeable, in her tough wins as much as even in some of her more reserved self-defeats, Serena’s style makes that dissonance unavoidable. 

Michael Jordan is an athlete who mostly won, yes, and with extreme beauty and salt—more sweat than salt, actually. He converted a range of gestures on a basketball court, somehow, into movements that included the viewer (except maybe Knicks fans). But he was almost always a captivating vector of controlled purpose. The man. To “be like Mike” was to elevate above yourself and float there, “Air Jordan.” But, he never did the basketball equivalent of double faulting his way through a service game; he never missed both free throws in strings of three and four consecutive trips to the line. He almost never beat himself; shoot, when it counted, he almost never lost. He almost never seemed on display in ways beyond his control. He never had to stand there, bend neck-in-symmetry-with-wrist and talk his frayed self back from beyond the edge into a coherent spot to start again. And, basketball is a team game, and of course it’s a mostly black team game; so he was never alone in the game. Was he?  

My point here is: neither is Serena alone—which, I’ll submit, is the real thing that confounds the tennis world’s sense of what’s reserved, and for whom. This is why, for instance, the only two people in the tennis world who never really seem troubled about Venus playing Serena are Venus and Serena. Oh, and, their mother. Echo that rather evidentiary Sister Sledge line that states, and “for the record,” something about “giving love in a family dose.” And, that’s a black family dose. It’s true. In “Nikki Rosa,” Nikki Giovanni wrote that “Black love is Black wealth,” and that has a lot to do with this, but I first heard that line in a poem Sharan Strange read about a newly inaugurated President Barack Obama. This element of bringing a plurality with her into the frame of tennis excellence is part of her style, I’d say it’s the basic, maybe invisible but palpable, structure of her style. And, if one knows how to look, it’s not invisible at all.

Now, let’s say that a certain absent reserve—the paradox that to be one’s own, individual, self has required a person to separate themselves from their actually existing self, its body, and its historical moment—has been the perilous privilege of whiteness, especially for men, and tennis players par excellence. Then it becomes crucial to think about how black persons can’t make that move if they try, and black persons, at least in part of their lives, have and do try, pretty much all day every day, rational self-interest requires it. Style is part of that, too. But, it doesn’t work. When a black person tries to step aside from who they are in the eyes of the world, to an important degree, they simply step into another black person’s image. This trans-personal reality has been part and parcel of both black peril and black power and, often enough, in the moment, it’s unclear which is which.

Exceptions to this rule require massive amounts of energy and many very bright spotlights whereupon the peril—more often than the power—intensifies off the chart. In the 1966 film, A Man Called Adam, Sammy Davis Jnr. plays an early black-power-era musician who has become a “name” in his own image in exactly this way. After an argument over the (individual or trans-personal) structure of the quest with two younger black men who recognize him in a bar, of Adam, one concludes “forget him, man, he could have been white but he turned down the job,” a rude put down for sure but not for nothing either.

The language keeps track of the trans-personal rule quite precisely. It’s why one finds certain highly refined bourgeois black women referring to each other as “soror,” and others simply as “sister,” and, at the end of the day, it’s really what’s behind all the hub-bub about the term “nigger / nigga.” It’s also part of why, when another black man—or woman—is gunned down by police, every black man (and woman), anyone who loves a black man (or woman), and anyone who could possibly be mistaken for one, takes at least a moment of terrified notice. It’s also why white people, by and large, don’t have the phonemes to pronounce—and therefore to convey such an ambiguous and resonant depth of meaning in—words such as brother, sister, to say nothing of the spasmodic phantasm that becomes of the n-word, in these ways. Black wealth is also black speech, and style.

Black power and peril. Why power? Well, that’s largely the “soror” part; a collective purpose—black, and female, in radically disproportionate portions—that has been a life sustaining and democracy expanding force in American life. Why peril? Because in a democracy, we could call it “reserved,” which has bitterly and brutally attempted to stand aside from itself during every era of its history, being randomly—still less racially—mistaken for each other is something no rationally self-interested citizen thinks they can afford. The need to thwart that connection—which according to the American myth is essentially mistaken—between people affects what Americans consider to be rational and self-interested at every level. Hell, separating and distinguishing one’s self from others is damned near what we’re told it means to think. Separation, being, in the words of the brilliant critic James Snead, one of the “aboriginal obsessions,” “one of the founding paradigms of Western thought.” It has been one of the driving forces of American culture to efface this aboriginal desire under the guise of “reason” and then frame the natural origin of reason in the “individual.”

But, within the contending perils and powers at play in the substructure of American selves, black style conveys a very important and powerful sense of collective purpose, that human reality can be a mutual entity, and that any human entity is a mutual reality. The narrative of that is complex, conflicted, often tragic, but, in popular American terms, it’s essentially a black narrative. Our history of moments has made this so and has made selves and songs—and here and there even a poem or two—embodied to be so. This song has circled the globe.

