There was a lot of star power in the seats of Stadium 1 this week in Indian Wells: boxing superstar Sugar Ray Leonard, actors husband and wife Ben Stiller and Kristen Taylor, tech creator Bill Gates, etc. Stunning from the looks of nine-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1 Monica Seles, who asserted herself during a dominant period in the 1990s 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 for a fun time in the women’s game, a transition period: Serena Williams hasn’t played a match since Wimbledon last summer. There is some big parity, whether it’s the defending champion here, Paula Padusa, Ega Sweetek, Coco Gauff, Emma Raducano, Lilla Fernandez, Onz Jaber, etc. There are always courses in the sport, but talk about a place Women’s tennis now. .
The ladies’ game is in a great place now. Even as a former player, when I look at the tie, I have no idea who will win it. I think that’s the story here too; The players are very close to the level. On any given day, anybody could win the tournament, let’s say, compared to my era, when you had a few people that you kind of knew would be in the semifinals. It was more predictable. I think it’s great for this sport, it’s great for up-and-coming players who want to be on the tour someday to see this variety, to say, “If she can do it, I can do it.” It is a great motivator for the players. The prize money is amazing now. The benefits of the tour are incredible. What the WTA has done in terms of the growth of the sport is truly magical. Selfish, I really hope Serena is back. I think it would be great to see her chasing that record, kind of seeing with Rafa and Roger and Novak. As a former player, this is unbelievable to me. I think this is not possible. And they still continue to work. I think it’s down to the sport as well, to make sure the stars stay longer in the sport, that whole recovery period from longevity. Then the younger players, it’s very exciting. It’s only a matter of time before they break through.
In the record books, Serena is a peace away from Margaret Court. Does she need another to be considered the greatest of all time?
I think this is difficult because it is very difficult to compare different eras and different times in the history of the sport. She is one of the greats. Who is the greatest? I think they are all really cool. As for me, when I look at her, Margaret Court, Stephanie Graf, Chrissy Evert, Martina Navratilova…
I’m still below that number 10. These ladies are a little higher. This is an incredible record. I also think the barriers that Serena was able to break were too huge off the court for us women. It was great seeing that she was able to have a daughter and get back into sports. And this was passed down to someone like Victoria Azarenka, for the lower rated players. It’s great that, as women, we don’t have to choose between family and work. In terms of that, Serena is just a hero to me on and off the court, and she’s broken a lot of barriers. As a former player I’ve competed against, I’d love to see her play, but I also understand that the sport isn’t kind to us after a certain point. It is very competitive. It would definitely be tough for her to come back, but if anyone can take on this challenge, this is Serena.
When you look at her legacy, is her story under-reported considering all that she and Venus overcame, and catapulted from Compton to the top of the sport?
Both Serena and Venus, when I met them and their father Richard, when they were young and starting to be known in my sport, I felt that they both had something special. But I always felt like Serena—sorry, Venus—always had that extra bit of something, even when I first met them. It was an amazing competition. When you played with both Serena and Venus, you knew that each point was a match point. I had to show up at 110 percent. I just respect that so much. Being their fellow Billie Jean King Fed Cup teammates, at the Olympics, I had to spend time with them. They are just great girls, ladies and great teammates. I just cherish those times. Now that she’s away from the sport, it’s really cool to see how amazing they are adapting in life, as Serena has given birth to a daughter and has a life outside of tennis. Because your career is important, but you also want to find happiness. I think it inspired a lot of young players. We see how inspiring they are to Coco. I think it will be the next generation of American tennis. Mr. Williams has a movie, King Richard, as we all know, but I also think their mother, Orasin, should be in a movie because she really is one of the most famous women I’ve ever met. It reminded me a lot of my dad. No matter who her daughters played, or who she played, my father and herself will always be very fair, and always congratulate us. You don’t see this fair play often in our sport.
You’ve been away from the sport for a while, but you’ve been more visible lately, in the president’s chest at the US Open, here in Indian Wells. What brings you back? What do you love about it?
For me, I’ve always loved playing tennis. That was essential. When I started as a little girl in my ex, when I moved to the States with all the dreams I had, some dreams I had, and some I didn’t, it was always the love of the game. I am forever grateful, truly, to both my father and my mother, who always looked after it and made sure that it was never lost. I’ve always had a very positive relationship with sports. Now, when I’m channeling some young girls, it’s very important for me to avoid that, because in tennis, yes, careers are longer, but you still have a life outside of sports. I think with social media still running today, and everything being amplified, it’s important to have a balance. Do I miss the competitive side of it? Mostly not. But coming to a tournament like Indian Wells, it’s such a pleasure to be around the guys, to see some ex-players, maybe even get some balls, and today watching Nadal hit, as a player, that’s like a dream come true. I’ve really loved my playing career, and I’m really enjoying my career after.
What is the power of tennis, as a collective group of athletes, in speaking out about issues, whether they are about racial and social injustice or global conflicts?
I think, in general, sport has a unifying force around the world. No matter where you are in the world, sport speaks its own language. I am a board member of Laureus Sport for Good. Our patron was Nelson Mandela. Sport has the power to make amazing changes in the world. And for us women more than that, and that’s a lot thanks to someone like Billie Jean King, who started in the States with the title IX. We are one of the first women’s sports in Asia, in the Middle East, places like this. We have broken many barriers. I think this must continue.
Mental health has really come to the fore in sports. We’ve seen Naomi Osaka talk about it at tennis, Simone Biles at the Olympics, Ega Swiantek with a psychiatrist on her team, even Nick Kyrgios addressing the weakness of athletes in this age of criticism on social media. Have you ever wished you had the platform or resources available to these athletes today?
at all. It’s great that open-minded players are allowed to talk about their mental struggles both on and off the field. Because in my generation, I know when I tried to talk a little bit about what I was going through, it was like — oh, my gosh, it snapped so fast. It’s a different era now, different times. It’s the same problems though. It affects the players maybe in a different way, but, basically, it’s the same because tennis is an individual sport. Really pressure you to perform. You are, in a way, your own company. Yes, you have your own support team, your own coach, coaches, and agents, but basically, you are the leader of that team. You have to find out for yourself. I don’t think there’s really evidence for that, but it’s great that there’s been talk of mental health, and there’s no longer a stigma attached to it compared to my generation. I just hope he keeps going further than that.
Is there a young player out there that you see some of yourself in?
No, because I really think we are such individuals. In terms of my playing style, he was very unique, his hands on both sides, left, I mean, totally funky. But in terms of competition and looking at only one ball at a time, I would probably say Nadal, because we both have that mentality that when we step on the court we don’t pay attention to what’s happening on the tennis court. When I watch it, I’m like, “Oh, boy, I was like that!” Which version are you, as long as you stay true to yourself and give your maximum effort when you step on the court, and you compete with strength and integrity, if I’m coaching someone, that’s all I can ask for.
Technically, how has the game changed, and progressed, since you stopped playing the Tour?
I think the game is still the same. Balls and rackets slightly changed. Pitches, surfaces – the game has definitely slowed down, which may have been needed due to the tightness of the points. But I wouldn’t say that we have such a hack yet. In terms of playing style, Martina Navratilova broke into a certain level of sport, and then I think Serena broke into a certain level of sport, but we haven’t yet, after Serena, got that break where we say, ‘Wow, this guy has brought something into the game and we know that So special. As a former player, I can’t wait for that to happen.
This is the exciting part of the game, isn’t it? It is always through cycles. When Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi retired, we wondered who would be next. We will ask the same questions about Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Serena.
I think that’s the beauty of the game. For me, if you are a kid at home watching all these heroes, that should be your motivation, because you always want to do better than your idol, you always want to innovate. I tried to do it my little way. Someone like Serena has innovated to a higher level. For me, that is the inspiration.