LONDON -- Royalty watched on, applauding, as tennis royalty walked out.
For what seemed like the thousandth time on the day of the women's final at Wimbledon, the television camera panned to Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, as she welcomed friend Serena Williams and her opponent, Angelique Kerber. It was nothing out of the ordinary for Markle, having previously sat through Novak Djokovic's victory over Rafael Nadal, clapping and interacting with Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, as sisters-in-law do.
Now, though, came a rare thing: a royal attendee at Wimbledon with a direct personal relationship with one of the finalists. Markle and Williams' friendship began back in 2010 at the Super Bowl, when Markle's notability was largely due to her "Suits" stardom. Before she married Prince Harry, she asked her tennis chum about how she coped with fame. "I told her, 'You've got to be who you are, Meghan,'" said Williams. "'You can't hide.'" Williams is used to the different hats she has to wear as Serena: the mother, the feminist, the humanitarian, the entrepreneur, the style icon and the tennis star. The same applies to Markle's split iconography: the feminist, the actress, the humanitarian, the royal.
Williams, however, often has to wear all the hats at the same time, moments after stepping off the court. Over the past two weeks, she has fielded questions on motherhood, drug testing, LeBron James, England's World Cup hopes, Drake, fashion, equality, polo, tennis seedings and Donald Trump. It is never just tennis with Serena. That's what happens when you are at the forefront of sport.
The narrative around her friendship with Markle has gone into overdrive in the past fortnight, increased at a stroke, when Williams delayed her pre-tournament news conference by a day to attend a polo match with Markle. Williams was also at Markle's wedding earlier in the year. It's what friends do. Williams had been asked on four separate occasions during her run to the final whether Markle would visit Wimbledon. It's a relationship that attracts even greater attention than might be expected, especially when you consider Williams is no stranger to other superstars: Her own box on Centre Court on Saturday included Tiger Woods, Lewis Hamilton and Anna Wintour.
It was as straightforward as Wimbledon days go for the duchesses, for what was labeled their first official trip out without their husbands. When they arrived at the All England Club around midday, Middleton and Markle walked past the various ball boys and ball girls, shaking hands, smiling to disarm any nervousness. They walked over the bridge linking the players' part of Wimbledon to Centre Court, smiling at the crowd beneath. They met some former ladies' champions over lunch. And then they were cheered as they came down the stairs toward their prime seats in the Royal Box, cameras trained for any movement out of the ordinary.
The minutiae were pored over, including their outfits -- the hat Markle clutched was sold out by midafternoon. Little wonder there is a kinship with Williams, who can have the same effect: every engagement, every championship, the same scrutiny.
All the while, the star turns were on court, cameras sporadically panning to those watching on, as the final slipped away from an out-of-sorts Williams. This is still Serena's kingdom, but Kerber was to be crowned 2018 champion, receiving the Venus Rosewater Dish from the Duke of Kent. Williams looked on, having clutched it seven times previously, but still brought the house down as she assessed on court the magnitude of what she achieved here, 10 months removed from a traumatic delivery of daughter Olympia. "I'm just me. For all the mums out there, I was playing for you," she said. Markle watched on, the emotion hitting home.
Earlier in the week Serena was talking about their friendship. "Every year, for a couple years, she [Markle] comes out to Wimbledon and has supported me. Now she's supporting me in a different role. But our friendship is still exactly the same. We always have supported each other, just been there for each other through a lot." It will continue, hats literal and metaphorical shelved, away from the cameras, as she goes back to being a mum.
Williams was asked afterward what she would tell her daughter about the time she played tennis in front of the two duchesses and sporting royalty. "It will be a happy story," Williams said. "But I might change the ending."
After the match, there were no mentions of Markle by name in the news conference. That whole tale had just slotted into Williams' fortnight here, her legacy, her standing in the game and undoubted influence. The attention was solely on her, with questions being asked around her views on equality, injuries, motherhood, scheduling, emotions.
There she was again, back to having to wear all those hats.