Serena 2.0: A new perspective on an all-time great
Serena Williams is an author, actress, designer, philanthropist and wait for it a certified nail technician. Of course, she also happens to be one of the greatest female tennis players of all time. But since her return from a trifecta of injuries, including a mysteriously sliced toe tendon, a pulmonary embolism and even a bike crash, Serena has morphed into the one thing I never believed she could be: a sympathetic figure.
When I think of Serena the tennis player, I can't help but admire her game, her competitive will and the resulting respect she commands on court. Even after a nearly yearlong layoff, she was still the odds-on favorite to win Wimbledon this year. Given her talent, it's too bad Serena has often had a hard time letting her racket do the talking. Here are just a few examples of her less than gracious comments:
• After winning the U.S. Open in 1999, a 17-year-old Williams said, "I touch everyone. Everyone wants to see me, and I don't blame them. Got to get a look at Serena."
• "I just think she made a lot of lucky shots and I made a lot of errors," a sullen Serena said of Justine Henin after losing to the Belgian (for the third consecutive time) in the 2007 U.S. Open quarterfinals.
• "We all know who the real No. 1 is," she said after Dinara Safina rose to No. 1 in the world rankings in the spring of 2009. "Quite frankly, I'm the best in the world."
(Quite frankly, she was right, but she could have been more respectful of Safina.)
Although it may seem like Williams simply needs some PR training, her unsportsmanlike behavior turned to outright boorishness in the semifinals of the 2009 U.S. Open, when Serena berated a lineswoman with an obscenity-laced tirade for what she felt was an erroneous foot-fault call. To this day, there has been no authentic display of remorse or contrition -- only a lame half-apology issued in the aftermath of the incident, and then, after outcries that her initial statement was insufficient, a clarifying and amended apology.
But when Serena made her triumphant return to Grand Slam competition at Wimbledon this June, it was clear that something in her attitude had changed. After breaking down in tears following her first-round victory over Aravane Rezai, Williams said, "It wasn't about winning the match. It was about being out there." And with that single emotional display, Serena Williams made me feel warm and fuzzy inside. For the first time in her illustrious career, she was exhibiting what seemed to be genuine humility and gratefulness. I no longer watch her matches with just a begrudging admiration for her skills; now I'm actively rooting for her as a person and a player.
Serena has missed significant chunks of playing time before, both for injury and for personal issues, including the slaying of her older half-sister, Yetunde. But this comeback feels more significant than any that preceded it. She had been off the court for longer. Her body is older. The health issue from which she is recovering is more serious. And the joy she displayed upon returning to tennis was, for her, unprecedented.
"I was literally on my deathbed," she said in June, in reference to her health struggles of the past year. "This is like a totally different road where I'm more or less thinking, 'OK, I have nothing to lose at this point.'"
It didn't take her long to prove that point. Serena won Stanford, her third tournament back, trouncing Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-3 en route to the title. More significant about that particular win than the result itself were Serena's professions of respect for her opponent; she even called Sharapova "sweet" before the match. Let's not expect Serena to gush regularly about her opponents' personalities, but comments like that illustrate her altered perspective.
Of course, a good competitor must have a healthy ego and a heavy dose of confidence. To be the best, you must believe you're the best. Even Novak Djokovic, who has at times worn the label of cocky bad boy on the men's tour, forces himself, when addressing the press about his opponents, to give credit where it's due. Great champions like Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Kim Clijsters have proved that success and humility are not mutually exclusive. At age 29, Williams may be coming to that conclusion as well.
In the past, I've enjoyed watching Serena simply for her outrageousness. Who else, except perhaps Serena's older sister Venus, would don boots or a catsuit on the court? Who else has boycotted tournaments because of issues with the fans? Who else has threatened to shove a ball down a lineswoman's throat? A potential train wreck was always just beyond the next changeover.
This year at the U.S. Open, I'm rooting for Serena Williams to destroy the competition. For me, it's no longer about seeing what outlandish thing she'll say or wear, but about admiring her resilience and determination, and knowing she knows how lucky she is to be back. Winning, for Serena, is no longer a given, but a gift.