When Serena Williams saw a young U.S. tennis player distraught after a loss at a tournament earlier this season, she did what just felt right.
Williams, 37, went over to console 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova, even if that sort of thing doesn’t usually happen on tour.
“I really take to all the young girls out there that are doing well. I was heartbroken when she walked into that locker room, and I wanted to be there for her, because I have been there. And it’s an interesting position, because it’s just, like, no one ever says anything, even though I feel like a lot of people want to,” said Williams, who will meet Sofia Kenin, another up-and-coming American, in the French Open’s third round Saturday.
“I’m just going to go for it now and do what my emotions want me to do and not do the ‘professional thing’ — because maybe that’s not professional,” she continued. “I’ve just got to do what I feel and act how I feel.”
Here is how Anisimova recalled the post-match encounter with Williams at the Miami Open: “It was a really long match and I was super upset in the locker room. Serena actually came up to me and we shared a little bit of a chat. That was really nice of her, and I’ll remember it forever.”
Anisimova reached the third round in Paris for the first time with a 6-4, 6-2 victory over No. 11 seed Aryna Sabalenka on Thursday. When the New Jersey native got to the fourth round at the Australian Open in January, she was the youngest American to get that far at any major tournament since — guess who! — the 16-year-old Williams at the 1998 French Open.
The following year, Williams played Steffi Graf twice, their only meetings. Graf retired in 1999 with 22 Grand Slam singles titles, then a record in the Open era; Williams eclipsed that total in 2017.
“I remember thinking, ‘Thank God I had a chance just to play her, because I grew up watching her,'” Williams said.
Now Williams is the one facing opponents who grew up watching her.
“I really love all the new young players. Like, it’s just so exciting. I feel like tennis has done so much for me,” Williams said, “and to see a new generation come through is great.”
Kenin, a 20-year-old who is ranked 35th and based in Florida, is a big hitter who has yet to get to the fourth round at a major tournament in eight previous appearances.
She has played only one match so far in Paris this week, because the woman she was supposed play in the second round, 22nd-seeded Bianca Andreescu of Canada, withdrew beforehand with an injured right shoulder.
“I have been watching her. I think it will be a good match,” Williams said. “She has a lot to bring to the table.”