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Serena Williams, winner of 36 major tennis titles, spoke at Penn on Wednesday to a full Irvine Auditorium.

Credit: Ananya Chandra

As soon as Serena Williams walked on stage Wednesday night, the audience began to cheer. Phones stuck up out of the crowd as audience members hoped to capture an image of the 21-time Grand Slam champion.

Two branches of Penn’s Social Planning and Events Committee — SPEC-Trum, which works to represent undergraduate minorities, and SPEC Connaissance, which aims to bring diverse speakers to campus — worked together to host “An Evening With Serena Williams.” With all levels of Irvine Auditorium used, Connaissance Director and Wharton junior Alex McClelland gave an initial estimate of 1,150 to 1,200 attendees. Tickets cost $55 for the 100 general public seats and $10 for Penn students.

“We knew it was really important to come back with a really good speaker event,” McClelland said. “We don’t typically get our first request.”

Connaissance Director Caroline Wills, who is also a Wharton junior, spoke about what the committee hoped to get out of bringing Williams to campus.

“The Williams sisters are nothing if not resilient,” Wills said. “It’s coming at a good time. It’ll be good for people to see and be inspired by the drive and ambition that she has.”

The evening’s format was different from a standard speaking event, with an initial period of questions moderated by Penn sociology professor Camille Charles, who also chairs the Department of Africana Studies. Charles asked Williams about her family background, her relationship with her family and her “mental toughness.”

“I don’t think you can go to CVS and buy mental toughness,” Williams said.

Despite the dense nature of the topics, Williams’ responses drew laughs and cheers from the crowd. However, some students felt the framing of the content of the talk could have been improved.

“[The moderator’s] questions seemed long-winded and very pointed. She didn’t get as much out of Serena as she could have,” Abhi Ramachandran, a first year medical student at Penn, said.

Aside from mental resilience, Williams also spoke about her fashion line, the Signature Statement collection, which she recently showed at New York Fashion Week.

“When I’m on the court, I try to take charge, and you kind of have to,” Williams said. “At fashion, I’m that same person — I call myself a ‘Showzilla.’”

When not on the court or the runway, Williams has also helped open two schools in Kenya, emphasizing the importance of removing political barriers to female education. She added that some students walked up to 20 miles to attend.

“When you have an education, you’re able to build knowledge on how to advance,” Williams said. “Life is so much more than tennis.”

After the discussion, students had the opportunity to ask Williams questions. The topics ranged from Williams’ on-season and off-season diet, the role of social media in her professional life and College junior Daniel Kahana’s question about equal pay between the different genders in tennis.

“It’s really awesome because I’m a huge tennis fan— it’s my biggest passion and hobby,” Kahana said. “She’s the best champion of my generation and ever. Having her right there in front of me and being able to ask a question was unique.”

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