So, like it or not, Serena’s style takes all this up. A book could parse moments over her career and therein account for how her compelling and nuanced commentary on this historical epic embodies its textures, its intensely vulnerable strength. Claudia Rankine’s sensational 2014 book, Citizen, actually does a few moment’s worth of this in a brilliant and timely style. For now, suffice it to say: it’s a lot. One result of this lot, in Serena’s style, is an unprecedentedly available, vulnerable, various, at times volatile, account of what the quest for excellence entails, a black woman’s quest for excellence in a white-dominated venue. Millions see her do it because she got there. She’s the best, the boss and paid—is paying—the cost. I mean you know you’re good when Drake shows up on your bandwagon (and in Toronto, he brought his mama!). But, we in the bell of the curve also recognize ourselves there, in all what it takes, say, to get three kids up, dressed, and on the bus to school every morning, without breaking dishes and causing visible bruises, and then get it together and make it to work ourselves. Try trying to talk to a teenager with ear buds surgically implanted in his ears? Can all that be done while standing in the empty space beside oneself? In the space reserved for the reserved individual?

A brief moment on salt, to wit: when the raucous, Centre Court home crowd at Wimbledon 2015’s third round threw themselves behind Heather Watson, at times, by calling Serena’s shots out before they bounced, and jeering at Serena when she appealed to the umpire, Serena, only partially in control of the tailspin she’d been in for half a set, down two breaks in the third, turned away from the umpire to face the 20,000-and-something mostly hostile fans in the stands, wagged her index finger and said, “Oh, don’t try me.” And then, somewhere in that fraught quadrant of embodied, historical space, and with many other hostile crowds—Indian Wells 2001, Miami 2015—collapsed into that afternoon just south of London, she turned again and ripped off six or seven straight games to take the match on the way to her 21st major tournament victory. Incredible. And, after that turn happened, for the rest of the match, the unfortunate Heather Watson—even, strictly speaking, the game of tennis itself—became somehow beside the point.

And, Serena wins, sure. But when I say she communicates, I say that because we—who, exactly?—who watch feel an expanded, clarified, and surfacing range of occurrence in our own lives, in our presence in the world, a renewed capacity for occurrence routed in our own strength and skill, yes, but also in the way we know all that depends upon frayed edges and nerve-fissures, the permeable borders of our body as historical moment. Those who covet the table reserved for the reserved—and that person is alive in all of us—won’t be comfortable with this; they (who, exactly?) might find it disturbing. This accounts for most of the commentators and many in her audience.

Others take a kind of strength from her unprecedentedly broad range and depth of utterance, her bouts with what it takes to summon one’s self into whatever power and peril resides in one’s failing-laced struggles and to keep on with it. And the power of this utterance comes both from Serena, herself, and from the way she embodies her historical, inherited moment, which is beyond her but also herself. Describing his part in exactly such a black, one’s-self-but-beyond-one’s-self dynamic, poet Chris Gilbert called it “a story that I become / avowal for.” And, therefore, Serena performs while apparently all alone but carries a copiously mutual and collective weight that gives what she does and how she does it a unique kind of force, a force of a structure alternate—maybe compatible with, maybe antagonistic—to the notion of the essentially individual nature of human endeavor and excellence. Unreserved, she’s performing something shared in our peril and our power.

One final note about black style, in 1963, James Baldwin said that one key to black style is the fact that, relative to white Americans, black people don’t have much room “for make believe.” The idea that a person is an “individual” (cue Simon and Garfunkle: “a rock, an island”) autonomous from one’s surroundings has been a—might be the—cornerstone in the American make believe. In the end, Serena’s unprecedented exposure of the basic intensities of her craft and style communicate a paradoxical reality: how an apparently single person conveys, nonetheless, the power and the peril of a collective. This sense of style and salt also carries with it how a living collective depends upon what Ralph Ellison called “the art of individual assertion within and against the group.” The question “are you with us” has also, always, meant: “are we within you”? And, from Wimbledon’s Centre Court to the morning breakfast table, that’s not make believe at all. It better not be make believe. Still, part of what a great artist—yeah, I said it, artist—like Serena Williams does is make us believe. That’s the crux of her brilliant sentence. It’s a sentence we’re all sentenced in, a story we’re all “avowal for,” too. So, tennis is the font, heretofore reserved, that Serena has embodied, enlivened and expanded into a historically resonant script for us all.  The next point is ours: in public and private, coax and confront the historical moment of our bodies, search for a way to make that articulate to whomever might be willing to stand there facing us, and return serve.

Ed Pavlić

ED PAVLIĆ's new books are Let's Let That Are Not Yet : Inferno (National Poetry Series, Fence Books, 2015) and 'Who Can Afford to Improvise?': James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners (Fordham University Press, 2015).

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