EVERETT — In the sports world, there are stars, superstars and icons.
Serena Williams occupies the extremely rarefied air of full-fledged icon-hood. Seeing her in front of you, at close range, is a jolt to the senses, much the same as it was to view Tiger Woods in 2015 when he came to Chambers Bay for the U.S. Open.
Both are so familiar on television screens, larger-than-life figures constantly competing in the limelight of huge events, that you can temporarily forget they are living, breathing humans. The aura they exude is that powerful.
But there Serena was Thursday in Everett, of all places, standing with her teammates on the United States Fed Cup team, smiling serenely while the draw took place. It is a moment to truly savor for those who will get a chance to view, in person, the most powerful women’s athlete perhaps to ever live.
For what appears to be just the second time in her legendary career, and the first in 15 years, Serena (first name suffices) will take to a tennis court in the Pacific Northwest this weekend. She has been competing professionally for 25 years, ever since she debuted as a precocious 14-year-old wunderkind in 1995, yet her travels have brought her among us just once before. That was for a charity exhibition match with her sister, Venus, at Seattle’s KeyArena in 2005. And now she’s back, for a match with import, her icon status having grown exponentially since the last time.
Williams mulled over that question at a news conference for the Fed Cup matchup between Team USA and Latvia that will begin Friday at Angel of the Winds Arena.
After some thought, Serena concluded that this is indeed her first time in this region, temporarily forgetting the 2005 match, which benefited the Ronald McDonald House. A whole new generation of tennis fans has emerged since then.
“So this is good,” she said. “I have a few friends here that have already contacted me and want to come see the games. It’s exciting. I never thought about that. I think one thing exciting about just playing so long, there’s still places I haven’t gotten a chance to go, so when I do have that opportunity, I like to take it.”
Williams will be playing No. 2 singles for U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi’s squad, behind No. 1 Sofia Kenin, who is fresh off her breakthrough Australian Open title that she called “the best experience, the best two weeks of my life.”
That’s Kenin’s first Grand Slam title, which puts her a mere 22 behind Williams. One thrilling aspect of this event is the opportunity to see such a storied player as Williams teamed with the future of American tennis — Kenin, age 21, and Coco Gauff, age 15 — with the more experienced doubles team of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Alison Riske.
“I’m always so excited to see young American players do well,” said the 38-year-old Williams, who has been playing in the Fed Cup since she was 17. “I’m a little bit biased, for obvious reasons.”
Serena and her sister Venus have been the faces of American tennis for more than two decades. As they approach the end of their careers, you can see the outline of the sport’s new wave of stars coming into focus.
“It’s always super exciting to play among the future of tennis, and to know it’s going to be a really strong flag they’re carrying in a really high way is pretty cool,” she said. “Obviously, with the quote unquote veterans (Riske and Mattek-Sands) it’s kind of hard, because it’s like, wait, I’m the ultimate veteran. So I kind of feel they’re the young ones as well.”
At that point, Mattek-Sands called out from the other side of the podium, “Our fearless leader!”
There is much truth to that playful remark. All of women’s tennis looks to Serena as its standard bearer. And even approaching 40, Williams is still a formidable player, ranked ninth in the world (two spots behind Kenin). Since giving birth to a daughter in September 2017, Williams has lost four major finals as she tries to match Margaret Smith Court’s record of 24 major titles, and was knocked out of the Australian Open in the third round.
But Serena is still the player to watch, and fear, in every tournament she plays. Every foe regards her with a mixture of awe and intimidation.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to share the court with such a great player. She’s done so much for our sport,” said Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko, who will oppose Williams on Friday. “She was always my idol since I was growing up. … I’m going to try to enjoy every moment.”
Even though she has experienced just about every moment possible for a tennis player in her career, Williams savors the chance to expose a new part of the country to the sport.
“There’s only a few tournaments in selected states, and particularly women’s tennis do not get to play in lots of areas,” she said. “I feel that’s one thing really exciting about Fed Cup; we can go to states and parts of the country that are not represented. People that are fans of tennis in all the 50 states have an opportunity to see it. It’s really cool to expand that.”
What’s also really cool is that Serena, an icon in real time, has finally touched down again in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a moment to savor.