Wednesday January 18th, 2012

Now that Tim Tebow is out of hearts and minds and we can actually turn our attention to other things, let us go to the other side of the world. There, a short while ago, while preparing for the Australian Open, Serena Williams said: "I don't love tennis today, but ... I've actually never liked sports."

While her confession might have surprised some, I suspect that even more were irritated, actually angered that an athlete -- a great champion! -- could utter such blasphemy.

We sometimes also hear the sentiment expressed that we'd like to see an athlete quit near the peak of his career, but when Tiki Barber, the running back, did just that a few years ago, he was utterly astonished at the reaction of so many fans. They all but berated him -- how dare you leave the game!

It's not just that so many of us love sports so and can't comprehend someone who's in the game not caring for it all that much. Rather, I think, there's a lot of envy involved. So many people -- girls, as well as boys now -- grow up playing sports and loving them but ultimately failing at them, and so when we see someone who achieved what we couldn't we're all the more put out if they can blithely turn their back on it. Why, fans have even been shocked at the recent revelations that several ice hockey goons really didn't enjoy being ... goons.

Now when somebody from another glamorous profession -- a model or an actor -- walks away from success, there isn't the same intensity of either jealousy or bafflement because not so many of us tried to act or model when we were growing up. But how many of us played sports and dreamed of being a star?

The irony is, in my experience, that for those athletes who do make it to the top, a passion for the game does not necessarily best light that path to glory. In fact, at the age of thirty, Serena is old for a tennis player, and she may still be a contender because she has not loved tennis so much. Through the years, it's aggravated a lot of people in her sport when she's appeared cavalier about the very thing that has brought her fame and fortune -- and thus the ability to pursue other interests -- but simply because she's been able to distance herself and find other outlets may explain why she's not yet burned out, physically or emotionally.

On the other hand, it's also my experience that a lot of the more restrained athletes who do quit before they are done, only find out afterward how much the game really meant to them. When Tiki Barber tried to come back after five seasons, nobody wanted him. Youth may be wasted on the young, but in sports, the most telling truth is that youth is not to be wasted.

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