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.
Here’s a quick thought exercise: Imagine that at 33 years old, Serena Williams enters the 2015 Australian Open as the No. 1—ranked player in the world. She reels off her first five matches, including a defeat of her sister Venus (another chapter in The Williams Sisters: The Greatest Sports Story Ever Told). In the semifinals, however, Serena offers a rare glimpse of her gag reflexes and loses a tight, nerve-addled match to a No. 43—ranked Italian journeywoman.
It's a profoundly disappointing defeat, no doubt. But then Serena recovers and wins the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Three major championships played under different sets of circumstances, on different surfaces, requiring three different skill sets. She also wins two other big-ticket titles: Miami and Cincinnati. With an almost risible match record of 53–3 in 2015, she is not just the WTA's top player; she is the belt hoisting the entire Tour. By mid-summer, the chasm in points separating her from the world's No. 2 (then Maria Sharapova) was wider than the gap between No. 2 and No. 1,000.
Put it all together, and this constitutes one of the greatest seasons ever in all of sports (never mind tennis), right?
Well, Serena did achieve all of the aforementioned in 2015. The difference, of course, was that she achieved it all in reverse. She won the year's first three Slams but fell in the U.S. Open semifinals in September. Whether it's recency bias, or disappointment that she came so tantalizingly close to winning the Grand Slam (all four majors in a calendar year), to some the loss appeared to diminish her year. Which is absurd. Sure, it's a pity she couldn't pull off perhaps the most formidable feat in sport. But that should not, and does not, obscure her singularly excellent season.
It wasn't simply the volume. There were matches Serena won with her unprecedented, unanswerable power. (One example: the Aussie Open final in which she blasted Sharapova for the 17th time in 19 matches, thrashing 18 aces—the same number No. 1 Novak Djokovic and then No. 6 Andy Murray served between them when they played in the men's final.) Sometimes she solved the riddle of her opponents mid-match, made the necessary adjustments and cruised. Other times she showed off her powers of recovery—call it her refuse-to-lose-ness—and prevailed by sheer force of will. At Roland Garros, visibly sick with the flu, she lost a set in five of her seven matches. Still, she fashioned an escape each time.
Now 34, Serena is still going gangbusters. This speaks so eloquently to her professionalism, her commitment and, ultimately, her deep-seated fondness for a sport that—and she would admit this—hasn't always been in evidence. Plus, with 21 career major singles titles spread over 16 years, she is within one of tying Steffi Graf's Open era mark. The body of evidence supporting Serena's case as the sport's GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) is verging on overwhelming.
So consider this a vote, submitted without reservation, for Serena as the 2015 Sportswoman of the Year. She won as a matter of ritual. She continues to set the standard for an athlete, gender be damned, who marries power with accuracy and competitive resolve.
One of tennis's many virtues is its absence of a clock. But that can also have the effect of distorting time. She should be judged on the totality of her year, not her most recent match. If you stand back and view her entire season, it becomes clear: Serena's Sportswoman candidacy is not unlike her status in tennis. Everyone else is just playing for second place.