Monica Seles, a nine-time grand slam singles winner who dominated women’s tennis in the early 1990s, recalled the first time she met 23-time major winner Serena Williams.
The former top-ranked American, now 44, spoke in a Q&A session during a lunch in London hosted by the women’s WTA Tour to celebrate its 45th anniversary shortly before Wimbledon.
“I got to play against Chrissie Evert, Martina Navratilova, and thankfully, they were at the later stages of their careers, I never faced them in their prime, and I got to play against Stefanie (Graf) in her prime, and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and then a young girl by the name of Martina Hingis who burst on the scene and won Wimbledon.”
“And then of course when I was I think 21 years old, had been No. 1 in the world, and I am at a tournament in Chicago, and I am supposed to face a young lady by the name of Serena Williams.”
“Her dad came about three years before to talk to my dad with Venus, and he said ‘My daughters are going to beat your daughter,’ and all this stuff. And we said ‘OK, sure.’ But I could see something in the determination of both Serena and Venus, even myself at that stage, I think I was 17 when I first met them, there was something that I could see that I had and I was like a little bit scared.”
“And then, it went away for three of four years, and then suddenly, I am playing her…and it was the first time I realized the tables are starting to turn.”
“When I was 15, I was playing Chrissie Evert and for the first time, I beat her. In the locker room, Chrissie says to me, ‘Just wait untill you get a taste of this, what I got today.’ And at 15 years old, I am like, ‘Whatever, sure, that time will never come.’ But for Chrissie that time came when she was 34. For me, it came when I was 21.”
The then 16-year-old Serena Williams, who had entered the 1997 Chicago event on a wildcard and was ranked 304th in the world, would end up beating the multiple grand slam winner, 4-6, 6-1, 6-1.
“Serena pretty much smoked me in that match,” said Seles, who beat Williams once in five career meetings between 1997 and 2001.
“I remember calling my agent that night and saying ‘Tony, my days are numbered.’ I could just sense that this was going to be the next great champion. I think it’s terrific because it happened, that’s evolution. It’s a humbling experience to feel that pendulum swing.”
“I got to play Venus Wiliams, Lindsay Davenport, and then the last one from the current era that I got to play was Maria Sharapova. Obviously, I had heard a lot from my former coach Nick Bollettieri, she was playing at the Bollettieri academy. I think she was 16 or 17 when I played her. Thankfully I won that match.”
“But again, I got the sense that it was a matter of years, if not months, before she’s going to be a champion. And the next year, she went on and won Wimbledon.”