MASON, Ohio – By now, the record books are riddled with figures attached to Serena Williams – what’s she’s done, what she’s doing, what she might do. So many, in fact, that the WTA’s web wizards felt it necessary to compile a unique page dedicated to her progress at the U.S. Open. It’s called “The Serena Williams Stats You Need.”
Williams, 33, is playing for so much. History. Records. Recognition. Some kind of über cultural significance that is hard to wrap one’s head around. What the numbers won’t tell you: She’s playing for something closer to home – and heart. She’s playing for dad.
As top-ranked Williams launches her quest Monday night in New York to become the first player in 27 years to sweep all four Grand Slams in a season, she will do so with countless friends and family at her side.
Not Richard Williams.
Richard, the colorful and controversial architect of the most improbable sports story around – the George S. Patton of the Williams invasion — will be watching from Florida, where he lives with his new wife and child.
“He’s been the most important person in my career,” Williams said in an interview this month at her final U.S. Open tune-up near Cincinnati. “I do miss my dad obviously. I miss him all the time. I call him. I try to reach out to him a lot. He calls me. He watches my matches. He still tells me things that I’m not doing right.”
With little training or knowledge, Richard raised two African-American outsiders from gritty Compton, Calif., to be world-beating, transformative figures. When Serena and Venus Williams retire, they will have left a white-dominated sport, and the cultural landscape, forever altered.
“It all started with an idea,” said Serena. “It was his idea. It’s changed sports. It’s changed history.”
Richard is 73. He is getting on. The family does not speak much about his health. Once a fixture at tournaments — snapping pictures of his daughters, holding court with reporters, relaxing with his trademark cigarillo — Richard travels little.
During the Sony Open in Miami this spring, the family patriarch was rushed to the hospital for an undisclosed problem. A few days later after Serena won the Miami title for a record eighth time, she said on court: “I would like to dedicate this to my dad. He’s not here. I miss him. Dad, I hope you’re watching. I love you daddy. This one’s for you.”This was not unusual. Increasingly, Serena acknowledges her father in her post-match comments.
Serena says what Richard did for her and Venus is a motivating factor in all they do. But she shies away from making it a public crusade. She feels no particular urgency to honor his role in her success“If I think like that, I might feel stress,” said Williams, who is gunning for her fourth consecutive U.S. Open and seventh overall. “And he doesn’t think of it like that. I don’t think he would ever want me to think of anything like that.”
The numbers will tell you this: They will tell you that this is a moment in Serena’s career, a culmination of hard work, hype and outsized resonance. The stakes are high. Serena is seven matches away from the first calendar year Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988. A win on home soil, where she won her maiden Grand Slam title, would also tie Graf’s post-1968 Open era mark of 22 majors. It would leave her within sniffing distance of Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24. A victory would cement – hermetically – her status as the greatest female player of all.
It’s a moment Richard Williams would likely be pained to miss in person. Remember when Venus won her first of five Wimbledons in 2000? Richard danced atop a television booth and held up a handwritten sign that said: “It’s Venus’ Party and No One Else was Invited.” It was a crude but telling attempt to say, Hey, we did it our way.
Serena’s 2015 season has been difficult to classify. She has run roughshod over her competitors. She has just two losses in 50 matches. She is undefeated in her last 15 finals, including eight at majors. She carries a 52-5 record versus the top 10 since Wimbledon of 2012.
And yet she has looked vulnerable. She survived spotty play, sickness and drama-filled episodes at the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon before lifting to another level and sealing victory.
“I don’t really know how this all came about,” she said.
Serena downplays the moment. She says winning the Grand Slam won’t define her. She resists attempts to pigeonhole her accomplishments. She’s not done.
“I think my tennis speaks for itself,” she explained. “I don’t need any definition. I don’t need anyone explaining me a certain way or by a certain thing. I go on the court. I work hard. I do the best that I can to be the best that I can be. I go out and I win.”
Deep down this moment isn’t just for her.
Isha Price, Serena’s half-sister, said Saturday in New York that Richard’s absence is likely stirring Serena. (They share a mother, Oracene Price, who is divorced from Richard).
“I think that’s accurate,” Price said. “You definitely do get the sense based on the things that she’s said historically that that’s how she feels.”
Richard is doing fine, Price added, “but obviously it’s something that we’re all concerned about.”
Serena marvels at the journey initiated by their father. “Who would have thought that he could have raised two black girls to play a sport that African Americans haven’t typically done well in?” she said in an interview earlier this year. “Every time I stand out there, I think that I wouldn’t be here if somebody didn’t have that vision for me. I don’t know if I would have a vision like that for my kids.”
The time has come. Serena knows everyone will be gunning for her. They always do.
“Serena doesn’t get easy matches ever,” said seven-time major winner Venus, 15 months her elder. “Ever.”
Serena opens her campaign against Russia’s Vitalia Diatchenko. No one knows how the fortnight might unfold. She could win. She could lose.
To prevail would be to honor her father on the grandest stage, his life’s work writ large under the electric lights of a stadium named for another black pioneer, Arthur Ashe.
Either way, Serena is secure that her father has her back.
“He always tells me I’m so good and he’s so proud of me and he can’t imagine how good I am,” she said. “He always says, ‘Don’t put pressure on yourself. Be happy with what you have.’ I’m always like, ‘Oh I could have done this better.’”
She stopped and paused. “I think I should have a conversation with him right now,” she said.
Perhaps the dialogue has already begun.