There’s been plenty of star power in the Stadium 1 seats this week in Indian Wells: Ageless boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard, husband-wife actors Ben Stiller and Christine Taylor, tech innovator Bill Gates, etc. But, for tennis purists, none mustered more awe than the visage of nine-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1 Monica Seles, who during a dominant stretch in the 1990s asserted herself as one of the fiercest competitors the sport has ever known. We sat down for a candid conversation with the Tennis Hall of Famer at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
We’re in an interesting time in the women’s game, a time of transition: Serena Williams hasn’t played a match since Wimbledon last summer. There’s some significant parity, whether it’s the defending champion here, Paula Badosa, or Iga Swiatek, Coco Gauff, Emma Raducanu, Leylah Fernandez, Ons Jabeur, etc. There are always cycles in this sport, but talk about where women’s tennis is right now.
The women’s game is in a great place right now. Even as a former player, when I look at a draw, I have no clue who’s going to win it. I think that’s the story here also; the players are so close in terms of the level. On any given day, anybody can win the tournament, let’s say, compared to my era, when you had the few people who you kind of knew would be in the semifinals. It was much more predictable. I think it’s great for the sport, it’s great for the upcoming players who want to be on the tour one day to see that variety, to say, “If she can do it, I can do it.” It’s a great motivation for the players. The prize money is amazing now. The benefits of the tour are unbelievable. What the WTA has done in terms of the growth of the sport is truly magical. Selfishly, I really hope Serena comes back. I think it would be great to see her chase that record, kind of what we’re seeing with Rafa, Roger and Novak. As a former player, to me it’s just unbelievable. I would think it’s not possible. And they still keep going. I think that’s a credit to the sport, too, to make sure that the stars are staying longer in the sport, that whole longevity-recovery period. And then the younger players, it’s so exciting. It’s only a matter of time before they break through.
In the record books, Serena is a Slam away from Margaret Court. Does she need another to be considered the greatest of all time?
I think that’s a tough one because it’s so hard to compare different eras, different times in the history of the sport. She is one of the greatest. Who’s the greatest? I think they’re all truly great. For me, when I look at her, Margaret Court, Stefanie Graf, Chrissie Evert, Martina Navratilova…
I’m still under that 10 number. These ladies are above by quite a few. That is an unbelievable record. I think also the barriers Serena was able to break were so huge off the court for us women. That she was able to have a daughter and come back to the sport is just fantastic to see. That has trickled down to someone like Victoria Azarenka, to lower ranked players. That’s fantastic that we, as women, don’t have to make that choice between a family and a career. In terms of that, Serena is just a champion to me both on and off the court, broken so many barriers. As a former player who competed against her, I would love to see her play, but I also understand the sport is not kind to us after a certain stage. It’s super competitive. It will definitely be a challenge for her to come back, but if anybody can do that challenge, that is Serena.
When you look at her legacy, is her story underreported considering all that she and Venus overcame, coming out of Compton to the top of the sport?
Both Serena and Venus, when I met them and their dad, Richard, when they were youngsters and I was starting to be well known in my sport, I sensed both of them had something special. But I always felt Serena — sorry, Venus — always had that something extra, even when I first met them. She has been an amazing competitor. When you played both Serena and Venus, you knew that every point was like a match point. I had to show up 110 percent. I just respected that so much. Being their teammates on the Billie Jean King Federation Cup team, at the Olympics, I got to spend time with them. They’re just such great girls, women, great teammates. I just cherish those times. Now that I’ve moved away from the sport, it’s just really wonderful to see how great they have adjusted in life, having Serena have a daughter and have a life outside of tennis. Because your career is important, but you also want to find happiness. I think she’s inspired so many young players. We see how much they’ve inspired Coco. I think she’s going to be the next generation of American tennis. Mr. Williams has a movie, King Richard, as we all know, but I also think their mom, Oracene, should have a movie because she’s truly one of the most remarkable women that I’ve met. She reminded me so much of my dad. No matter who her daughters played, or who I played, my dad and herself would always be very fair, and always congratulate us. You don’t see that fair play so much in our sport.
