September 9, 2014 Serena Williams Is America’s Greatest Athlete By Ian Crouch
This week, as the sports world repays our slavish attention with more lousy, grotesque news, it’s worth noting that, on Sunday, the greatest American athlete in a generation won the U.S. Open, again, for the sixth time and the third year in a row. Serena Williams’s victory over Caroline Wozniacki puts her in rarefied company in the history of women’s tennis. It was her eighteenth Grand Slam singles title, tying her with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. (The pair welcomed her to the club by giving her an eighteen-karat gold Tiffany bracelet.) Even before Sunday, Evert had said several times that Williams is the best woman ever to play, despite the fact that she remains four major titles behind Steffi Graf (who, the argument goes, faced lesser opponents), and six behind the all-time record holder, Margaret Court
(who played before the modern open era). Williams has been to twenty-two Slam finals and has lost only four times. At thirty-two, she is less than two months younger than Roger Federer, who is considered to be playing in the near-twilight of his career, and the oldest player to hold the women’s world No. 1 ranking. After the match, Evert said, “People kept asking Serena the last year, ‘How’s it going to feel to be in the same company with Martina and Chrissie?’ and I’m thinking to myself, Well,
I’m the one who’s honored to have Serena in the same sentence.”
Forget tennis for a moment, though: when I say the greatest athlete in a generation, I mean the greatest in any sport. Sorry, LeBron. Sorry, Tiger. Sorry, Derek. For fifteen years, over two generations of tennis,
Williams has been a spectacular and constant yet oddly uncherished national treasure. She is wealthy and famous, but it seems that she should be more famous, the most famous. Anyone who likes sports should love Williams’s dazzling combination of talent, persistence, style, unpredictability, poise, and outsized, heart-on-her-sleeve flaws.
But not everyone loves her. Part of this is owing to the duelling -isms of American prejudice, sexism, and racism, which manifest every time viewers, mostly men, are moved to remark on Williams’s body in a way that reveals what might most charitably be called discomfort. What are they afraid of? The bodies of athletes, both male and female, are habitually on display, yet there has been something especially contentious and fraught about the ways in which Williams’s singular appearance—musculature both imposing and graceful—has been discussed. On Twitter, during the final, some people wrote admiringly about her obvious strength and fitness, but there were also observations about the size of her butt, her thighs, and suggestions that her toned arms made her look more like a male boxer or linebacker than like a women’s tennis player. Yet, while some fixate on what they see as Williams’s masculine traits, others seem to find fault in the parts of her that might be considered more feminine: her striking oncourt outfits (and off-court interest in fashion) are criticized as flashy, unserious, and self-absorbed. No one, meanwhile, seems too upset by the beautiful mini-dresses worn by the likes of Maria Sharapova, and Federer’s Wimbledon cream-blazer frippery is admired as debonair.
When the culture at large grants athletic adoration to women, it is often of a temporary, fleeting kind directed toward teen-age American sweethearts at the Olympics. Williams has never been America’s sweetheart. She wasn’t when she won her first U.S. Open, at seventeen, in 1999, and she isn’t now, as she plays on into her thirties. There is concern on both the men’s and women’s sides of tennis about where the next generation of great players is: no one under twenty-five on either tour has become a
proven winner, in a game once known for prodigies. (This year’s men’s final, won by Marin Čilić in straight, uneventful sets over Kei Nishikori, gave tennis fans a glimpse at what a landscape without
Federer and Nadal might look like.) Yet there has, for years now, been a special eagerness to find the next young-woman breakout star, as if there were some dissatisfaction with Williams as the game’s untouchable queen. For a while, it was Wozniacki, and then it was the American Melanie Oudin. These days, hope has turned to the Canadian Eugenie Bouchard. This year at the Open, eyes lit up as the fifteen-year-old American CiCi Bellis won her first-round match. Yet, through it all, Williams has shown that those pining for her replacement may be left waiting for a while still.
But it’s not enough to say that Williams would be more uniformly adored if she were a white woman, or a man. Instead, the failure to fully appreciate her importance is perhaps evidence of our inability to appreciate the stubbornly unfamiliar narrative arc of her career. Williams is underloved because, at times, she has been unlovable and, in the end, mostly unrepentant about it—something that might be admired as iconoclastic in a male athlete, but rarely endears women to a wide audience. As a younger player, she was criticized for being ungenerous to her opponents in interviews; despite all the evidence of her superiority, she was expected to be humble. But the great crisis in her public persona came later, in 2009, when she was penalized the final point in her U.S. Open semifinal against Kim Clijsters after berating a line judge over a foot-fault call on the previous serve. Williams is indeed singular: she is likely the only person ever to utter on a professional tennis court, “I swear to God, I’m fucking going to take this fucking ball and shove it down your fucking throat, you hear that? I swear to God.” (Of course, John
McEnroe said things that weren’t so different, and he is beloved for it.) She eventually offered a full statement of apology, and her contrition seemed sincere. But, for such misbehavior, sports fans, the oldfashioned moralists that we are, might have expected Williams to apologize for the rest of her career
(and, in so doing, to give us the pleasure of forgiving her).
Yet the past five years have not left Williams abject or cowed, or much more interested in mass approval. Her career story isn’t a straight line from brash youthfulness to somber and admirable maturity. When she won the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, she danced exuberantly on the court, offending some stuffy folks who claimed that she was doing a gang dance. She has sniped at her competitors in the press. She stills puts in occasionally odd and maddening performances; her attention to tennis sometimes seems to wane.
This summer, after a disappointing showing in the three previous Grand Slam tournaments, Williams said that she adopted a new way of thinking about the game, to put less pressure on herself by appreciating what she had already accomplished. “That’s the beauty of my career,” she said before the
Open. “I don’t need to do anything at all. Everything I do from this day forward is a bonus. Actually, from yesterday. It doesn’t matter. Everything for me is just extra.” This is surely wisdom, but it is also a form of sports sacrilege. I don’t have anything to prove; I have been great—so great, in fact, that at this point winning doesn’t even matter.
But Serena did win, and in dominating fashion (without dropping a set during the entire tournament), prompting Evert and others to note that Graf’s total number of Grand Slam titles could be within
Williams’s reach. She remains the future of women’s tennis, at least the immediate one. After the final
point on Sunday, she collapsed on her back in joy. Later, at center court, holding the trophy and wearing a ridiculous and fabulous black blazer, she jumped into the air, bending her legs underneath her, and smiled the same bright smile that she’s been giving us for fifteen years.