- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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The question was bouncing around even before Serena Williams won two straight tournaments and arrived at the Western & Southern Open in suburban Cincinnati this week looking as if she is perfectly timing her comeback to crescendo at the upcoming U.S. Open. In fact, the question was put to her directly a month ago, when she first came back from a 49-week layoff caused by serious illness and injuries and advanced to the fourth round at Wimbledon. And after she lost to Marion Bartoli there, Williams gave the suggestion all the respect it deserved -- which is to say, very little.
Reporter: "A lot of people would say if you come here after the best part of the year out of the game and walked away with the title, it wouldn't have necessarily have been a good thing for women's tennis. Can you appreciate that? Does this result show [women's tennis] is competitive still?"
Williams, scoffing: "Yeah, I'm super happy that I lost -- 'Go, women's tennis.'"
Williams was right to use an overhead smash to smack away the idea that the "lousy" state of the women's tennis tour -- and not her remarkable ability -- is what has allowed her to bounce back. Instead of giving her credit for rebounding from an 11-month absence caused by two foot surgeries, then a scary emergency procedure in March for a pulmonary embolism (doctors removed blood clots from both lungs), Williams has to hear that what she's doing now isn't all that special? Forget that.
The men's tour isn't being disparaged as top-to-bottom awful during Novak Djokovic's spectacular 53-1 record this year. Roger Federer didn't have to hear his opponents diminished this badly in his invincible years, either.
The women's tour is not as deep or as demonstrably good right now as it was when Serena and Venus, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and Amelie Mauresmo -- Grand Slam winners, all -- were playing. Those were some good old days, all right.
But if you didn't notice, Serena was winning most of her 13 Grand Slam singles titles then, too.
So the notion that Williams' dominance might somehow be bad for tennis is a peculiar question. The thought certainly didn't float up when Tiger Woods was dominating the PGA Tour, or Michael Jordan was ruling the NBA, or Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were smashing home run records and spiking interest in baseball before their steroid use was confirmed. Nor did it come up earlier in Serena's career, when she and her sister were so devastatingly good and wildly popular that TV ratings spiked, ticket sales and prize money ballooned, and the U.S. Open decided to move the women's final to prime time.
The better question is this: When have such exhibitions of greatness ever hurt a sport?
Sports always have been made better because of the presence of genius. Think of Wayne Gretzky inventing a new way to play hockey from behind the net. Remember those first few years when it was still new to see 6-foot-1 Venus cover the net from post to post with her telescopic reach, or smash serves that topped out at 129 mph -- faster than Andre Agassi was able to serve at the height of his career?
It's hard to forget how American sports fans stopped everything to check the race results during the Beijing Olympics every time Michael Phelps resumed his chase of Mark Spitz's individual record for gold medals. Remember how Tiger's long-hitting game used to allow him to toss out old conventions about club selection and rethink the geometry of a course? Red-faced tournament officials finally decided the only answer was to change (or "Tiger-proof") some of the most venerable courses in the game -- even Augusta National, home of the Masters.
Williams' ability puts her in that athletic company. You could parachute her down in any era and she'd still have a great chance to win anytime, anywhere, on any surface. Against anybody.
Until she woke up with a swollen toe on her surgically repaired right foot Wednesday and decided to withdraw from the Western & Southern Open -- she guessed it was probably the residue of playing eight matches in nine days, and decided better to be safe than sorry -- Williams was chasing three tournament wins in a row for the first time since 2008.
So this is nothing new for her.
What is different about Williams' current tear is the way she's admitting to some foibles. She says she still goes to every tournament expecting to win, but her "near-deathbed experience" -- as she has called her embolism scare -- caused her to reassess myriad other things.
The mortality rate for people who suffer pulmonary embolisms and leave them untreated is roughly 30 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This past March, Williams had just flown cross country and was about to go to a party when her physiotherapist became concerned about the shortness of breath Serena experienced that day in her workout and persuaded her to go to a Los Angeles-area hospital. Williams begrudgingly listened. She was soon rushed into emergency surgery to remove those clots from her lungs.
As a result, Williams says, "I'm just more chill now. I can't explain it." She says she's more apt to take each day as it comes, and she's more committed to training. As she was surveying how she could take her game to a new level once she returned, she finally admitted to herself what others have often carped: "I've never really been fit, you know?"
Williams says the embolism surgery cost her a little piece of one lung. She also lost three more months off the tennis tour. She has said getting her wind back has taken a lot of work. She has confessed that there were a few "why me?" days in her long convalescence when she was so down emotionally she couldn't even get up off the couch.
Williams acknowledged that there have been on-court fears to hurdle since coming back, too. But she's also been in notably good humor at most of her news conferences, joking easily about everything from her fast-approaching 30th birthday on Sept. 26 ("No, baby, I'm 26. I'm turning 27 this year") to how her serve has sometimes deserted her since she's been back. (It's a "him" to her, and she said when he/it resurfaced at Wimbledon, she demanded to know, "Where have you been?")
Both Serena and Venus have made a habit in their long careers of coming back from lengthy layoffs to win titles, even at the majors. But this time, Serena's return is different because of the seriousness of what she had to overcome.
Right now -- more than ever -- Williams deserves to be recognized as a remarkable athlete in the midst of a remarkable comeback. She's a story that just keeps getting better all the time.
None of that is "bad" for women's tennis.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
3hEthan Sherwood Strauss