Mailbag: Why tennis deserves some credit for Serena Williams' success
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A quick run though some post-Wimbledon mail. And before that, I neglected to mention this in the 50 Thoughts column, but you guys were outstanding as always. A lot of really smart/funny/perceptive mail. Just wish I could get to it all….
I’m going to start with a letter from a reader that struck me. I think it’s more instructive and meaningful to hear this from the vox populi than from me. As we’ve discussed many times, a current of race and class runs through so much of the coverage of Serena Williams. In no way should it be minimized. Even in her best moments, she has dealt—and will continue to deal—with issues and innuendo that don’t attend other players.
But some of the narrative here has gotten so lazy and reductive and stale it needs addressing. This notion that she crashed the bigoted and privileged citadel of tennis is wrong on so many counts. Name me a social issue—race, homosexuality, globalization—and the sport is way ahead of the curve. This is a sport that comes closest to gender equity. One that can accommodate Serbs and Swiss and Spaniards and Sydney-siders and South Centralists and sub-Saharans—and we barely think twice.
Pick among so many top players—Connors, Agassi, Navratilova, Djokovic even Federer—and odds are good you will not find a scion of money or a product of the country club, but a middle (or even lower) class kid with talent and drive. For all the vile Serena haters (and, trust me, they exist) there are immeasurably more fans (trust me on this, too). For all the unfortunate Indian Wells incidents, there are immeasurably more acts of kindness and support from deep within the sport. Billie Jean King, to pick one name among many, has been a mentor since the 90s.
At the annual ITF Dinner last month in Paris, you know who stole the show? Serena. This is a formal black-tie affair at a posh hotel in The Marais. Serena shows up—in a dress she borrowed from her friend, a blond Danish player, almost ten years her junior—and gets a standing O after she speaks. I’m thinking: a great part of this story that no one is discussing: she is IN. If she was once on the margins, she is now the consummate insider, so woven into the fabric of this sport. She is thoroughly, unblinkingly, unconditionally accepted. And maybe even vice versa. Wait until the U.S. Open rolls around. She enters not as the favorite but as an underdog of sorts; an underdog when pitted against history. Says here she will be more warmly received than ever.
I can’t stress this enough: I don’t want to diminish what Serena has achieved or the singular set of impediments she has faced. As I put it in Sports Illustrated this week, this is The Greatest Sports Story Ever Told. But tennis ought to come in for a bit more credit here, too. I’ve had it with the sport getting beaten up with these narratives that are not only cheap-and-easy and binary; but, worse, are so damn inaccurate.
Anyway, over to you, Dane of Richmond:
I was one of the many people rooting for Serena to accomplish what is by any measure an outstanding feat. She is holding all four grand slam titles at an older age than any other woman has ever held any single grand slam title. That is such an astonishing accomplishment that I struggle to explain it to anyone else that doesn't closely follow tennis. But... what do you think of this article that claims that Serena transcends sport?
To be honest, it makes me cringe. No doubt, Serena has faced trolls and racists throughout her career. But, I'd hope that due consideration would be paid to tennis itself, and especially the dedicated fans that I don't think are usually well represented in that “hater” crowd. There's a sense in the article that she has somehow rampaged her way through a hostile tennis-public towards final vindication. But one of the things I love most about tennis is the gender-parity of it all, at least compared to other sports. Sure, maybe it is awful that the men's final is held on Sunday and the women's on Saturday; and maybe if things in tennis were better, women would have more court time on Centre and Court No. 1. But in the scheme of things, and especially as far as sports are concerned, tennis is waaaay ahead of the pack. I think Serena transcends her sport insofar as she is definitely the greatest female athlete ever to walk this earth. But, at the same time, it's to the credit of dedicated tennis fans everywhere that I don't think it's predominately her race or her gender or her nationality that informs the appreciation we have of her. Maybe society will never be post-racial or post-gender, but in this one small arena, I think that most of us fans can appreciate Serena for what she accomplished as an individual and not necessarily through some other lens.
This is not to say that tennis is some kind of special bubble where race and gender has never (or still doesn't) matter. But I have always thought of tennis as the most progressive sport, one that has always been in the forefront agitating up against salient social issues. Depending on how you count, Althea Gibson broke the color barrier before Jackie Robinson did. She was also a woman. Billie Jean King basically single-handedly de-marginalized the women's tour, something that soccer (and all other major sports) has and is still trying to accomplish. BJK was clearly also an outspoken pioneer for women's and gay rights everywhere. And Venus Williams was poignantly instrumental in securing equal prize money for men and women. (And I'm not even mentioning Arthur Ashe, Martina Navratilova, etc...) Those are all accomplishments that, in my mind, really transcend tennis and sport, accomplishments that truly add to their legacy beyond what they accomplished on the court.
