John McEnroe on Serena Williams
Growing up in Compton, California, it’s not expected that you’re going to be the greatest tennis player who ever lived, one of the greatest — if not the greatest — athletes in the history of the sport. It’s a situation that comes along once every hundred years.
Serena has had something special ever since I saw her at eight years old, [when] I hit a few balls with her and her sister. But I didn’t realize at the time that she’d be as great as she is. She has this will — more will than any other male or female player I’ve ever seen. Even though she has accomplished a lot, she wants more. That’s something that separates a champion from a truly great champion. She wasn’t satisfied when she got as many majors as her sister. She wasn’t satisfied when she caught up to [past champions] and she doesn’t seem satisfied now that she’s claimed the record for singles title in the Open Era. She wants to be considered the best ever.
Even though she has accomplished a lot, she wants more. That’s something that separates a champion from a truly great champion.
She’s the player who’s gotten out of more trouble, out of more match-point situations, out of more match-game situations; she’s in another gear, mentally. It’s hard to dig deep in your soul to find what it is that allows you to continue — to not only want it but to train for it and accept it. When that happens, people may treat you differently. They may resent it. They may have trouble accepting it, may not respect it, so you put yourself out on an island a little bit.
Early in her career, she didn’t play a great deal of tournament tennis, and a lot of people around the sport thought that hurt her. Ironically, it ended up helping her play as long as she has, because there’s still mental freshness to her that has allowed her to maybe even improve in her 30s, which is extremely hard to do in tennis.
She’s been able to find that comfort level, where she’s been able to excel and bring out the best in her tennis. There’s a lot that she’s been able to show younger players and there’s a lot to be learned from what she has done.