What Still Drives Serena? By Dominic Bliss

Ever heard of Virginia Ruzici? Unlikely, unless you’re an expert on 1970s clay court tennis.

This Romanian player won the French Open in 1978 and then pretty much faded into obscurity.

However, she inadvertently became the catalyst in developing arguably the greatest female tennis player ever to live: Serena Williams.

It was Ruzici, you see, who triggered Richard Williams’s original decision to sire tennis champions. After watching TV in disbelief as Ruzici collected $40,000 in prize money on winning a tournament, he vowed to create tennis-playing daughters of his own. He then, or so the story goes, hid his wife’s contraceptive pills, dimmed the lights and along came Venus and Serena.

The two sisters of course eclipsed Ruzici’s $40,000 eons ago – Serena’s career prize money is now in excess of $43 million, more than any other female player ever. (Sponsorship earnings will have more than doubled that.) Even in his wildest dreams, surely Richard Williams couldn’t have imagined that.

But with Serena it’s no longer about money. Such bulging bank accounts mean the cash ceased to be a motivation years ago. And that leads to the most interesting question of all about this American player: what keeps her competing?

She now has a staggering 15 Grand Slam singles titles to her name. The record for the greatest number of Grand Slam singles – 24 – is held by the 1960s Australian player, Margaret Court, but she competed mainly in the amateur era when competition was much less fierce. In theory, Serena could possibly eclipse Court’s 24. It would require superhuman efforts, however. Already in her 30s she will soon start to wane physically.

Given all the hurdles she has already had to leap over during her life, it’s a wonder she didn’t pack up her rackets years ago. There’s the childhood, the tough upbringing in south LA, the poor tennis facilities, the struggle to stand out as the youngest of five sisters, the struggle to be accepted in a white middle-class sport.

In her 2009 autobiography, My Life: Queen of the Court, Serena describes those first tennis courts she learned to play on in Compton, with nearby gangland shootings a regular occurrence. “There was broken glass every here and there. Cracks in the cement. Weeds poking through. Soda cans, beer bottles, fast-food wrappers. ‘Never mind the noise,’ Daddy used to say whenever gunfire rang out. ‘Just play.’”

As the youngest child in a small house bulging at the seams, Serena often used to have to bunk up with one of her sisters. She believes it helped mould her into the fighter she is today. “The constant bed-hopping reminded me yet again that nothing is ever handed to you, not even a bed to call your own. Also, it taught me to grab at what I needed, and to make it my own.”

Even after she found success on the court there were further hurdles to overcome. In 2003 her sister Yetunde was shot dead by crossfire intended for her boyfriend. “Gone? My sister?

There was just no way. It was too crazy. Too impossible. Too sad,” Serena later wrote. “Her children needed her. Her parents needed her. Her sisters needed her. Her baby baby baby baby sister needed her.”

Serena’s public image required serious patching up after the infamous US Open outbursts in both 2009 and 2011. The former saw her swearing aggressively at a line judge, the latter insulting the umpire equally aggressively.

There were injuries and illnesses to deal with, too. In 2010 Serena accidentally sliced open her feet on broken glass in a Munich restaurant (although bizarrely the actual restaurant has never been identified). She said she needed 18 stitches and surgery on a lacerated tendon. For someone who makes her living running around a tennis court it was disastrous. “I was in a cast for 20 weeks,” Serena said. “I'd rather have been in jail for 20 weeks because I really hated that cast.”

More disastrous still was the near-fatal blood clot on the lung that this laceration apparently caused. “I was on my death bed at one point – quite literally. If it had been left two days later it could have been career-ending – or even worse. They told me I had several blood clots in both lungs. A lot of people die from that. The second [lung] surgery was tough, more mentally tough than a lot of things I've been through, including my sister dying.”

For Serena there will be more trials to come. A new documentary film entitled Venus and Serena is out this month, and not all of it is that flattering. At one stage Serena is seen furiously berating her hitting partner Sascha Bajin for not pushing her hard enough in practice.

“You were just hitting patty-cake,” she says. “And I go out there playing girls that want to beat the f***ing hell out of me. They don’t play patty-cake with me. They hate me.”

In another scene, the documentary delves into the private life of Serena’s father Richard, suggesting that it was all his womanising that caused the divorce between him and Serena’s mother. Serena is shown struggling to remember all the names of the multiple children Richard has sired and fails to spot that one of the spectators at her practice session is in fact her half-brother.

Both Serena and Venus were so upset with the film’s depiction of Richard’s philandering that they apparently cancelled their appearance at the film’s premiere in Toronto last year.

There’s no doubt that when this new film is released, it risks distracting Serena from her tennis. But then again, she’s quite used to extra-curricular distractions, having maintained many business ventures off the court.

There have been multiple acting roles on TV. There is her part-ownership of American football team Miami Dolphins. And her involvement in the fashion industry is well known, first with Puma, then with Nike and more recently with her own brand Aneres, plus a signature handbags and jewelry line.

Perhaps the real reason Serena continues to compete is that she is simply addicted to winning. “You need a wild streak if you hope to be a serious competitor,” she says. “You need a kind of irrational killer instinct. You’ve got to convince yourself that you’re capable of anything, that you will not be denied, that you’ll do whatever it takes to accomplish whatever it is you’re out to accomplish.”

She’s the most talented female player the sport has ever seen. She’s won 15 Grand Slams and earned close to $50 million in prize money. So just what is there that still motivates her?