Of course, it is amazing that Serena has accomplished what she has, but, going by the aforementioned article, they seem to be oblivious to the accomplishments of those women that came before her and to the openness of the tennis community that has readily accepted her. Plus, black female athletes have done well in many different sports. If there is something special about tennis, it's that it's a sport that, after decades of self-reinvention, is especially welcoming and remunerative to the women who perform well in it, regardless of color or nationality. Serena would easily break records in many different sports; it's a tribute to tennis that she has had an outlet for her talents as appreciative as the tennis world has been. I truly hope that other sports (and stages outside of sports) would so follow.
• Amen and onward….
I was watching the home run derby and wondered if there was a way to do a tennis version. Get a few top ten and some other top 100 players to all commit to the same exhibition—maybe about the same size as a World Team Tennis match. I'm thinking maybe in early March when most players are already in the U.S. Have a few pro sets, and mini versions other sports' skills contests, who can crack the fastest serve, who can hit the shortest drop shot, which doubles pair can keep volleying the longest, and so on. It'd be a great way to get another tennis event on the American calendar right before March Madness always draws attention away from Indian Wells and Miami. Maybe the management agencies would invest in it for the exposure. This week is huge for baseball in America and it would be great if there was a mid-season equivalent for tennis.
—Willie T., Brooklyn
• When Adam Helfant took over as head of the ATP several years ago, one of his initiatives was an All-Star weekend, presumably to be held during Indian Wells. A great idea that never came to fruition. Have a skills contest. Apart from the obvious (fastest serve, hitting targets) you could have less obvious competitions. Both genders would be involved. Someone get on this. We’re looking at you, Ellison.
Serena and Federer are two of the greatest champions ever and what they are doing at age 33 is pretty remarkable. But I can't help but notice the difference in tour depths. Serena is pretty lucky that at age 33, her competition is pretty lame. Is there a drop-off after the top 4 or 5 on the men's tour? Yes. But at least they have a competitive top 4 or 5. On the WTA tour, it's Serena and then a big drop-off. If Federer were dominating the ATP tour and was 3/4 of the way to a calendar Slam at age 33, the cries of a weak era would be deafening. Yet, nary a sound about this current era for Serena. Again, I'm not saying that Serena isn't great, she is. I guess I just wish that Federer was as lucky as Serena right now. I know I would enjoy Serena's quest for the calendar Slam a lot more if I thought she had competition like the top men face. Instead it feels like a done-deal and who really cares about that?
• I disagree with the premise. There are murmurs—actually more than murmurs; full-throated voices—that women’s tennis is not exactly in a golden age. There is, of course, something circular about this. When Serena routinely administers routine beatings to the other top players, doesn’t it argue for singular greatness, not against it? When she gobbles up majors the same way Ms. Pac Man devours Inky, Binky and Sue, of course other contemporaries will only win a few majors. Sure it would be nice if the top players sometimes pushed her more, if her combined record against Sharapova and Azarenka weren’t represented on the small end of the scoreboard (She’s 35-5 against them combined.) But I think you watch Serena—how she elevates her game when she needs to; how she refuses to lose three-setters, how she serves with more precision the later the match gets—and it’s clear this is greatness playing out. Regardless of the resistance she is or is not getting across the net, she is not beating herself.
I noted this during the tournament myself. My comment on Facebook was, "British tennis commentators are the sedative of sports announcing." And yes, I enjoyed the spark that Andy Roddick brought to the booth. I look forward to hearing him in the future.
—Jeff Johnson, Fort Worth, Texas
• My comments on the difference in broadcasts drew lots and lots of response, pro and con. I want to stress that I attribute this to cultural differences and not to any sort of incompetence. But I stand by what I wrote. Don’t talk my ear off. But, ideally anyway, the commentators are there for the insight and access. There is a staff on hand plying them with relevant data. Each match tells a story—and is part of a bigger narrative—that goes so far beyond forehands and backhand. Why not share all that, as ESPN and Tennis Channel do? Sometimes, really, less is less.
Despite my sadness over Federer losing the Wimbledon final, I had to laugh at Roddick saying "I'm feeling so bad for Roger right now, as bad as I can feel for someone who already won 17 Grand Slams." Perspective, huh?
But it got me thinking: What is it about this guy who has won so much that still makes you feel so sad that he's not winning more? There are a ton of reasons that Roger pulls at our heartstrings and certainly getting older is one of them, but Federer has been getting this kind of support well before he passed his prime, so what is it? Whatever it is, it's just another in a long list of intangibles on his GOAT resume.
