Let’s talk about Serena

| Updated on: Jun 12, 2015
Serena Williams of the U.S. poses with the trophy during the ceremony after defeating Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic during their women's singles final match to win the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, France, June 6, 2015.                        REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

Serena Williams of the U.S. poses with the trophy during the ceremony after defeating Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic during their women's singles final match to win the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, France, June 6, 2015. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler



Why are we ambivalent in our admiration of the 20-time Grand Slam champion and possibly one of the greatest tennis players of all time?

There was an awful lot of sport this past fortnight, and there was an awful lot of greatness on display. The deplorable corruption of FIFA was forgotten for a moment, as Barcelona lifted its fourth Champions League trophy in nine years, in typical resplendent fashion. The club’s midfield maestro Xavi Hernandez played his final match and lifted his 25th major honour. Lionel Messi, meanwhile, was his usual genius self, reaffirming his status as football’s nonpareil superstar.

In Paris, Switzerland’s Stanislas Wawrinka defied all expectations to thwart Novak Djokovic’s bid to complete the career grand slam, by playing tennis that was visceral in its brutality. And across the Atlantic, American Pharoah ended a 37-year-long wait for a great racehorse by winning the Belmont Stakes and, thereby, the celebrated Triple Crown. All of these were brilliant feats and each deserves our closest attention. But let’s focus, shall we, on Serena Williams?

A day before her final at Roland Garros on June 6, against Czech Lucie Safarova, Serena could barely get herself out of bed. Down with a flu and plagued by coughing fits, she missed practice, and even considered withdrawing from the event. But, there are few champions as dogged as Serena. And there has been none, possibly in the history of the sport, who boasts a game, and an innate tactical intelligence, so superior to their opponents’.

On Saturday, not only did Serena drag herself onto court, but also, when it mattered, produced her A-game. And that, unfortunately for Safarova, was simply impossible to match. Serena even managed to upend a temporary mental breakdown, after she had allowed her game to wither, permitting Safarova a way back into the match. But from 0-2 down in the deciding set, Serena won the next six games, lifting, in the process, her 20th major singles title. This leaves her only behind Steffi Graf, who won 22 Grand Slams, and Margaret Court, who won 24 titles (only 11 of which came in the Open Era).

At its best, Serena’s tennis is imperious. Her serve, which boasts an understated excellence, is a thing of beauty. She executes it with remarkable clarity of technique, and is capable of striking it both with awesome power down the tee, and with spin and guile when sliding it across the receiver. While the mechanics of her game tend to stream through from her serve, her ground strokes are also often sublime. Struck forcefully, on both wings, they can flatten with debilitating ease any of her so-called peers.

Serena’s superiority tends to shatter belief. Consider this statistic: Maria Sharapova, who is the world’s second-best women’s player, has won just twice against Serena in their 19 meetings. The last win came in 2004.

Yet, in according Serena our admiration, we remain strangely ambivalent. A small part of this might be down to some of her past antics — she momentarily lost her marbles, for instance, when she threatened a lineswoman for calling a foot-fault during the 2009 US Open. But, when we don’t always expect our other sporting heroes to be perfect role models, why ask that of Serena? How do you explain the fact that despite winning four times the number of grand slams that Sharapova has, Serena makes less than half what the Russian does in endorsements?

There are several reasons. They comprise, among others, a casual and deeply-embedded form of racism and sexism. To win our admiration, it seems, women players must not only win tennis matches, but also subscribe to other societal prompts, unrelated to the primary purpose of athletic pursuit.

Serena’s career has been nothing short of uplifting. She has overcome not just the pressures of an inconsistent childhood, but also the death of a sister, who was murdered in 2003, as well as a severe bout of pulmonary embolism in 2011, which could have been potentially life-threatening. Not only has she lived through these struggles, but Serena has also come back from each downfall stronger than ever before, producing on court the finest tennis one can hope to see.

Athletic careers are often cruelly fleeting. Serena will be 34 this September. It’s an age by which most tennis players have not only peaked, but have also troughed, resigning to lives of warm beaches, cold cocktails, and the odd exhibition match. But even if there has been the occasional sign of Serena’s game fading, her mental strength remains unyielding to pressure. She seems inspired as ever, deeply conscious of her place amongst the sport’s pantheon of greats.

A calendar Grand Slam is now within her grasp. As are Graf and Court’s records. “I think it will be awesome, but at the end of the day it’s pretty awesome to have 20,” Serena said, after winning the French Open. “Obviously I would love to win a (calendar) Grand Slam. I haven’t done great at Wimbledon the past two years, so I’m going to take it a day at a time there. My goal is just to do better than the last couple of years, do one more and one more and one more.” Ordinarily, these feats are easier said than done. But in Serena’s case, victory seems inevitable.

( This monthly column examines sports through the lens of politics, history and culture. )

Suhrith Parthasarathy is a Chennai-based lawyer and writer

Follow Suhrith on Twitter @suhrith

Published on January 24, 2018

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