Yesterday I read On the Line by Serena Williams and Daniel Paisner. This is probably not a book for you if you don’t love tennis, and it is certainly not for you if you don’t like Serena (unless you have an open mind, and then this book may swing you into her camp). I am a big Serena fan and I am relatively new to watching versus playing tennis, and for me this book was a good combination of the recent history of women’s tennis and the personal history of Serena Williams, her remarkable parents, and her sisters. On the Line is told in a voice that sounds authentically Serena-like, and with its easy-going and engaging pace, it is a pleasure to read, a cut above the usual tennis/sport biography.
The story of how Richard and Oracene Williams first taught themselves tennis, and then took their five girls to the broken-down courts of Compton and drilled into them the skills, the discipline, and the desire to play tennis was really fascinating. Their story is the American Dream of pursuing a dream for the money, stability, and status; what makes the story so compelling is how the symbiotic relationship between the Williams family, a cohesive and supportive unit, and the local tennis talent (Richard Williams found hitting partners in all types) and tennis community (local tournaments and events), worked to create the superstars Venus and Serena Williams. It takes a village, and in the case of the Williams sisters, it took an extremely close family, strong faith, and support from the local tennis community, to become who they are today. Not a bad formula for success, no matter how you define success: family, faith (or another form of connection to a larger vision — no religion required), and community.
The reason that I read On the Line in the first place was not because of the US Open fever I find myself in every year but because I knew that Serena lost a sister six years ago and I wanted to know what she had to say about her oldest sister’s sudden death and the aftermath of that death on herself, her family, and her tennis. For those of you who have been following this year of mine, reading my reviews of the books I read every day, you know that I lost my oldest sister over four years ago; I began this year of reading in part to find solace for a death that was sudden, undefendable, unexplainable, and unimaginable.
And after reading On the Line, I have had an epiphany. It is strange in a way, this sudden and powerful insight coming so close to the end of my book-a-day year, and being sparked by a celebrity biography. But as sudden as the insight may seem, I know that it has been a cumulative process, the books I have read have been provoking and percolating and pit-stopping in my brain throughout the year. And now I know. I know that I do not want to define my sister’s place in my life by her death. I do not want the most important thing about my sister, the biggest part of her or the most impact she had on me, to be how she died. I want, I choose, for it to be how she lived. Because it is her life that matters, and always will, not her death. Her place in my life is defined by everything that she did, everything she showed me, the way she led me to new ideas; it is every way that she was to me, as the oldest sister, scholar, beauty, friend; it is the way I worshipped her and bugged her and loved her. Who she was is what I want to dwell on, not her horrible loss and my horrible pain but her wonderful life. I will anchor myself with her life, and not with her death. Death took all choices away from her, but not from me, and I choose to live on with her beside me always, alive in my very good and happy memories of her life.
Serena does not say anything like this in On the Line but her shared thoughts on her sister’s sudden and untimely death were surprisingly sharp, smart, and cogent. I say surprisingly because so many religious people I know were no help after my sister’s death; they wanted me to see God’s design where I could only see chaos. Serena, deeply religious, saw chaos also. She admits that her religion could not help her after her sister died, nor could her tennis or her family: instead Serena had to come to that place, that moment, when she chose what to do with her life. That is what we owe to our sisters, choosing our lives.
On the Line is a sports biography, inspirational, exciting at times, and with little probing or critical thinking. But it is also a memoir about one girl’s experience as the youngest daughter in a very close family, her dream of being a tennis star, her tragic loss, and her powerful choice. Serena is now a woman, and she has energy, grit, and determination, as well as more than a bit of charm and fun.