October, 28, 1995: The day tennis legend Serena Williams made her professional debut

Every day Tennis Majors takes you back in time to celebrate a great moment in tennis history. Today, we go back to 1995 to witness how 14-year-old Serena Williams made her debut on the WTA Tour with a first-round loss in qualifying at a low-key WTA Tier III event

Serena_Williams_1995_1996_AP_SIPA Serena_Williams_1995_1996 Image Credit: AP/SIPA

What exactly happened exactly on that day?

On this day, October 28 in1995, tennis legend Serena Williams made her professional debut in Quebec City, Canada. Unlike her sister, Venus, who had successfully began her career in 1994 in Oakland with a win, Serena had a rough start with a loss in the first round of the qualifying event, where she was beaten 6-1, 6-1 by Annie Miller, ranked No 149 in the world at the time.

The players involved: Serena Williams and Annie Miller

  • Serena Williams: part of the Williams sisters tipped to become world No 1s by their father

Serena Williams was born in 1981 in Saginaw, Michigan, in the northern United States, and was raised in Compton, California by her father and coach, Richard.

Richard later moved the entire family to Florida in 1991 so that Serena and her older sister Venus could train with a renowned coach, Rick Macci. Around the same time, Richard pulled his daughters out of all junior tournaments to protect them from the pressures of competition. This decision was controversial as most of the tennis experts couldn’t imagine that one could just step onto the main tour without gaining experience on the junior circuit.

Eventually, to everyone’s surprise, in 1994, Venus asked for a wild card at the Oakland Bank of the West Classic, a move motivated by the idea of avoiding the “Capriati rule”. The rule capped the maximum number of events young girls could play on the main tour in order to prevent burnout and protect them from the pressures of the tour until they became an adult. The wild card was granted and the world of tennis was stunned as Venus defeated world No 59 Shaun Stafford in her very first match. Meanwhile, Serena was getting ready for her debut and, in October 1995 Richard thought it was about time to unleash her on the main tour as well.

  • Annie Miller: the young American who had trained at the Bolletieri Tennis Academy

Annie Miller, born in 1977, was a young player on the rise. At 16, she attended the famous Nick Bolletieri Tennis Academy, and after a successful junior career, she began playing tennis professionally at the age of 18. Right-handed with a double-handed backhand, her best result so far had been reaching the second round of the US Open in 1995 after an impressive win against world No 27 Karina Habsudova (4-6, 6-3, 6-3). 

The place: Quebec City, Canada

The Challenge Bell, held in Quebec City, Canada, was a new addition to the WTA calendar. It was held for the first time in 1993. The event took place at the Club Advantage, a multi-purpose sports venue, and was played on indoor carpet.

Its first champions were Nathalie Tauziat (1993) and Katerina Maleeva (1994).

The facts: A nervous Serena Williams goes down in straight sets

The first round in a qualifying event at a Tier III event on the WTA Tour had never drawn so much attention from tennis experts as it did on this memorable day in Quebec City, October 28, 1995. One year after his older daughter Venus had stunned the tennis world with her outstanding debut on the WTA Tour, Richard Williams was about to take the training wheels of his youngest daughter Serena. The14-year-old teenager had not competed in any junior event for the last few years, and her father was in no hurry for her to turn pro.

“I’m just afraid, especially with Serena, who’s a perfectionist, that she’ll take it so seriously that she’ll never have fun with it, be a flop at 18,” he explained, according to The New York Times. 

Many people had thought that Richard Williams was crazy to move away from the traditional path of juniors to pros for his daughters. That was until a year earlier in Oakland, when Venus, arriving out of nowhere, eliminated world No 59 Shaun Stafford and pushed world No 2 Arantxa Sanchez to three sets. People were ready to see Serena following in the footsteps of her older sister.

But the journey to the WTA Tour was not without complications of the logistical sort.

The Williams family lacked experience on the WTA Tour. On their way to Quebec City, father and daughter missed a flight in Philadelphia, and, after an unusually long journey through four different airports, they reached their destination on Friday night, too late to practice, and exhausted.

In the first round of the qualifications, on a small practice court, in front of less than 50 spectators, the youngest of the Williams sisters was unable to play her best tennis and her long-awaited debut on the WTA Tour turned out to be a painful 6-1, 6-1 loss.

“I guess I played a celebrity,” said her opponent. “She has as much power as anybody around, but maybe she needs to play some junior events.”

“I felt bad out there because I lost,” said the disappointed teenager. “I didn’t play like I meant to play. I played, kind of, like an amateur.”

“I played well but I knew she was perhaps nervous”, Miller would recall 20 years later, according to ESPN.com. “It was her first [pro match] and despite the fact that she was so athletic and going to be a great player, it was a lot of pressure. At the time, Venus was the one everyone talked about.”

What next? Miller quits tennis while Serena embarks on a legendary career

Annie Miller would surprise many observers at the end of 1998, when she would quit tennis to get back to University, after having peaked at No 43 in the rankings. She would mostly be remembered for being the first player to have ever faced Serena Williams. 

“It’s funny because it’s been over a decade since I last played professional tennis, so I don’t really talk about it much anymore,” she would say to espn.com in 2015.. “But my husband and my family obviously know about that match and for them, it’s a huge deal: ‘Annie beat Serena Williams.’ It’s nice, but at some point I usually point out that it was so early in her career (…). I mean, it would certainly be different if I went out and beat Serena today.”

Years later, Serena Williams would still remember her first-ever pro match and spoke about it in an interview.

“All I remember is that I was incredibly nervous,” she said in Toronto in 2019, according to tennis.com. “I couldn’t believe I was playing. I just couldn’t deal with the nerves. It was a lot for me. I just needed to go home and get a lot better, and then when I came back, I was more ready to be able to play on the professional circuit.”

Serena wouldn’t play again on the Tour until 1997, coming back much stronger with impressive wins over world No 7 Mary Pierce and world No 4 Monica Seles. While, in the past, many thought that Venus was joking when she said that Serena would be her greatest rival for the world No 1 spot, the youngest of the two Williams sisters was the first to win a Grand Slam title at the 1999 US Open. This title was the first of 23 Grand Slam singles titles (she also won 14 women’s doubles and 2 mixed doubles at the Grand Slams) that Serena would go on to win and she would spend 319 weeks as world No 1.

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