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Serena Williams' legacy as told by one of the few players to beat her, Chanda Rubin

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Last night, Serena Williams cleared the first hurdle to winning another championship. On the first day of the U.S. Open, the 23-time Grand Slam champion defeated player Danka Kovinic of Montenegro in a 6-3, 6-3 victory.

(CHEERING)

KELLY: Williams announced earlier this month that she plans to, quote, "evolve away from tennis" after this year's tournament. And if this is indeed the last time the world will see her in action, her legacy is already established both on and off the court.

Chanda Rubin is a former top 10 professional tennis player and a commentator for Tennis Channel. We reached her at the U.S. Open tennis championship in New York. Chanda Rubin, welcome.

CHANDA RUBIN: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So you are a member of a very small club, the club of people who have played Serena Williams and beat her. What is it like staring across the net, waiting to return that serve?

RUBIN: It can be a bit intimidating simply because, you know, as a player, you know that she has one of the best serves, if not the best serve in the history of the women's game.

KELLY: Yeah.

RUBIN: And it's a formidable weapon. She can hit it to each spot in the court, in the service box. So you don't often see it coming. You can't really predict. So it puts more pressure on your serve. So there's a lot of different things that come into play when you're facing Serena Williams.

KELLY: I was going back and reading about that match. And I think the detail I love the most was something that she told you after you won.

RUBIN: Yes. I played her in tournament in Los Angeles, and I was able to win that match in a tiebreak in the third set. That's, like, the closest a match can really be. And at the end of that match, you know, she was so kind to warm me up the next day. And just to give you a little reference, that never happens. If you beat a player or, you know, you play somebody, the next day, they don't want to have anything to do with you. And so she was kind enough to warm me up. And after that, she told me, now go win the tournament. (Laughter) And I said, OK, you know what? I think I should.

KELLY: (Laughter).

RUBIN: And, of course, I did. You know, when you beat Serena, you feel like, OK, I'm playing pretty well.

KELLY: Yeah, I got this.

RUBIN: And I can handle anybody else across the net.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: I mean, we talked about her serve. We talked about what it's like to beat her, you know, at least once. What do you think, though, made her so dominant for so many years? 'Cause she wasn't just great that year or the year after or the year after.

RUBIN: Right.

KELLY: She'd been great for, like, a long time.

RUBIN: Decades - it's incredible to even think about it. And, you know, what I think sets her apart is, you know, the physical skills that she has. You know, she's powerful from the ground. She can go toe-to-toe with anybody and outhit most players, if not every player at any given point. And so you're dealing with that factor as well. How do you catch up to her shots? How do you try to read and get a jump on things?

But I think what has allowed Serena to dominate is the strength of will that she has. It is the ability to get into a pivotal moment in a match and raise her level, to just immerse herself in the competition at hand, to not shy away from that. And I think over the course of a match, a lot of players, they can't match that.

KELLY: And a part of her legacy, obviously, and of her sister Venus' too, is that these were two Black women who spent part of their childhood in Compton dominating a sport that had been seen for so long as white, as elitist. You know, you came up as another Black female player a few years ahead of them. So you've walked that walk. I wonder, how much does it feel like they've changed the sport?

RUBIN: I think they've changed the sport tremendously. You know, first and foremost, their story is one that is incredibly special. And I don't think we'll see that again in sport. It's not easy to win tournaments out here week in and week out, to have that kind of consistency, and they were able to do it. Then you throw into the fact that they were so dynamic as players. You look at, you know, their games and how much fun it was to watch them. You know, they were aggressive. They were attacking players. They showed emotion, Serena in particular. Venus was a bit quieter. But even that contrast made it interesting.

And then they're going up against each other. I mean, now you're getting all these eyes on the sport. And the fact that they are two Black women at that point and minorities in a predominately white sport, it just brought so much interest. And you have now a whole new demographic of, you know, kids and players who can relate and who are interested in the sport.

KELLY: So you - again, you've walked this walk to play at such a high level and then to figure out when it's time to leave the game. And I just wonder, any advice as she's heading into this next chapter of her life?

RUBIN: I mean, it's hard to think of, you know, any advice that, you know, I could give to Serena at this stage. You know, so much of what she's doing is uncharted territory because of who she is. I do think the transition out of the game and into the next phase of her life, I think that can be tricky. And I think it will be interesting to see how she approaches it, having more freedom, not having as much time taken up with practicing and training. And I would just encourage her to embrace it all.

KELLY: Yeah. She is now one Grand Slam title away from tying the all-time record. How do you rate her chances of one more U.S. Open trophy?

RUBIN: Well, first and foremost, I have and will go on record saying I don't think Serena needs to win another major. Getting through this first round, that's a huge milestone. You know, the first rounds of any big tournament, let alone a Grand Slam, are always tricky. And I think for Serena, when she gets going, you got to like her chances. And how incredible would it be if she were able, at the end of this year's U.S. Open, to be holding the trophy? There's still a ways to go. But it's going to be fun watching the ride.

KELLY: Chanda Rubin, thank you.

RUBIN: You're welcome.

KELLY: Chanda Rubin of Tennis Channel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Elena Burnett
Bridget Kelley
Bridget Kelley is the Supervising Senior Editor of NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, All Things Considered.

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