The check-in: The meaning of Serena's final stage
Let's give thanks.
Hi friends. It’s been far too long since we had a check-in. So here’s the first of a few check-ins over the next week. This one will talk mainly about Serena, with some WNBA and BG mixed in. Thank you so much for making Power Plays possible!
1. Brittney Griner has been wrongfully detained in a Russian prison for 208 days.
On Tuesday, Griner’s lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, told People Magazine that Griner is “stressed and very much concerned with the future.” There is still no word on when her appeal hearings will begin, and there have not been public updates on the prisoner exchange lately.
Earlier this month, I wrote an extensive breakdown of Griner’s case, trying to focus on facts rather than narratives. I’ve linked that below.
It’s important to remember that negotiations over prisoner exchanges are conducted privately through back channels, so silence doesn’t necessarily equate to inaction. BUT that doesn’t make the silence and the waiting any less excruciating, and I cannot fathom how scared Griner is. Keep centering her story and urging officials in charge to do whatever it takes to get her home.
We miss you and love you, BG.
2. Serena’s (im)perfect goodbye.
As I watched Serena Williams “evolve” away from tennis during the first week of the U.S. Open, I was overcome with gratitude. We are all so fucking lucky to have been alive during her dominance, to watch her fight so valiantly until the very last point at the age of 40, and to get a chance to truly say goodbye and celebrate her as a collective public. It’s so easy to take legends for granted, particularly when their careers last 25 years.
She gave us the gift of a premeditated goodbye, so we could fully savor her court prowess one last time.
There’s no way for me to sum up an athlete like Serena — I’ve tried many times in my 12 years of writing about tennis, and I’m mad so many of those sites have gone defunct so I can’t pull off my favorite newsletter moves, which is to just ICYMI my previous work. Instead, I’ll do one better, and link to my friend and podcast co-host Dr. Amira Rose Davis, who wrote about Serena’s “final fight” for Slate; Davis takes us into Arthur Ashe stadium for Serena’s farewell matches, and looks at how her legacy is living on in Black athletes everywhere.
So, without the self-imposed pressure to say everything, I will just say that I thought everything about Serena’s goodbye was perfect; particularly the stage.
Serena simply *had* to end her career on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium in the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. That court is where the world met Serena Williams, the champion, when she won her first major at the 1999 U.S. Open by beating Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martinez, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport, and Martina Hingis in consecutive matches (!!!). It’s where she became just the second Black woman, after Althea Gibson in 1958 to win a major singles title. It’s where she teamed with her sister to make the women’s final prime-time television on Saturday nights during college football season. It’s the only major where she won a singles title in three separate decades. It’s Serena Williams, the largest stadium in tennis, the lights of New York City. It just fits.
It’s also the site of some of the worst moments of her career — moments where she was done wrong by the sport, and moments where she herself was the one who wronged others. The “match controversies” section of her Wikipedia page is dominated by the U.S. Open. We don’t need to relive and rehash all of those — mainly because I just tried to briefly summarize each one and ran way over my word limit — but I do think they’re worth mentioning. Not to drag Serena’s legacy through the mud, but to acknowledge the fullness of it. It’s easy to flatten people when we celebrate them, and turn them into one-dimensional superheroes.
But Serena wasn’t a superhero, and she wasn’t perfect. She had bad days. She got outplayed. She came out flat-footed. She got angry when calls went against her. She sometimes lashed out, unfairly, at others. She, in fleeting moments, felt sorry for herself. She occasionally crumbled under the pressure, not just of being the top tennis player in the world who was expected to win every match she played, but of being a strong Black woman in a white sport.
This isn’t a pile-on, nor is it a defense. (She was out of line1 at times! It’s okay to say that.) It’s an appreciation. Unlike the rest of us, she couldn’t hide on her bad days. They were broadcast to millions and amplified by a global media and public desperate for those bad moments to define her.
But she didn’t let them. She gathered herself. She regrouped. She picked up her feet. She (usually) apologized. She showcased graciousness and humility in victory and defeat. She embraced her body and her talent and her celebrity. She used the pressure to propel her forward. She returned to the biggest stages of the sport time and time again. She unabashedly went after every record in the books. She worked to better herself, on and off the court. And she gave us all a front-row seat along the way.
In her Vogue article announcing her evolution away from the sport, Serena wrote, “My sister Venus once said that when someone out there says you can’t do something, it is because they can’t do it. But I did do it. And so can you.” I saw that quote plastered all over social media. I think many found it inspirational. I did not. It does not ring true to me. There are plenty of things I simply can’t do, despite how much I want to do them. That’s fine — I’m very comfortable that I can’t relate to that level of self-belief and drive for greatness. (I like naps and Netflix far too much.)
But I can relate to having bad days. I can relate to letting my emotions get the best of me. I can relate to self-doubt, to disappointment. The biggest lesson Serena has taught me is that those days don’t have to define me, and they don’t have to be an ending, or even a major detour. I just have to keep working on myself, and keep showing up.