You were away from the sport for a while, but have been more visible lately, in the President’s Box at the US Open, here in Indian Wells. What brings you back? What do you love about it?
For me, I always loved to play tennis. It was that basic. When I started as a young girl in my former country, when I moved to the U.S. with all the dreams I had, some that I realized, some that I didn’t, it was always the love of the game. I’m forever thankful, truly, to both my dad and my mom, who always nurtured that and made sure that that never got lost. I always had a very positive relationship with the sport. Now, when I mentor some young girls, it’s very important for me to kid of pass that on, because in tennis, yes, the careers are longer, but you still have a life outside of the sport. I think with today’s social media continuously having to be on, and everything is magnified, it’s even more important to have a balance. Do I miss the competitive side of it? Probably not. But coming to a tournament like Indian Wells, it’s such a treat being around the players, seeing some of the former players, maybe even getting to hit a few balls, today getting to watch Nadal hit, as a player, this is like a dream come true. I really loved my playing career, and I’m really enjoying my after career.
What is the power of tennis, as a collective group of athletes, to speak out on issues, be it matters of racial and social injustice or global conflicts?
I think, in general, sports have a unifying power around the world. No matter where you are in the world, sports speaks its own language. I’m a board member for Laureus Sport for Good. Our patron was Nelson Mandela. Sports has the power to make amazing changes in the world. And for us women even more so, and that is so much due to somebody like Billie Jean King, who started in the States with Title IX. We’re one of the first sports for women in Asia, in the Middle East, places like that. We’ve broken so many barriers. I think that has to be continued.
Mental health has really come to the forefront in sports. We’ve seen Naomi Osaka speak about it in tennis, Simone Biles at the Olympics, Iga Swiantek with a psychologist on her team, even Nick Kyrgios touching on the vulnerability of athletes in this age of criticism on social media. Do you ever wish you had the platform or the resources that are available to these athletes today?
Absolutely. It’s terrific how much more open players are allowed to be speaking about their mental health struggles both on and off the court. Because in my generation, I know when I tried to even speak a little bit about what I was going through, it was kind of like — oh, my gosh, it was cut down very fast. It’s a different era now, different times. It’s the same issues though. They affect players maybe in a different way but, essentially, it’s the same because tennis is such an individual sport. The pressure is truly on you to perform. You are, in a way, your own corporation. Yes, you have your support team, your coach, trainers, agents but, essentially, you’re the captain of that team. You kind of have to figure that out in your own. I don’t think there’s really a manual for it, but it’s fantastic that there is talk of mental health, and there’s no stigma attached to it anymore compared to my generation. I just hope that keeps going further and further.
Is there are young player out there that you see some of yourself in?
No. because I truly believe we’re such individuals. In terms of my playing style, it was so unique, with two hands on both sides, a lefty, I mean, just totally unorthodox. But in terms of being competitive and just looking at one ball at a time, I’d probably have to say Nadal, because we both have that mindset that when we step on the court, we don’t pay attention to what’s happening off the court. When I watch him, I’m like, “Oh, boy, I was like that!” Any version you are, as long as you’re staying true to yourself and you put the absolute maximum effort out there when you step on the court, and you compete hard and fair, if I was coaching somebody, that’s all I could ask.
For a technical angle, how has the game changed, progressed, since you stopped playing on the tour?
I think the game is pretty much still the same. The balls, the racquets have changed a bit; the courts, the surfaces — the game has definitely slowed down, which was probably needed because of the shortness of the points. But I wouldn’t say we had such a breakthrough yet. In terms of playing style, Martina Navratilova broke through a certain level of the sport, then I think Serena has broken through a certain level of the sport, but we have not had yet, after Serena, that break where we would say, “Wow, this person has brought something to the game that we know is very special. As a former player, I can’t wait for that to happen.
That’s the exciting part about the game though, right? It always cycles through. When Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi retired, we wondered who was next. We’ll ask those same questions about Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, about Serena.
That’s the beauty of the game, I think. To me, if you’re a kid at home watching all these champions, that should be your motivation, because you always want to do better than your idol, you always want to innovate. I’ve tried to do that in my own small way. Someone like Serena innovated to an even higher level. To me, that’s inspiration.