It’s a gray afternoon on February 7th and the windows of the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville, North Carolina are decorated with large, human-sized tennis balls. Crows pick through the trash near a sign announcing the symphony, and someone has vomited coleslaw in the mulch near a satellite truck. It is one of the first days this year that I am able to smell the dirt itself, and the promise of spring makes the idea of tennis feel more salient. The Fed Cup is in town, and the U.S. team is preparing to square off against the Netherlands in the first round of the World Cup of women’s tennis.
The Americans will go on to win later this weekend to advance to the second round, but those matches are days away. The last time I was in this arena I was covering a Trump rally, but today, I’m here to watch Serena Williams practice. I hold reverence for the art of discipline, and I believe that if you want to meet greatness where it lives, you must go to practice. So I grab a seat courtside next to a bevy of photographers and get ready.
Venus Williams comes out before her sister, her long strides carrying her into the arena while Captain Kathy Rinaldi lobs balls to CoCo Vandeweghe. Venus is endlessly springy, light on her feet as she deftly wields her left arm as a counterbalance, like a cat with its tail. As she warms up, her silence gives way as each exertion becomes audible with a closed-mouth hmmm! It’s a light noise, almost breaking like a question, and it suits her movements well. While many tennis players ground themselves with wide, low stances, Venus bends over in a casual way, her knees more soft than angled. Her motions seem effortless, their results anything but.
Serena is next. Four days from now will mark her first time on the court since winning the Australian Open during the early stages of her pregnancy. Childbirth and its after-effects nearly killed her, and yet, here she is, mother of a five-month-old, preparing her return to international competition.
Her ordeal started with the emergency c-section that brought her child Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. into the world. After the scare that precipitated the surgery—her infant’s heart rate plummeting to precarity—it seemed all was fine. But, as she told Vogue Magazine, things quickly took a turn for the worse. The day after the birth, Serena became short of breath. She’d had a pulmonary embolism before, and she knew the symptoms. She was also on her blood thinning regimen, due to the present circumstances. To avoid scaring her mother, she went into the hallway, grabbed the nearest nurse, and explained that she needed a CT scan and a heparin drip. The medical team did not believe her, checking her legs for clots and finding nothing. It was only when they gave her the scan she initially demanded that they found the blood clots in her lungs.