Serena Williams earned entry to an elite group yesterday by defeating Caroline Wozniacki in the US Open women’s final for her 18th Slam title. Afterwards, she was joined on court for a presentation by Hall of Famers Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, the two other members of the “18” club.
Chris and Martina are tennis legends. By joining them with 18 of her own, Serena is in rarified air. Fittingly, it’s an accomplishment for which she was given full due after the win. But it wasn’t always this way for the 3-peating US Open champion.
Mention her name to anyone and they can tell you something about her. Generally the comments are positive ones about Serena’s power, her dominance over the other women (particularly Maria Sharapova), and her presumably atypical body type for a tennis player.
Many are also justifiably negative, like those regarding her tirade towards the “foot fault” linesperson, or her treatment of the chair umpire after being called for hindrance against Sam Stosur.
Regardless of merit, they show precisely the reason why she resonates so strongly in a sport that previously boasted benign heroines like Evert. On her good days, she’s almost mythical in her abilities. On her bad days, she’s flawed beyond belief. It’s that humanity that we either love, or love to hate.
But with this step up to “legend” status, she’s become much more. In fact, her path to respectability reminds me an awful lot like that of another great champion: Andre Agassi.
Back in his younger days, Andre’s ball-striking talent was undeniable. But along with that talent was a rebellious streak a mile long, and a piss-poor attitude to boot. He was all about the show, and didn’t really care if you liked it or not.
After early success, Andre sank to spectacular lows. There were many who counted him out. But as he worked his way back from the tennis wilderness, crowds began to cheer for him in spite of, or maybe even because of, his difficulties. They continued this support as he went on to achieve late-career success.
When Andre finally retired, he’d completed a remarkable transformation from young punk to career-Slam champion and elder statesman. I believe the same will eventually hold true for Serena.
In spite of her talent, acceptance from the tennis establishment was initially begrudging, at best. There always seemed to be too much drama, like the Capriati fiasco at the US Open (that led to the use of Hawkeye), or the Henin “hand” incident at the French Open. Few players have been involved with as much controversy as Serena.
She’s also did few favors for herself with the myriad of excuses that would flow after a loss. After losing to Davenport in the 2000 US Open quarterfinals, she exclaimed, “I don’t know how I lost that match.” Later, when told of a joke between Davenport and Hingis with regards to knocking them both out before the final, she stated: ”Obviously, no one would want to see an all-Williams final because everyone doesn’t really like us.”
Excess drama, faux-outrage, and persecution pity parties aren’t especially endearing. Consequently, many fans struggled to embrace Serena regardless of her early successes.
Then came the career-threatening injuries and the murder of her older sister, Yetunde. Serena still managed some big wins, but under extreme emotional duress. The turning point came after a seemingly benign foot injury in 2010 eventually led to a prolonged absence from tennis with a life-threatening pulmonary embolism.
Few things endear an athlete to their fan base like a life-or-death struggle. When Serena finally emerged from this health scare in order to compete on the grass at Eastbourne, adoration for her among fans, even those who’d once been indifferent, began in earnest.
To be certain, her transformation is still a work in progress. Her threat to shove a tennis ball down a line umpire’s throat was appalling. Her tirade towards the chair umpire after a hindrance violation was also unnecessary. Fortunately for Serena, she’s been able to hang on to the positive cachet built when one looks at her behavior in totality.
Also, let’s not forget the crucial maturation that occurs for these athlete’s over the course of their careers. Andre turned pro at 16, and retired at 36. Serena turned pro at 14, and is just shy of her 33rd birthday. Maybe we gain an appreciation for their humanity simply as a function of watching them struggle, then learn to be better champions as they get older because of those struggles.
Serena is by no means a perfect champion. She’s played the game on her own terms, and begrudgingly gained our respect, admiration, and her own legendary status along the way. And in spite of all the drama we’ve witnessed over the years, it will still be a sad day when she leaves the game.