Serena Williams is one of the leading contenders for Sports Illustrated's 2015 Sportsman of the Year. You can see the full list and the entire series of essays that make the argument for each candidate here. This story also appears in the Nov. 23, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
The story of Serena Williams’s 2015 season is not new and it’s not shiny. It’s not a developing story a la Ronda Rousey or Carli Lloyd. There was a lot of sentiment around the U.S. women’s national team and Lloyd specifically this year—which there should have been—but that’s kind of what Serena does every year. That’s what she’s done for 16 years now. We can’t penalize Serena because she’s been winning everything for so long. Someone shouldn’t be punished because we’ve grown to expect it from them.
There is extra significance around Serena’s year in 2015 just based on the historical context of tennis: how she passed Chris Evert and passed Martina Navratilova and is on her way to catching Steffi Graf. There is a little bit more gravity with each win. So to come up with a year where she won three Slams, with that kind of pressure of walking in the shadows of some of the greatest tennis players of all time, that was a real statement. It definitely rings a little more significantly than had she been approaching 12, 13 or 14 Grand Slam titles rather than marching past 20. I think all of that added for some great drama.
Despite a tough match against Victoria Azarenka, Wimbledon was relatively straightforward tournament for Serena this year. I think her most impressive Grand Slam this year—not tennis wise, far from it—was the French Open. She didn’t play well, by her standards. I equate it to a pitcher who is getting on in years and used to throw a 98 mph ball that would just beat people. And now all of the sudden the pitcher is throwing 93 mph and hitting spots, mixing up pitches, getting out of jams and stranding runners at base. She’s kind of learned how to pitch a good ball game, which is something I don’t think she did as well early in her career.
People will talk about the dominance—I don’t think anyone would argue that on her best day she is the best women’s player of all time—but she’s kind of developed this nuance to get through matches and win deciding sets. During the entire tournament at Roland Garros, she was sick and not at her best physically. But she still fought through mentally and won the title, adding to her Slam total and giving herself some chance at the calendar year Grand Slam. That was probably my favorite Grand Slam that she’s won. I don’t know that she would tell you that because it was probably grueling and terrible at the moment. But looking back, knowing how hard it is to be at your best when you’re under the weather, I think that was the most impressive win for me.
In 2006, Serena’s ranking dropped near No. 100. And I remember thinking, she’s got to grind everyday and work hard and commit, like I was trying to do. But fast-forward to 2015 and Serena is still winning Grand Slams and marching to the record books, and I’m sitting here and I’ve been out of the game for three years. So I think it shows how she hasn’t been afraid of her own process. Her path is not one that most people would take. There was a lot of criticism surrounding the way she went about taking some time off in the middle of her career, but now she’s still fresh and probably more motivated than I’ve ever seen her, this late in her career.
Just a few weeks ago I was talking to her at our kitchen table. She is by no means satisfied. It wouldn’t surprise me to see her play a few more years, minimum. It doesn’t always make sense to everyone else but I think you kind of have to have the courage to play to your plan and your path. And she’s the one that ended up being right.
I always say I wish that the media and the people in the press conferences afterwards could see the side of Serena that I see. I just think she’s so focused. It’s weird, because sometimes she’ll have an attitude in a press conference. And if it was Michael Jordan who did that after losing, you would say that’s fire, that’s determination; he just can’t get over it. There would be a different rhetoric about it. Serena gets viewed a little differently. I think we take the story for granted. The story of two girls, kind of on the whim of a crazy idea, coming out of Compton and becoming two of the greatest champions in a predominately white sport. That’s a story that if we hadn’t seen it, we would think it was a crazy notion. And dealing with that pressure and all of the other pressure, it takes a special person.
I think we’re going to look back in 20 years and realize everything that went into her career and her accomplishments. I wish that people would appreciate it in the moment a little more and not just take it for granted. And that’s why this year, I believe Serena Williams deserves SI’s Sportsman of the Year award.