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Serena: Three Players Shaped My Style

By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Growing up on the cracked public park courts of Compton, California, Serena Williams was driven by a singular tennis dream.

To be Venus Williams.

More: Serena Retiring

Older sister Venus was not only Serena's inspiration and best friend, but she was also her tennis role model.

"What didn't I do to try to copy Venus when I was younger," Serena said. "Her favorite color was my favorite color. Her favorite animal was my favorite animal. She wanted to win Wimbledon. I wanted to win Wimbledon."

The 23-time Grand Slam champion announced she will close her brilliant career after the US Open, which starts on August 29th. In an an interview with Vogue Magazine, Serena credited Venus with transforming her into "a savage fighter."

"If you watched King Richard, then you know that when I was little, I was not very good at tennis," Serena Williams told Vogue. "I was so sad when I didn’t get all the early opportunities that Venus got, but that helped me. It made me work harder, turning me into a savage fighter."

Champions learn from loss and Serena said watching and learning from Venus' defeats accelerated her through the learning curve because "I made sure I wouldn't lose the same way."

"I’d travel to tournaments with Venus as her hitting partner, and if there was an open slot, I’d play," Serena said. "I followed her around the world and watched her. When she lost, I understood why, and I made sure I wouldn’t lose the same way. That’s how I started to move so fast up the rankings, because I learned the lessons from Venus’s losses instead of the hard way, from my own. It was as if I were playing her matches, too."

Former world No. 1 in singles and doubles, Serena shared in addition to emulating Venus, she tried "to copy" two other iconic champions: Pete Sampras and Monica Seles. Imagine the young Serena studying Sampras and Seles and setting out to synthesize their strengths into her own style of play in trying to build a dominant serve like Sampras and a damaging return game like Seles.

"I’m a good mimic. Growing up I tried to copy Pete Sampras," Serena said. "I loved Monica Seles, and then I studied Monica Seles.

"I watched, I listened, then I attacked. But if I hadn’t been in Venus’s shadow, I would never be who I am. When someone said I was just the little sister, that’s when I got really fired up."

A 17-year-old Serena Williams famously defeated a young Kim Clijsters, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and world No. 1 Martina Hingis to capture her maiden major title at the 1999 US Open.

The Williams sisters initially played with Yonex racquets, like Monica Seles, before switching to Wilson, the brand Sampras played with his entire ATP career.

In a past interview with Tennis Now, Venus Williams said she modeled her serve on Sampras and Boris Becker—and offered a key serving tip for players of all levels.

"Actually, Sampras and Becker were my serving role models growing up," Venus told Tennis Now. "I watched them both growing up.

"The key to a good serve? Ultimately, I think it's timing. When you're relaxed your timing is on. And when you're not relaxed you can go too fast in the serve motion. So the key is being relaxed. Obviously, you need to have those techniques down and having your timing on point is very important. Those are keys."

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve