Learning from Serena Williams

Perhaps you saw the mini-meltdown Serena had on court last night at the U.S. Open in NYC, but if you didn’t see it, you probably heard about it on the news or from a friend.  I felt for Serena because the match wasn’t going well already.  Her opponent came out firing and it was obvious Serena had not seen an opponent this tough all tournament long.  I’ll save for another time my comments on how the women on today’s tennis tour cannot even survive on the same court as champions like Serena, Kim Clijsters (Serena’s opponent last night), Venus, Justine Henin, etc. when they are playing their best.  Serena’s shots just were not falling and she couldn’t seem to find the rhythm she found in previous matches.  And she had been so focused, like in the match she played against Flavia Pennetta in an earlier round.  Maybe it was the rain delays.  Serena just didn’t seem comfortable or in the zone.  But maybe she was about to get there . . . she had been talking to herself, trying to pump herself up and get going.  And just when she was at the point where you hoped she was going to pull out a few of the fabulous serves she is known for and tie up the set score to send it to a tiebreak, the unthinkable happened . . . a foot fault.  Well, it was not so unthinkable given she had been called for a few foot faults earlier in the tournament.  In fact, there was one such call that led to a stare-down of a line official that would make most people turn away.  At this point, Serena had a choice – start taking out her fury (about the line call, about her lack of rhythm and smooth flow of her game, whatever) on someone else or take a deep breath, channel it and move on.  She chose the former.  What a coincidence that I was just reading in Serena’s new book, On the Line, about how she called upon Jehovah (she is a Jehovah’s Witness) to help her in a tough match against Kim Clijsters at Indian Wells while the crowd was booing her, cheering her mistakes, and throwing in a racial epithet every now and then to boot.  Why didn’t her calmer, more spiritual mind prevail last night?  Does she wish it had? 

Maybe she’ll write about that in her next book, or talk about it in an upcoming interview.  Serena is not the only one to receive bad calls (in fact, I just saw Novak Djokovic get a bad call in his semifinal match against Roger Federer at the same U.S. Open).  Of course, there is the matter of Serena getting particularly bad calls at the U.S. Open – think back to her 2004 match against Jennifer Capriati where the umpire overruled the linesperson to call a ball out when it was not even close to being out.  All you have to do is look that up on youtube and it’s infuriating all over again because there were at least 3 bad calls in that match.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand – learning from Serena based on last night’s experience.  Sometimes even a champion loses her composure.  So what’s the takeaway?

  1. Serena, a great champion who is usually cool under pressure and finds a way to rise above it, is just like the rest of us – she can lose her cool too!  And boy did she . . .
  2. We have a choice in our reactions to situations.  We can take the high road and be civil or we can tell people how we really feel.  Last night, Serena actually did both.  She let the linesperson have it and then once she plead her case and lost, she went up to her opponent, shook her hand, and closed out the match in the most dignified way she knew how at the time.  The whole ordeal wasn’t her opponent Kim’s fault after all . . .
  3. Forgiveness.  Forgive the other person for making what you believe is a crucial error in judgment (face it, it was a really bad time for that call), and forgive yourself for not responding to that mistake in a kinder way.  Serena already said after the match that the linesperson probably saw a foot fault and that she won’t fault (no pun intended) the woman for doing her job.  So she already seemed to forgive the linesperson.  I’m not sure she got to the latter part – forgiving herself.  I’m thinking she will given her spiritual foundation.  I’m praying she will so she can move on to the next tournament, the next match.  I’m sure she’ll pay the fine levied by the WTA (just heard it’s $10,000, pocket change for Serena) and I’m sure she’ll be thinking about it and talking about it for weeks to come. 

But’s it’s a learning experience, not just for Serena, but for all of us who encounter our own situations at work, at home, with friends, with family, where we can react like Serena did last night or choose a different route . . .


Nicole Hancock Husband is an attorney and Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (“CPCC”). Nicole graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1996 with a Juris Doctorate and from Ohio State University in 1993 with a Bachelor’s of Science in Business Administration, with a Finance/International Studies double major and Spanish minor.