Serena was tough to beat, even at Junior Sectionals three decades ago - USTA Southern California
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Serena was tough to beat, even at Junior Sectionals three decades ago

An hour before Serena Williams took to the court for what would turn out to be the final match of her Hall of Fame career at the US Open, Morisa Yang recalled being on the opposite side of the court and facing the all-time great as a young player on the Southern California junior circuit more than three decades ago.

“I had played her multiple times because she was No. 1 and I was No. 2,” said Yang of Serena. “I actually played Venus in my first Open 10s tournament when I was 8 so I was pretty familiar with the family. Richard had approached my dad before the match and said his daughter had never lost a match so, basically, I was going to lose. And I did 0 and 0.”

A year after Venus won the 1990 10-and-unders Sectionals in one of a small number of junior tournaments she ever played, Compton’s Serena met Torrance’s Yang in the 10s Sectionals final with Serena coming out on top, 6-3, 6-3. It would be the final junior tournament the 9-year-old Serena would ever play as her family packed up and moved to Florida soon after. Serena would make her pro debut in Quebec City in 1995 as a newly turned 14-year-old.

Born three months before from Serena in 1981, Yang – who turned 41 in July – said she felt intimated by Serena heading into the Sectional final. “I remember before the matches she would do these super intricate warm-up exercises. They would do push-ups, jump roping, shadow stroking – just really professional, and already acting like pros and just keeping to themselves.

“It was intimidating because a lot of those exercises I couldn’t even do. The first couple of times I played Serena it wasn’t very close at all. She was already very crafty. She was able to drop shot, slice, hit heavy spin. She already had all the shots. Even at that age. She didn’t really have the power like Venus. She was pretty small and thin, so she didn’t have the power. But she was crafty.”

Yang said the two young families shared similarities in that they were from different racial backgrounds than what was the norm for the times.

“My dad I-Sheng Yang is Taiwanese, and my mom is Chinese-Korean,” Yang said. “My dad doesn’t really speak English and they were always just talking – my dad in broken English – and they were always just laughing. It was pretty cool to see them together just sharing different techniques and shadow stroking and talking about how to hit a ball.”

Yang added: “Her dad got along so well with my dad to the point where at Sectionals he asked my dad if I wanted to move to Florida with them. They were just a super nice family and just really open. I just feel being people of color they felt closer to us. Her dad and my dad were just always joking around.”

After the Williams family moved to Florida and Richard stopped entering his girls into junior tournaments, Yang continued to progress and eventually landed a scholarship to play at Cal-Berkeley from 1999 to 2002 before deciding to turn professional after her junior year. But injuries soon followed her to the tour and an impingement in her shoulder forced her to stop playing. She became a live-in coach with a player and has been coaching tennis ever since. Shortly before the pandemic, Yang moved back to the South Bay from Arcadia in the San Gabriel Valley to be closer to her family.

She currently coaches privately at Racquet Swingers in Lomita, as well as helping players at Redondo High School. Last year she coached the USTA SoCal Intersectional 12s and the 14s Zonals team this year.

A few years ago she met her husband Fox Sports on-air director Ted Markowsky on Tender (“I swiped right!”) and the couple married and have a 2-year-old son Zachary.

Yang had only one other occasion since she met Serena in the 10s Sectionals final to meet Serena. “It was a few years later (1997) at the Manhattan Beach Virginia Slims tournament,” Yang said. “Even though I was older than her (having just turned 16), I ran into her on the court as a ball kid. She turned to me and said, ‘Hey Morisa. It looks like you’re a ball kid. You ready to chase some balls down for me?’ ”

Yang does tune into some of Serena’s matches, including her first two-round wins at the Open last week. “I mean, I never really watch the matches,” she said. “But as a coach I’ll watch and look at different techniques and then pass that on to my players. But I always use Serena as an example for her match toughness and for her preparation and just how much she loves the game after having a child and coming back to play.”

Yang has been back to Sectionals over the years coaching young juniors, but has never mentioned she faced Serena to any of her players. “One year a player mentioned they saw my name on an old trophy next to Serena’s name,” she said. “But no, I’ve never told anyone. I just let them figure it out if they happen to see it.”

Serena gets Yang’s vote as the GOAT. “Even to this day although she’s not at the top, I think she’s the best,” she said an hour before Williams fell in the third round to Australian Ajla Tomljanovic in three sets. “I just feel like you can never count her out. She’s Serena. She has so much experience behind her and she wants it, so watch out!”

Now that the 23-time singles majors winner will “evolve” away from the WTA Tour, will Yang ever try and get in touch with the legend she faced so many years ago. “I think so,” she said. “We’ll see what happens. Maybe someday I’ll reach out on some social media channel and see if she remembers me.”