Best to let others argue over whether or not she’s the Greatest of All Time after her latest Grand Slam title. Best just to say that she’s now in contention and leave such a beautifully pointless discussion to them. What struck during the fortnight of Wimbledon, though, wasn’t how damn impressive her game was. What struck was the realisation that there are just so many reasons why we should…(gulp)…like her.
Not that I do, of course. It’d be absolute heresy to say that. How could one ever admit to liking the progeny of that man who once stood in the player’s box at Wimbledon with a whiteboard on which he wrote “It’s Venus’s party and no-one was invited.” When they were teenagers, we hoped that they would grow out of their father’s shadow and avoid inheriting his arrogant ways. In some ways, they certainly seemed to separate themselves from him – their mother follows them on tour these days, and has for years – but their press conferences have always been littered with comments like the ones Federer was crucified for after he lost at Wimbledon this year. Never has she been beaten by a superior opponent, you understand: for she only lost because she was below par physically or mentally. No credit to the opposition. How can one have respect for such arrogance?
Her style of play, too, is rarely pretty. There’s very little obvious guile or touch, just brute force and determination. The early rounds of Grand Slams on the women’s side are often riddled with one-sided drubbings of the plebs by the sport’s stars, but it’s one of the few sports where such one-sided contests can be glorious viewing. Watching Seles toss a mediocre opponent from one side of the court to the other, or watching Hingis toy with them as if they were a lost puppy playing a game of fetch was a joy to behold. Never with her, though. Even when she wins Slam finals by such scorelines as 6-0, 6-3 in Australia last year, or 6-3, 6-2 at Wimbledon this year, it’s not what one would refer to as an attractive spectacle.
And the grunting. Give me vuvuzelas over the grunting any day of the week. We permitted it from Monica because she was the first – we assumed she was but a blemish on an otherwise beautiful aural sport. But the sisters, and those who came after them such as Sharapova, are best viewed with the sound down. The needless nature of it all often appears disrespectful: they show in their warm-ups and in some sets that they can hit the ball perfectly well without such noise, and yet are often heard grunting on drop shots. Another reason we we can’t possibly support her.
Perhaps these faults explain why it’s taken so long to finally have a moment of clarity about this girl who’s now won as many Slam titles as Pete Sampras. Why it’s taken so long to realise that behind the arrogant press conferences, the brutal style of play, the excessive grunting and the occasional threatening phrase directed towards an official is a sportswoman who might be worth…(double gulp)…our admiration.
For while we’ve been cultivating our disdain for her, Serena Williams has very rarely presented as a pampered athlete. Rather, she’s presented as one of the more “real” sporting superstars of our time. Just look at the Youtube video of her jumping around with childlike excitement at a Green Day concert – and also note how she she hasn’t talked her way into prime seats, either. Or look at the way that so many people have criticised her “un-athletic looking” body, only for Serena to say to all of the world that having curves like hers isn’t just acceptable, but it’s also athletic, sexy and magazine-cover-worthy. And don’t overlook the way that she’s interested in things outside of tennis, taking great interest not only in her sport but also in her education, fashion, and the entertainment industry.
She respects her sport and its history, showing unbridled joy upon victory and reflecting with wonder on equalling and then passing legends of the game such as Billie Jean King on the all-time Grand Slam title tally. She plays doubles with her sister with verve, even if she’s lost in the singles or if she has a singles Slam final the next day. She shows up at charity events, has helped fund the opening of two schools in Kenya and can even be self-deprecating: did you see her laughing at herself during Melbourne’s ‘Hit for Haiti’ when Andy Roddick suggested to a linesperson who had foot-faulted him in a charity match that they should be careful as “You realise Serena’s over there, right?”
While it still all has a tinge of arrogance about it all, she is honest, independent, funny and determined. And while she’s not often seen with her dad any more, her wonderfully endearing mum has shown exactly the same qualities when she’s let her guard down too.
Oh, and she’s one of the most gutsy athletes you’ve ever seen. Is there a competitor who has been in a back-to-the-wall position and managed to win more often?
If she wins the US Open this year, Serena Williams will arguably have been a missed-match-point-against-Stosur-in-the-French-Open away from a Grand Slam in 2010. She’s already won what she dubbed a “Serena Slam” by winning all four Slam titles in a row in 02-03, just not in a calendar year. She won her first slam before Steffi Graf, Jana Nototna and Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario retired, taking out Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martinez, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis on her way to the 1999 US Open title. At Wimbledon 2010, Serena was winning the tournament without losing a set, breaking a record for the most aces ever served by a woman at the tournament. Meanwhile, other young stars of the ‘90s in Hingis and Anna Kournikova were playing in the Ladies’ Invitational Doubles and losing 5-7, 6-7 to Tracy Austin and Kathy Rinaldi-Stunkel who are aged 47 and 43 respectively.
But of course, such statistics and Serena’s place in the pantheon of champions are for others to discuss.
For us, it’s just worth considering if we should perhaps, maybe, sometimes, briefly consider showing Serena Williams some…(triple gulp)…respect and appreciation before she’s no longer on tour.