The widespread impact of Serena Williams' aura; mailbag

Wednesday January 15th, 2014

Serena Williams' aura can intimidate opposing players before they even leave the locker room.
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Slowly, but unmistakably, analytics have transformed tennis. Television is leading the charge, giving the viewer heat maps and infographics built on the fly. Fans have access to much better data than they did a year ago. Enterprising thinkers make points like this that can be picked apart but, at a minimum, offer some provocative analysis.

Yet there are dimensions of tennis that don't lend themselves to empirical support. Yes, that's the kind of sentence that hacks off the analytics crowd, which (rightfully) laughs at the new version of the benighted Moneyball scouts who glorified grit and pluck-and-clutch performance. Anyone who follows the sport, though, can testify to the importance of aura. What is aura worth? A few games a set, surmises Martina Navratilova. James Blake once took this a step further. Reflecting on Roger Federer's aura, circa 2007, Blake asserted that there were matches Federer won before the players left the locker room.

Aura is hard enough to define -- let alone quantify. Basically, it's the force field emanating from certain players. It's that invisible surrounding nimbus. They are a star; you are a bit player in the cast. They are royalty; you are a courtesan. They are Gladys Knight; you are a Pip.

Aura comes organically. A big entourage doesn't guarantee aura, but neither does an imperious nature. Aura can be cultivated; performing with purpose, winning relentlessly and tolerating no nonsense builds aura.

A handful of players have that aura. There is "hot prospect" aura that Madison Keys possesses. There is the "defending champ" aura of Victoria Azarenka. There is player-on-a-roll aura that Lleyton Hewitt had -- and promptly lost. There is the Big Four aura.

But no one here has as much aura as Serena Williams. Her face is on every conceivable piece of promotional material. The video feed in the players' lounge shows her arrival at the complex each morning. Her entourage -- her agent, her coach, her trainer, her hitting partners -- are better known and better recognized than most players in the draw. When she walks the halls, guards look up, hoping their eye contact is reciprocated. Her name is the first line on the draw.

Serena's aura expressed itself on the court as well. On Wednesday, in the second round of the Australian Open, Williams faced Vesna Dolonc of Serbia. Cameras trailed the players as soon they left the locker room, a legacy of Serena's aura. The Rod Laver Arena crowd cheered Serena's arrival. (Aura.) After warm-up but before the first point, Williams took a bathroom break without admonishment from the officials. (Aura.)

Dolonc played a perfectly decent match. Still, she never projected a sense that she thought she might actually win. She would hit a winner and then seem to remember that, oh, yes, this is Serena Williams on the other side of the net. That's aura.

Serena? As usual, she blasted away, hitting her mark more often than not. On the rare occasion she played a loose point, she refocused and made sure it didn't happen twice in a row. It wasn't a particularly remarkable performance. And still, she won 6-1, 6-2, getting through her match in 63 minutes on an oppressively hot day. As the tournament's own website put it: "Serena Williams doesn't try to be intimidating. She just is."

Williams would agree with the first part of this. She doesn't try. In fact, she sometimes seems to strain to reduce her aura. She admitted Wednesday that she felt under pressure and wouldn't entertain the possibility of winning the title.

"I have so many matches I have to win in order to do well, to lift the trophy," she said. It's such a long way."

Was she happy with her performance?

"I was happy just to get that win under my belt and have a chance to go to the next round."

Don't ask her about her next opponent, though.

"I never look at the draw, ever, ever, ever," she said. "I think that kind of helps me relax."

For the record: She plays Daniela Hantuchova on Friday. Serena will be there. We won't see it and we won't be able to measure it, but so will her aura.


Bernard Tomic and John Isner out injured before they could even complete one match at the Australian Open. That they got injured after a few weeks off just makes a mockery of the media propaganda that "too much tennis causes injuries." The fact remains that it's not just too much tennis that leads to injuries, but also overtraining. I wish you'd acknowledge that also instead of constantly beating the "too much tennis is causing injuries" drums.
-- Jim Hamilton, Philadelphia

• My drum: I don't pretend to know the cause. Maybe it is too much tennis. Maybe it's equipment that encourages over-hitting. Maybe it's playing four hours in 108-degree heat. Maybe it's overtraining. But player after player is getting injured -- ruining draws, ruining the rhythm of a season, causing financial harm in a sport without contracts. The variety of injury is alarming. (Heads, shoulders, knees and toes.) So are the ages of the injured. (Ana Konjuh, 16, is off to Zagreb for surgery on her arm.) The indifference that this triggers is alarming as well.

The tours don't appear to be particularly bothered. Neither do the management agencies, nor the federations or even the players themselves. If they were half as interested in whether their coaches get extra meal allowance as they were in the injury-fest that will greatly diminish their earnings potential, we might get some answers and, thus, some meaningful ways to address what I consider to be a bona fide crisis.

Here's a thought: Maybe people could have enough respect for Roger Federer, Venus Williams et al., to allow them to run their own careers as they see fit? All this death-watch/death-wish push-pull strikes me as pretty ghoulish. Why don't we manage our own issues, and let them manage theirs? I don't want to be part of the argument (or the problem); I just wish it would go away so we could enjoy some tennis.
-- Jim McCalla, Washington, D.C.

• Fair point. Two rules of thumb: Don't question athlete injuries, and don't question athlete decisions to quit or keep playing. However, I don't think it's unreasonable for fans to speculate, and I don't think it's unreasonable for fans to note a decline in result and wonder how much longer players will accept results that don't meet their previous standards.

WERTHEIM: Venus Williams' early loss evokes questions about her future

When the tournament has a "heat rule" but doesn't invoke it at 105 degrees, what's the point of having the rule? It's endangering players, line judges, ball kids and spectators.
-- Sally, Minneapolis

• It was 108 degrees here on Tuesday, but it felt like only 106. If players vomiting, ball kids fainting and nine players retiring from matches doesn't cause the rule to be invoked, maybe this will: Tuesday's attendance was down more than 15,000 fans from the analogous session in 2013.

To borrow an overused sports phrase, do you sell or hold your stock in Andrea Petkovic at this point? I am fully aware of her horrible string of injuries, but it's been several lackluster Grand Slam performances now (she lost in the first round in Melbourne) and I'm beginning to have doubts about whether she'll ever reach the same level she was at a few years ago.
-- Lacey, Greenville, S.C.

• Hold. (Though some of that is heart over head.) Can she get back to the cusp of the top 10? Maybe not, but she's still a better player than her Grand Slam results suggest.

Regarding the court speed complaints, ESPN ran side by side by side clips of Novak Djokovic ("too slow!"), Rafael Nadal ("too fast!") and Federer ("eh, medium; about the same"). Forget the "Big Four"; we now have the "Three Bears."
-- Helen, Philadelphia

• Nice.

Shots, miscellany

• Catching up with Rita Agassi.

Make a contribution here, and I'll send you Australian Open swag or a signed book.

• The nine first-round retirements at this year's Australian Open ties the record for most retirements/walkovers in a single round at any Grand Slam in the Open Era. Yes, even more than at Wimbledon last year.

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