That’s what Serena did. That’s how a court that has showcased her greatest career triumphs and her darkest on-court days, became the perfect place to send her off in celebration and adoration — not because she was holding a trophy (she wasn’t), or because she’s perfect (she isn’t), but because she is, as she said, “just Serena.” That, it turns out, is everything.2
3. Seeing Taylor Townsend thrive is the BEST.
For those unfamiliar with her story, Taylor Townsend is a 26-year-old American tennis player who was ranked No. 1 in juniors back in 2012. That year, she requested a wildcard into the 2012 U.S. Open main draw, but her request was denied because the USTA openly questioned her dedication to fitness.
Basically, they told her she was too fat to be an elite tennis player, even though she was a 16-year-old ranked No. 1 in juniors. (She powerfully wrote about this experience in the Players Tribune last year, saying, “It worked the way things usually work in a country that hates fat Black women.)
It was bullshit, and understandably severed the relationship between Townsend and the USTA.
Townsend’s pro career had many ups and downs over the last decade. She broke into the top 100 in 2015, reached a career-high singles ranking of No. 61 in 2018, made it to the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 2019, and won 11 ITF singles titles. (The ITF is essentially the minor leagues of tennis.) She took time off of tennis in 2020 and gave birth to her son, Adyn Aubrey, on March 14, 2021. She’s been slowly making her way back onto the WTA Tour this year, and has found success in doubles.
Earlier this year, Townsend paired with Madison Keys and made it to the doubles semifinals at the French Open. In New York, she paired with another American, Caty McNally, and made it all the way to the doubles final, where the duo lost to the nearly-unbeatable Czech duo of Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova 3-6, 7-5, 6-1.
Even though she didn’t win the title, it was still an incredibly poignant moment for Townsend for a few reasons:
This was the 10-year anniversary of the bullshit controversy with the USTA.
She’s a new mom.
She was wearing a CATSUIT. This is a woman who was bullied for her body wearing a CATSUIT on Arthur Ashe Stadium. AND HOT DAMN, SHE LOOKED SO GOOD.
Speaking of catsuits, it was so cool that this big moment for her happened for her at a tournament defined by celebrating Serena. In a piece last month with The Players Tribune, where she was candid about her postpartum journey, she also shared what Serena and Venus meant to her: “They struggled so that we wouldn’t have to. The road that they paved, the opportunities that they created, the things that they sacrificed — whether we know it or not — to be able to play this sport, compete in this sport, and be accepted in the sport the way that Black women are now, I think that’s largely because of them.”
But wait, do you want to know what the absolute BEST part of this was? The fact that Patrick Fucking McEnroe, who was the head of the USTA back in 2012 when the USTA fat-shamed a 16-year-old, was on hand to conduct on-court interviews during the trophy presentation for the women’s doubles championship.
WHY??? I have no idea, but it did give Townsend a chance to say “fuck you” in the coolest way possible.
“I’ve earned my way to be here,” Townsend told McEnroe on the court, “and everyone can see that.”
When asked about these remarks in the press conference, she made it clear she was sending a message:
I wasn't given, you know, anything. I really had to work my ass off to get here and to be able to play at this level.
That's just point-blank, period. I have never been able to say that with this conviction ever in my career. It gives me the confidence to be able to know I can be out here with anybody. To be able to do it so soon within a year, like, that just gives me so much more confidence to know like where I can go as I continue to build, as I continue to get more matches.
It's no hidden meaning, like I meant what I said, I said what I meant. You know, that's it. People can read into it however they want, but, you know, it's no accident that I'm here.
Rooting for you always and forever, Taylor.
4. Have you seen the moment when Becky Hammon told A’ja Wilson she was WNBA MVP?
Well, if not, watch this video below. And if you’ve watched it already, watch it again. And again. And again.
Tonight (Tuesday night, September 13) is Game 2 of the WNBA Finals in Las Vegas. The Aces have a 1-0 series lead over the Connecticut Sun. If you need me, I’ll be over hear rooting for a five-game series.
Here are a few other WNBA nuggets:
A must-read by Alexa Philippou over at ESPN about how DeWanna Bonner’s leadership galvanized the Connecticut Sun and got them back to the WNBA finals.
ESPN’s Mike Voepel was presented with the Naismith Hall of Fame's Curt Gowdy Media Award at the Basketball Hall of Fame inductions over the weekend, and this piece over at ESPN — which features insights from Dawn Staley, Sue Bird, Geno Auriemma, Cathy Engelbert, and more — really sums up what he has meant to the game. Congratulations, Mike!!
I’m sure you’re already subscribed to The Next, which is THE BEST PLACE to get all news about the WNBA finals and all things women’s basketball, but just in case, do that now. I particularly liked this piece from Matthew Walter about how important Dearica Hamby was for the Aces in Game 1, despite only playing 10 minutes.
5. We have to finish with Serena.
Serena Williams has long been far bigger than the sport of tennis itself. Her greatness, her celebrity, her talent, her longevity, it all eclipses everything else in its wake, as it should. Over the past month, ever since she announced her retirement with a cover story in Vogue, her career has been celebrated by all of the most famous and powerful people in the world. That’s because she’s so transcendent.
But at the end of the day, tennis was her job, and her fellow WTA players were her colleagues and competitors. While her impact isn’t constrained to the sport, it’s where her legend will always be rooted.
So, as a huge women’s tennis fan, I felt it was appropriate to let her peers in women’s tennis have the final word.
No, YOU’RE crying.
Oh dear god, please forgive that pun.
LMAO that these were just my “quick thoughts,” thank you for putting up with me.