THEY COME IN all varieties. There are micromanagers and bloviators. There are delegators and relegators. Kiss-ups and kick-downs. Name a workforce and, almost by definition, there is a boss. In sports, bosses cut a wide swath. Armed with talking points, projecting defiance as he defends the often indefensible, Roger Goodell is one kind of boss. Adam Silver, self-deprecating yet decisive, is another.
This is an article from the Feb. 9, 2015 issue
Tennis has its bosses too. Many, in fact, within its fractured structure. But the sport's über-boss is Serena Williams. She has won nearly three times as many major titles as any other active WTA player. She has a cast of underlings and an entire tour that bends to her will.
Her leadership style? She's not always present. You sometimes wonder if she hasn't spread herself too thin, if she's fully committed, if she's pondering her next move. Once the deal is on the table and it's time to close, though, she arrives in full force, reminding you of why it is she resides at the top of the org chart.
The 2015 Australian Open was Serena-as-Boss. Early on, she looked sluggish, dropping the opening set in two of her first four matches.
Then the Boss came to work. How did she respond once she dropped those first sets? By winning 6–2, 6–0, 6–3 and 6–2. Once she got to the business end of the tournament, when the competition was toughest, she did not lose a set. She has now been to six Australian Open finals. She has never been the runner-up.
In Saturday night's final Williams faced Maria Sharapova. Though they are cast as nemeses, their rivalry is akin to the one a juicer has with an orange. What started as a "streak" has since grown legs and a tail. Coming into the match, Williams had beaten Sharapova 15 straight times, going back more than a decade. "I think my game matches up well against her. I love playing her," Williams said, the Boss's public relations department apparently scripting her understatement. "I have the time of my life."
In a thoroughly enthralling match, Serena prevailed 6–3, 7–6, outserving, -slugging, -running and -fighting Sharapova. In the second set alone, she sent 15 aces hissing across the net and won 87% of her first serves.
In the second-set tiebreaker Williams summoned her best work. Serving at match point, Serena hit an ace, only to get a dubious let call. She smiled, inhaled and hit the exact same serve for another ace. This was her career distilled to its essence. Discussing Williams's mental toughness, her own coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, is at a loss. "There are things you can't explain," he says. "It's her character; she refuses to lose and finds solutions that are incredible."
Williams has 19 majors now, putting her ahead of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, and within three of Steffi Graf's Open-era record, male or female. After the match, Serena gave an emotional speech about her journey. "There were things I wanted to say and motivate people who may not have come from a lot," she later explained. "You can still make it and you can still do it if you just persevere and you believe in yourself. I think that was another good message to get across."
Hear that? For whatever blithe indifference Serena may have projected earlier in her career, legacy and reputation matter to the Boss. She is still going strong, meeting her quarterly targets. But no one stays in the corner office forever.
The hallways at Melbourne Park are adorned with photos of former champions. As Serena left the court and headed to the locker room to celebrate, she passed them all. Images of Evert, Navratilova, Graf.
She kept walking. Walking like a boss.