• For reasons too numerous to list here, Federer has connected with a huge swath of the public. His supporters want him to win the same way Yankees fans want another World Series, despite the rich history. Except that in an individual sport, it can be an even deeper connection. At this point we like what a title would represent: proof that age isn’t such a nasty avenger after all. That greatness can still be summoned under the right circumstances. That persistence and life’s complications—a three-year drought, four children, additional external pressure—can still be rewarded.
In your post-Wimbledon 50 Parting Thoughts, in the context of how best of three set matches leads to more random results for women, you wrote: "I stand by the suggestion that, at a time when physical demands have never been higher and viewer demands are for shorter programming blocks, all men’s matches should be best-of-three until the second week." I think you should go one further and recommend the exact same thing for women: Best-of-three in the first week (when court scheduling is jammed and there are lots of matches to watch and the physical cost of winning a five-setter early can often make the victory Pyrrhic anyway) followed by best-of-five in the second week (when there are fewer matches and less tennis to watch and the importance of taking out the randomizing impact of a shorter match seems greater).
While I think, from a both a fan and player-physical-toll standpoint, it is pointless to have men play such long matches early, I also think that women's later matches go by too fast! It would be a more fan-satisfying experience, easier to schedule, result in the occasional five-set epic by women late in the tournament and fully shut down any remaining ogres who think the women are somehow less worthy of equal pay to the men because they play shorter matches. Also, politically speaking, it might be easier to make both changes at once, than making one or the other. After all, formats have changed before. As I understand it, it used to be that defending champions at Wimbledon had a bye through to the finals. This change is small compared to that one. Can you go ahead and make that happen this year at the U.S. Open? I am sure they would listen to you, right?
—John H. Campbell
• Sure. The U.S. Open listens to everything I say. Roofs don’t build themselves, you know. What about a best-of-five women’s final? Until the 90s, the final match of the WTA season at the year-end championships was best-of-five. That seemed to work well.
There is no shame in losing to Novak Djokovic, it just would have been nice for Federer to go down with a more aggressive game plan. He would have been better off charging the net like Taylor Dent than attempting to beat Djokovic from the baseline. It may not have worked but rallying with Djokovic is a losing proposition for Federer.
• You know how when boxers face a dazzling counterpuncher, they are afraid to attack as they normally would? Same for tennis. Federer knew Djokovic was such a pinpoint returner, he aimed for tighter spots and ended up with his worst serving performance of the tournament.
Serena is an anomaly. At 33, she is the most dominant athlete—male or female—in sports today. When most tennis players at that age are in their decline, Serena is at her peak. She's unrivaled and able to win slams when she's not close to her best (see: Garros, Roland; 2015). Where do you see her Slam pile ending? Given that most of the elite tennis players (Steffi, Agassi and Sampras, to name a few) were able to win slams in the winter of their careers, and Serena is clearly not there, I would put her final tally between 24 to 26. She completes the Grand Slam, defends several more next year and cements her legacy even further. Assuming she stays injury-free, I think the wildcard here is motivation.
—Matt McNama, Toronto
• I’m out of the Serena prediction game. But Matt raises a good point. How long can this go on?
Why exactly is Serena Williams playing an event on clay in Sweden?
• Well, the WTA bans appearance fees so it must be because she wants extra clay court matches in advance of her French Open and her love of smoked fish. She’s doing it for the same reason George Clooney is doing cheesy ads for Nespresso, Ty Burrell is doing voiceovers for car ads, Green Day is playing bar mitzvahs. Ever since the Phoenicians invented money, it’s explained a lot of human behavior.
For the record, I don't begrudge Serena—or any player—this at all. Careers are short. You have created a market distortion whereby your presence far exceeds the prize money at other events. Go get yours!
I follow the stats on all of the top ranked tennis players, but I was surprised to see the huge mistake made on the WTA website with respect to Serena Williams. Her pre-Wimbledon prize money for 2015 was $6,175,649 and her pre-Wimbledon career prize money was $69,376,4428. No, her prize money as of 13 July 2015 (Post-Wimbledon) is posted as $6,475,575 for 2015 and $69,676,354 for career prize money. I was wondering how that could be as Wimbledon shows the winner’s prize money was $2.9 million.
So I checked Serena’s bio on the WTA site and was shocked to see that they were figuring and posting her Wimbledon prize money as $299,926. That has to be a huge mistake because they were showing Garbine’s Wimbledon earnings as $1,499,633. It’s obvious that they were a digit off with respect to Serena which threw all the figures out of kilter. It would be nice if someone who knows how to contact the WTA would point out this error so they can correct the records. Her 2015 earnings should be ca. $9 million and her career earnings ca. $72 million, third all time for tennis, just behind Federer and Nadal.
—A tennis fan
• Done. But note that Djokovic has won $82.3 million and Nadal has $73.2 million.
• Joe_on_Sports has LLS: Switched at birth...Kris Bryant (w/ beard) and Stan Wawrinka?