‘She was drilling shots at me:’ US Open sparks memories of a juniors loss to Serena Williams

Rhiannon Potkey shared a photo on her Twitter account Friday night after Serena Williams’ third-round US Open match that immediately went viral.

It was a film photo of a 9-year-old Williams holding the winner’s trophy. She’s in an all-white outfit with the biggest smile on her face. Standing next to her and the tournament director is Potkey, 10, with the runner’s up trophy. It was December 1990 in a Girls 10s Division juniors tournament in Orange County, California.

Potkey, now a sports journalist who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, was mad she had lost. It was a straight-set loss at that (she remembers winning a few games, but doesn’t remember the final score). But, she had made the finals in the tournament in South California, and her proud father stood on the sidelines snapping photos of his daughter. So, she smiled for the camera.

Potkey had photos with several players from the juniors tournaments which her parents developed periodically. But she saved this one. Why? Her coach asked her to.

“One day that girl will win a lot of Grand Slams,” her coach had said to her.

The coach could not have been more right. Nine years later, when Williams was 18, she won her first Grand Slam trophy at the 1999 US Open. The rest is history.

But, back to that 1990 tournament. It was Potkey’s first time playing Williams. Williams usually played in divisions way beyond her age, because she was that good, but that day she was playing in her own age group.

Potkey might not have faced Williams yet, but Serena and her sister, Venus, already had an enthralling presence in the Los Angeles tennis community. Potkey would look at her upcoming draws and pray that the Williams sisters (particularly Venus, who was the same age as Potkey) weren’t on her side of the draw.

“Please just give me a chance to make a few wins,” she would pray before every draw.

She never faced Venus, but played Serena twice, once after the loss to her in the finals of the tournament in question. She remembered losing the second meeting too in straight sets.

Serena would hit so hard, so fast, that Potkey didn’t think she had a shot. Potkey had a one-handed backhand slice and she served and volleyed a lot, but she remembered feeling overpowered, like there was nothing she could get past Serena.

“She was younger … but she was drilling shots at me,” Potkey said to ESPN. “I was always in awe.”

So much so that when Potkey wasn’t playing, she would stay around to watch both Serena and Venus play their matches, taking it all in. Their father, Richard Williams, was a constant presence in the stands, Potkey recollected.

“They were everything that I aspired to be at that time — their technical ability, and, you saw last night, the fight, the determination, like their mental [ability] it was amazing,” Potkey, 42, said.

When her father developed the photos from that tournament, Potkey stashed the photo of her and Williams away in her house. And, 32 years later, after what will likely be Williams’ last match, Potkey posted it on social media.

Beside her career in the media, Potkey also launched Goods 4 Greatness, a non-profit providing sports equipment and participation fees for low-income kids in all sports.

She said seeing Williams made her realize what was possible in the world of tennis and beyond.

And as for Williams, she created history, winning 23 singles and 14 doubles Grand Slam titles, while changing the sport.

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