Against that backdrop, something remarkable was playing out in Flushing Meadows. Serena Williams, the seventeen year old from Palm Beach, Florida, by way of Compton, California, made history, defeating Martina Hingis, and becoming just the second African-American woman to win a grand slam championship. (Williams followed Althea Gibson, whose story, if you’re not familiar, is well worth knowing.) And while it was obvious, even then, that we were witnessing something special, there was no way of knowing this was the beginning of one of the most compelling sports stories of a generation.
But to truly understand the breadth of Serena Williams’ tennis odyssey, consider the story of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. The 32-year-old Croatian, once a prodigy herself, became of the most captivating stories of this U.S. Open, after an emotional post-upset press conference. Lucic-Baroni has an incredible tale to tell, from grand slam contender, to an extended hiatus from the game due to financial problems and emotional abuse, and finally, a long road back to being competitive at the sports highest level. And perhaps the most remarkable thing is that her own tennis tale, her extended saga of adversity and perseverance, really began at Wimbledon in 1999, when she advanced to the semifinal, just like Serena’s breakthrough, at age seventeen.
While Lucic-Baroni evolved from tennis prodigy to comeback story, Serena Williams has been here the entire time, collecting seventeen grand slam championships, becoming one of the most significant figures in American culture, and being, in a word, great. That’s not to suggest that her career has been simpler, or more straightforward than Lucic-Baroni’s. No, what’s remarkable is that it’s been just as chaotic, and had just as many twists and turns. For Serena, there are no straight lines, other than the ones that section the court.
NEW YORK, NY – AUGUST 30: Serena Williams of the United States reacts against Varvara Lepchenko of the United States during their women’s singles third round match on Day Six of the 2014 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 30, 2014 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for USTA)
First, there were the early years, when Serena and Venus were dogged by rumors that their head-to-head matches were predetermined, in an effort to evenly ration the championship hardware in women’s tennis. Then there have been the questions of "heart" and "desire" that have arisen every time Serena has ventured into fashion, or television, or anything that isn’t adding an extra mile-per-hour onto her first serve. Shifting your focus, even for a moment, away from the game has long been one of the cardinal sins of our sporting culture. Still, it’s quite noticeable that Serena, she of the flashy outfits, powerful style, and unapologetic braggadocio, seems to come in for more criticism than most. Maybe it’s just because we see how good she is, think she could be even better, and project that onto her because of our own understandable desire to see true sports transcendence. Or, maybe, we are just hostile because Serena looks, sounds, and acts differently, something that we as a society grapple with in truly unfortunate ways on a daily basis.
Make no mistake; sometimes the controversy is honestly earned. This was the case back in 2009, when Serena had perhaps her most infamous on-court moment, berating and threatening a lineswoman after a foot-fault call, eventually leading to a match ending penalty point, a major fine, and two years of grand slam probation. And while it was fair to ask whether Serena was being treated fairly after years of glorifying the "You cannot be serious" -ness of tantrums past, the reality was that the harsh and violent nature of her invective made it impossible to defend, or excuse.
Ultimately though, that tirade in Flushing was the exception, rather than the rule. Serena all too often takes criticism not for what she says, and does, but for what she will not say, and refuses to do. To this day, Serena has refused to take the court at Indian Wells, one of the biggest tournaments on the schedule, after a chorus of boos and abuse in the 2001 tournament that her father believes was racially motivated. And from practically the moment her career began, Serena has been hesitant to discuss the injuries and ailments that have kept her from competition, at least on the timeline that a hungry media would prefer. Speculation on Serena’s status is a cottage industry unto itself, between the quad surgery that took her out of commission in 2004, lingering injuries and depression that led to a plummet down the rankings in 2006, and a foot surgery in 2010 that came after cutting her foot on glass in a Munich restaurant. Just throw "Mysterious Serena injury" into google and be prepared to jump down the rabbit hole.
We saw the whole, predictable cycle play out once again at Wimbledon this year, when Serena was forced to withdraw from doubles competition after sluggish, erratic behavior from the moment she took the court. Watching a world class competitor struggle to catch a tennis ball sent observers from concern to conjecture in the time it took Williams to unlace her sneakers. Was it painkillers? Some other drug related issue? Alcohol? Sleep deprivation? Pregnancy? A bizarre order from the Illuminati? (Ok, maybe nobody was really asking that last one, but I figured we might as well throw it in the mix.)
Serena eventually attributed the scary scene to a viral infection, an explanation which was met with the requisite skepticism from all corners. Headline, rumor, explanation, suspicion, resignation. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s all part of the Serena cycle. The world wants a full gaze into the world of one of the greatest athletes ever, but for fifteen years, she’s only given us a peek. So we arrive at an equilibrium whereby she lives with the whispers, and we (eventually) learn to shrug our shoulders.
Serena Williams of the US returns a shot to Kaia Kanepi of Estonia during their 2014 US Open women’s singles match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center September 1, 2014 in New York. AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
I just hope that our obsession with the unknown details, with the mysterious moments in Serena’s career, doesn’t distract us from the big picture. Because here’s the thing: She’s the most dominant athlete of our generation. The injuries, the rough patches, the lapses… those are what make Serena’s story such a compelling drama. Because let’s be frank, when she takes the court at her absolute best, it’s really not much of a contest. She has no peer, not with her power, athleticism, and incredible ability to intimidate. On Sunday, Serena bids to break a tie with Roger Federer and win her eighteenth Grand Slam crown, but regardless of the outcome, Williams seems likely to eventually finish with the lead, because only she, and not the great Roger, can realistically be said to have five to six more slam titles ahead.
Last week’s hacking crimes offered up some fairly heinous reminders of what happens when our celebrity obsessions go to a truly dark place. But what’s been truly revolting is to see just how frequently such offenses are shrugged off, explained away by those who claim that violations of privacy are simply the cost of fame. I have no idea whether Serena has followed the story closely, but I can’t help but think she might relate. Though her privacy has, thankfully, never been compromised in such a way, she’s spent her entire adult life dealing with a public, and a tennis community, that simply wants more. More focus, more interviews, more information, just more everything, for no other reason than because she’s famous, she excels at what she does, and therefore, she belongs to us all.
Sorry folks, but it’s time to accept that Serena, and the rest of our sporting heroes, don’t owe us a thing. To steal a line one of the great philosophers of our time, (that of course being Bart Simpson), she’s given us hours of entertainment for free, and if anything, we owe her. So sure, be skeptical, be curious, but don’t be ungrateful. Because then you won’t appreciate just how riveting this is. We’re watching one of the most unassailable athletes we’ve ever seen, and yet we still don’t know what happens next.