Briefly choking up Tuesday, Serena Williams remembered meeting Nelson Mandela as “probably one of the best moments of my life.’’
Mandela, the former South African president, is critically ill.
And Williams, who has served to break down walls as an African American in a traditionally white sport, spoke about Mandela’s “forgiving heart.’’
“I think his whole example is an extremely important part of our lives,’’ she said. “For someone to have been incarcerated for so long . . . to have such an open heart, open spirit, open soul is unheard of.
“I think we, as a people, can all learn from the courage, faith and everything that Nelson Mandela has.’’
Williams did not specify when she met Mandela. But she and her sister, Venus Williams, went to Nigeria in the fall, and then to South Africa. They gave a lesson to kids at the Arthur Ashe Tennis Academy in Soweto and then played an exhibition. It was part of the “Break the Mold’’ tour, where they talked to girls about making better lives for themselves.
“We’re here to empower young girls and let them know that if you dare to dream, you can achieve any goal you want to,’’ Williams said at the time in a news conference, according to the Los Angeles Times.
On Tuesday at Wimbledon, American player James Blake, too, answered questions about his feelings on Mandela.
“I mean, the guy spent 27 years in prison for what he believed in,’’ Blake said. “You know, we’re out here and we think we’re doing something important playing a tennis match. And it puts it into perspective when someone has such a belief that they’re willing to go to jail for it. They’re willing to fight for it. Then in the end, they change a country and in turn change the world. That’s something that for me, I can’t fathom having that kind of effect on the world.
“I’m trying to do my best just to affect the people around me in a positive way — my wife, my daughter, my mom. For him to affect that many people, we all owe him a huge debt of gratitude. You know, me especially included.’’
Williams said that she began reading Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,’’ after her trip last year.
“Just meeting him, speaking to him . . .’’ she said. “He’s so coherent, he’s so smart, he’s so amazing. . . . Where he started as a kid, then going from there, making his way really to the top of something completely inconceivable. Having so many people love him and cherish him for who he was, for being black, for being in South Africa at a time where maybe it wasn’t the best moment to be black in South Africa.
“He’s had a great story. I think everyone of all races and nations and countries and individuals can learn from his stellar life.’’