SERENA and ME: A QUEEN SERENA ‘STAN’ PHOTO ESSAY
by Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA
I first came into contact with the beautiful game of tennis in the eighties while watching the Wimbledon championships on TV in Nigeria. I would see white players wearing white clothes playing on green grass. Then, towards the end of the 1990s, I saw images of two black sisters with white beads on their heads. I was intrigued because, unlike the other tennis players I had seen or read about, these two sisters were black like me. So I began following their progress passively.
However, it wasn’t until 2007 that I became a Serena Williams’ Stan’. Here is how it happened. On 3 July 2007, I followed my friend Carl Synman after work to watch tennis at Wimbledon. When we got off the train at Southfields Station, I joined the queue, and after a couple of minutes, we got a ground entrance pass and watched several matches on the outside court. We later went to Court One to watch a match, and while there, I discovered that Serena was playing on Centre Court. Although I did not have a ticket to get into Centre Court, I decided to try my luck. Fortunately, the steward allowed me into Centre Court, where Serena Williams played Daniela Hantuchova.
During the match, Serena tore her calf muscle, which restricted her movement on the court. This enabled Hantuchova to take the second set and force the match into a deciding third set.
As Serena struggled, I had already concluded that she would lose the match. But, to my surprise, she overcame the pain barrier to win the match. From that moment on, I became a hybrid of a Serena Williams fan and fanatic.
Over the next 15 years, I, along with my camera, have travelled to the four corners of the world to watch Serena play. As a result, I have had the privilege to witness some of Serena’s greatest moments. So far, I have seen her play live in fifteen Grand Slam finals and win ten slams, including five Wimbledon titles, three US Open titles and two French Opens.
I first met Queen Serena on 2 November 2009 when she came to England for a book signing event at the Harrods Department store in London. She was promoting her book titled Queen of the Court. Since it was during the week, I took time off work for the day. I woke up early, put on my t-shirt with the inscription: “SERENA VENUS D BEST” and went to Waterstones Bookshop at Harrods to wait for the Queen. After three hours, the Queen arrived, and when it was my turn to get the book signed, I spoke to the Queen and showed her the inscription on the back of the t-shirt. She then gave me a thumbs up.
2008 and 2009 WIMBLEDON FINAL
At the 2008 Wimbledon Championship, I watched Queen Serena Williams play in a Grand Slam final against her sister Venus Williams for the first time. Big sister Venus prevailed against Serena. The following day, I watched Serena Williams team up with Venus to win the Ladies’ Doubles title.
A year later, the two sisters met again in the final at Wimbledon, and Serena was able to revenge for her earlier defeat.
2010 WIMBLEDON FINAL
In 2010 I watched Serena play in her third consecutive Wimbledon final. Her opponent this time was Vera Zvonareva. After Serena won the championship point, she threw her racquet in the air and looked to the sky as she clenched her fist.
2012 WIMBLEDON FINAL
The final match between Serena and Agnieszka Radwanska was quite memorable. I was the only one in my row supporting Serena, as the rest were rooting for Radwanska. To make my voice heard, I kept shouting: “Come on Serena”; “You’ve got this”,; “You’re the best”; “Yes we can.” In response, I got cold stares from the people beside me, but I didn’t care. During a particular game in the match, Serena served four straight aces within a minute, to which the people beside me kept exclaiming, “Wow!” for each ace. After Serena won the match, the spectators around me came to congratulate me on her victory. To say that I was proud would be an understatement. I was fortunate to later see Serena and Venus win the Ladies’ Doubles.
2012 to 2014 US OPEN
Having watched Serena win three Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon, it was time for me to see her play in other Slams outside of the UK. This became a reality in 2012 when I watched Serena overcome Victoria Azarenka in three sets. It was a tense match, with Serena taking the first set 6–2 and Azarenka winning the second set with the same score. The third set was tight. I was so tense that at some point that I left the Arthur Ashe Stadium to cool down.
However, I returned just in time to see Serena win the match. After Serena won the title, she fell to the ground and similarly covered her face to how she reacted when she defeated Agnieszka Radwanska at the 2012 Wimbledon. Over the next two years, I saw Serena win consecutive US Open titles.
At the 2013 US Open, Serena defeated Azarenka again in another three-setter match. However, after Azarenka took the second set, Serena went into the zone and came out smoking taking out Azarenka 6–1 in the deciding set.
In 2014, Serena defeated her good friend Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets to equal Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert’s Grand Slam haul of eighteen.
I ordered two cakes for my work colleagues to mark Serena’s victory.
FRENCH OPEN: 2013 and 2015
The French Open appears to be Serena’s weakest Grand Slam title (even though she has won the tournament three times when many tennis greats have not even won it once). I have been privileged to see Serena win two of her three French Open titles in 2013 and 2015.
In 2013, after she defeated her “so-called” rival Maria Sharapova, she fell to her knees in celebration.
At the 2015 French Open, Serena demonstrated why she is the #GOAT. Despite having a severe bout of flu which hindered one of her training sessions, she still captured her third Roland Garros crown by coming from one set down to defeat Lucie Safarova.
In my usual tradition, I ordered two cakes to celebrate the victory with my work colleagues.
THE SERENA MUGURUZA BATTLES
In 2015 I watched as Serena defeated Garbine Muguruza at Wimbledon.
Once again, this was another opportunity to celebrate the win with my work colleagues.
A year later, my heart was broken when Muguruza defeated Serena at the 2016 French Open. Immediately after Muguruza won the match, I left the stadium in tears and did not get the opportunity to see Serena get her runners-up trophy.
MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT
The 2016 Wimbledon final will permanently be etched into my memory. In the final, Serena Williams played Germany’s, Angelique Kerber. I was fortunate to get a front-row seat. The only downside was we had to keep ducking from Serena’s aces and winners. As Serena hit the winning shot, she fell backwards onto the ground, knowing that she had just equalled Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Grand Slams at the time.
There are two forgettable moments that I have witnessed while watching Serena. The first was the controversial match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka at the 2018 US Open final which she lost and had a game taken from her at a crucial moment in the match.
The second, even more painful, was the 2019 Wimbledon final, in which Serena Williams lost to Simona Halep in under one hour. I was in the United States when Serena Williams defeated Barbora Strycova to qualify for the final. Since Serena had filled her part of the bargain in reaching the final of Wimbledon, I had to fulfil my part of the bargain by getting the ticket and making my way to Centre Court to cheer her in the final. On Friday, 12 July 2019, I arrived at Washington Dulles Airport to get a flight back to London. The flight was delayed by 45 minutes, so I arrived in London 45 minutes later on 13 July 2019 (the day of the ladies’ final, which was scheduled for 2 pm). After collecting my luggage from the baggage reclaim area at Heathrow, I discovered something was missing from my luggage. I spent about thirty minutes with the BA officials to track the missing item. Realising that I was running out of time to be at Centre Court, I took a taxi home, opened the door, dropped my bag and headed straight to SW19 (without bathing). After clearing through the security gates, I ran straight to Centre Court, took the lift and got to my seat a minute before Queen Serena was about to serve. Barely catching my breath, I watched as Simona Halep broke Serena in the first game. From that moment on, I knew it would not be a good day in the office for us. Fifty-six minutes later, the match was over.
Serena Rocks Racists Suck T-Shirt Controversy
In 2015, Serena was going for a Calendar Grand Slam at the 2015 US Open, having already captured the Australia Open, French Open and Wimbledon earlier in the year. I flew to the United States to watch her Semi Final match against Roberta Vinci. I wore a white t-shirt with the inscription “Serena Rocks Racists Suck.” As I passed through the security check at Flushing Meadows, a security personnel working for the United States Tennis Association (USTA) told me that I could not enter the grounds because my t-shirt was “derogatory.” While waiting outside, I logged onto my Twitter account and typed that USTA officials had prevented me from entering the US Open for wearing a t-shirt.
My tweet seemed to have caught the attention of “Black Twitter”, and many people began to retweet my message. Eventually, I was let into the grounds to watch the match.
Ever since I have followed Serena, I have worn several t-shirts expressing my support for the Queen. The t-shirts have attracted scrutiny, disdain, amusement and joy from people who have seen them.
Over the years, I have engaged in many writing initiatives regarding Serena Williams. Most of the advocacy has been done to defend Serena’s legacy and challenge the negative bile directed at the Queen. These include letter writing, rejoinders, photo essays, op-ed, articles, petitions etc. Below is a bibliography of my body of work relating to Serena.
Watching Queen Serena has been a very stressful moment for me. Each point she wins or loses is a moment of tension for me, and every rally is like a penalty shootout in a FIFA World Cup final.
At the 2019 US Open, I decided to measure my stress level when Serena plays by wearing a heart rate monitor to record what goes on internally in my body when I watch her play. During her final match against Bianca Andrescu, I put on a Tom Tom monitor for 1 hour 30 minutes (6 minutes shy of the duration of the match). Under normal circumstances, my resting heartbeat is between 50 to 53 beats per minute (bpm).
During the match, my average heart bpm was 97 bpm, and I burnt 659 calories while watching 1 hour and 30 mins of the match. I reached a maximum heartbeat of 137 bpm around the time when Serena was fighting back after going 1–5 games down in the second set. In watching Serena play, my average heartbeat was 38.5% higher than when I watched Nadal play Daniil Medvedev in the men’s final. Furthermore, I burnt over three times more calories watching Serena. To put the 659 calories I burnt while watching Serena into perspective, on 9 September 2019, I went for a 7.27-kilometre jog from mid-town Manhattan to Downtown Manhattan. I burnt a total of 500 calories during the run, which is about 25% fewer calories than what I expended from sitting down watching Serena play in a Grand Slam final.
THE LAST DANCE
With Serena not playing in the last year, I felt my days of seeing her play live tennis would soon be over. So when she came to Wimbledon in 2022, I queued for eleven hours to secure a ticket for her opening match , which she lost to Harmony Tan. After Serena Williams announced her “evolution” from the game, I knew I had seen the last of Serena Williams plays during her match against Harmony Tan.
The circumstances leading me to become a Serena Williams fan fifteen years ago were pure serendipity (no pun intended). But, as events turned out, it has been an incredible 15 years travelling worldwide to watch Serena. She has made me cry, smile, laugh, scream, and almost faint. In addition, I have been able to meet online and offline tennis friends in different parts of the world who also love Serena. Her impact on me has been so much that even before I had a child, I knew that if it were a boy, one of his names would be Williams and if she were a girl, one of her names would be Serena. So obviously, after I had my boy and girl, I included Williams and Serena in their names.
With Serena finally hanging her racquet, a part of my life has also gone. Although I am sad to see her leave the scene, I am also happy to have witnessed some of her greatest moments and to see her go on a high as the Greatest Of All Times.
It has been an honour being a Serena Williams Stan. Thanks for the memories, Serena.
Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA