Writing About Serena Williams Is Writing About America

From an Inside the Times column by Emmett Lindner headlined “Writing About Serena Is Writing About America”:

On Monday, the tennis star Serena Williams walked onto the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York before a crowd of nearly 24,000. It was the opening night of the U.S. Open tournament, which she has won six times. Public figures including President Bill Clinton, Queen Latifah and Anna Wintour watched from the stands. The buzz was palpable, the air in the stadium, electric — those watching knew it would probably be Ms. Williams’s last tournament.

Last month, Ms. Williams, in an essay published by Vogue magazine, wrote that she was “evolving away from tennis” — effectively announcing that she planned to retire from the sport after the U.S. Open, where in 1999 she won her first of 23 Grand Slam singles titles. Heading into the tournament, the poetic arc was on everyone’s minds, as a lifetime of practice, endurance and grit had brought her back to the courts one last time.

Ms. Williams’s impact on the sport and culture at large has been seismic, and a flurry of news surrounded her arrival at the tournament.

“It’s a real opportunity to be writing about a lot of different things when you’re writing about Serena Williams,” said Matt Futterman, a Times Sports reporter. “Whether it’s racial equality, economic equality, or tennis equality.”

The scale might have been daunting, but Times journalists across the newsroom were prepared for the moment. Coverage of Ms. Williams in the days leading up to the U.S. Open had been in the works for weeks, and in some cases, years. This week, it all came together to highlight Ms. Williams and her legacy.

“I’ve seen a lot of things in my time working at The Times,” said Christopher Clarey, a reporter who has covered sports for more than 25 years. “In terms of sports, this is certainly one of the biggest mobilizations I’ve seen.”

As soon as Ms. Williams announced that she would leave the sport, Shawna Richer, a Times Sports editor who has spearheaded much of the coverage, started a Times package to track the event. Some stories were reflective; others explored Ms. Williams’s impact on the future of tennis.

A little more than two weeks after the retirement news, Ms. Richer held an interdepartmental meeting, where editors from several desks, including Styles, Metro, Graphics and the Live team, volleyed ideas. She wanted to hear any and all story concepts to detail the breadth of Ms. Williams’s influence. Ideas included how Ms. Williams used clothing as a statement; how fans in New York City united around her; and a look at the debate over her status as the greatest player of all time.

To plan future stories, the team also looked to the past. Mr. Clarey last year had written a “hold for orders” article — a story that’s written in advance and made ready to publish when appropriate — that reflected on Ms. Williams’s legacy. Mr. Clarey and editors culled portions of the story to inform coverage leading up to the U.S. Open.

The challenge was to “encapsulate the career, because there’s so much of it,” Mr. Clarey said.

While the reporters were busy shaping a decades-long career into thoughtful articles, the photography team looked through photos from across Ms. Williams’s tennis legacy. The number of photos of Ms. Williams in The Times’s database is probably in the “low thousands,” said Elijah Walker, a Sports photo editor. Mr. Walker and the photo team went through them to find moments that captured her tenacity, power and grace on the court.

“You want to do the story as much justice as you can,” Mr. Walker said.

The Sports team is also reporting on the action on the court. The Times has nine credentialed photographers assigned to the U.S. Open; at any given time, two to three are on the ground. Mr. Clarey and Mr. Futterman have both also been on site this week, helping to update The Times’s live blog on the event.

Still, focus remains drawn to Ms. Williams, whose upset win on Wednesday set up her third-round singles match on Friday. No matter the outcome, she will be remembered as one of the greatest tennis competitors of all time, and Times journalists will continue to write about her legacy.

“Writing about Serena is writing about America,” Mr. Futterman said. “It’s writing about stardom, fashion, economics, culture, in all kinds of great and upsetting and complicated ways.”

Emmett Lindner has covered international protests, worked on live briefings and asked the tough questions about frozen reindeer meat for The Times.

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