If Serena Williams wins Wimbledon Saturday (July 11), she will likely say — as she usually does after a big win — “I want to thank Jehovah God.”
Williams, 33, is the No. 1-ranked women’s tennis player in the world, known for her relentless will, bullying strokes and withering speed. She is also a Jehovah’s Witness, a faith that encourages members to separate from the broader world and discourages them from competitive sports on the grounds that it promotes nationalism, violence and celebrity — all things Witnesses are supposed to avoid.
And yet for Williams, her faith is like a secret weapon, a stealthy supply of strength and perseverance that some observers say is as vital to her game as her 120 mph serve. A Saturday win would bring her one step closer to a “calendar slam” — the rarely achieved four Grand Slam tournament wins in one year.
How has Williams balanced her faith and the winner’s circle? It is a subject she and her sister Venus, also a tennis star and former No. 1 player, have discussed only rarely. But Serena Williams has left a trail of comments that show her belief in God, and especially her identity as a Witness, has bolstered her already formidable tennis talents.
“I have to thank Jehovah God for this,” Serena Williams told the crowd after receiving the trophy at the Australian Open in January, her sixth win there. “I was down and out and he helped me today and I just said prayers, not to win but to be strong and to be healthy and in the end I was able to come through so I have to give the glory to him first and foremost.”
She and her four older sisters became Witnesses after their mother, Oracene, converted to the faith in the early 1980s. Serena Williams has said she attends church and has gone door-to-door, as Witnesses are required to do, to hand out tracts and evangelize.
In 2012, her older half-sister Isha Price told the writer John Jeremiah Sullivan, who had a rare sit-down interview with Serena that explored her faith, that the tennis stars’ fame sometimes gives them access that other Witnesses might not get.
“And they saw that as a blessing — getting to talk to people who would not ordinarily let them in,” Sullivan told The New York Times after the interview. “But there were other houses, she said, where people didn’t know who they were and were just as hostile or unreceptive as to anyone else.”
Sullivan added that their family also told him the famous sisters “have witnessed to some of the players. According to Oracene, at least a few people have been curious, if not receptive.”
If Serena Williams’ celebrity has been a blessing, it has also been a curse — at least in the eyes of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. At the 2009 U.S. Open, she allegedly threatened a line judge after a ruling went against her and was disqualified. What she actually said has been disputed, but the judge held that her life had been threatened. That brought local church elders to Serena Williams for what Sullivan described as a “dressing down.”
“What bothered me most was that I was representing my religion,” she said about the incident. “I just felt like anyone who knew I was a Witness was stumbled. And I really don’t want to stumble anybody . . . They had to have a talk with me.”
A national church representative declined to comment for this story. Other famous Jehovah’s Witnesses include Prince, and the late singers Michael Jackson and Selena.
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SOURCE: Religion News Service