In summer 2009, Serena Williams was playing a mandatory tournament in Cincinnati against a woman most people have never heard of, Sybille Bammer. By “playing,” what I mean is that Williams was there, on the court, holding a racket. Bammer won that day, as Williams, the best player in the world, committed two unforced errors per game.
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A bad day? No. Williams wasn’t trying, or at least she wasn’t fighting. In tennis, it’s called tanking a match. So ticket-buyers and tournament officials were angry. Williams was in a stretch of 17 straight months where she wouldn’t win any tournament unless it was a major. In every nowhere she went to, she lost to nobodies, often in the first round. Or she faked an injury and didn’t go at all.
She went to one tournament saying she was going only to avoid being fined an amount that would equal her remodeling budget. She went. She left in the middle of a match.
On Monday, Williams regained the No. 1 ranking in the world. She’s 31 now, the oldest woman to hold the top spot. It’s a big deal, a huge accomplishment. And as much as she has downplayed the No. 1 ranking, it meant a lot to her. Last week, when she knew she had done enough to move to No. 1, she cried.
“I’m so sensitive nowadays; I’m always crying,” she said on the court. “But I never thought I would be here again. I’ve been through so much.”
A few years ago, I thought Williams was showing a serious lack of respect for the sport and the fans by not trying unless a tournament was a major. At one point, Chris Evert wrote her a letter begging her to focus, saying she could reach incredible heights.
Well, Williams did it her way. She was into fashion and fame, and tennis only during majors. At the time, she used to say that she could not focus on tennis 100 percent of the time. She didn’t want to burn out in her 20s.
Has she proven her point?
Thirty-one years old and No. 1 in the world? Her rivals have mostly come and gone, burned out from the stresses of the game. Justine Henin, the only player to reach Williams’ level consistently, is gone, having burned out twice. Dinara Safina? Gone. Martina Hingis? Gone. Kim Clijsters? Gone twice, too.
Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal, 26, is hobbling around the court, hoping his knees will allow another comeback. And no one in tennis thinks those knees will allow him to play until he’s Williams’ age.
On top of that, Williams has not suffered the big-time meltdown that a lot of these obsessed athletes have. Tiger Woods comes to mind, not to mention all the children whose parents forced them into specialization by age 5. We never see most of them.
Williams seems better equipped to handle life’s realities.
To be No. 1 at 31 suggests a lifelong commitment to fitness. Instead, Williams has had some issues there, even writing in her book about a time when she got out of shape because of her love for a particular doughnut shop. There have been plenty of times when she has been in shape, and plenty when she hasn’t been.
No, Williams has done this mostly with mental fitness. Talent, too, of course. But her ability to keep fresh mentally has been all about her approach.
At the same time, I don’t think she has accomplished all she could have on the court. Maybe that’s OK.
But guess how many years Williams has finished ranked No. 1 in the world.
Two. She has been the world’s best player, for the most part, for a decade. How could she allow others to be ranked ahead of her so much of the time?
That has a lot to do with how she views the non-majors, at which computer rankings points do add up. Williams has focused on majors, and majors only, for her spot in history. That’s likely because they are the only things to catch her interest.
So while she has won majors, others, such as Safina, were winning everything else.
With Williams at No. 1 again, it just throws so many things up for rethinking. For example: Why can’t Williams, or any player, just play the tournaments she wants? What would be so bad if Williams decided she wanted to play just four tournaments a year, the majors?
That’s all that most non-tennis fans pay attention to, anyway, and it theoretically would keep her physically fresh for years.
On the other hand, if a tour wants to survive, it has to require that people actually play its tournaments. It’s sort of like asking why LeBron James has to bother playing the regular season.
So Williams has been required to play. And nothing is worse than watching champions on the court, not trying. She does seem to be finding a balance with that lately, though.
In some ways, she has more motivation now than a few years ago. That might be the result of overcoming life-threatening blood clots in her lungs. She saw everything nearly taken away, and she has talked about appreciating things more now.
At some point, her spot in history seems to have started to matter to her. But she’s doing it only by counting majors; she hasn’t won nearly as many tournaments overall as, say, Martina Navratilova or Steffi Graf.
Williams has won 15 majors, three fewer than Chris Evert and Navratilova. To me, she is already ahead of Evert in history, and at least close to Navratilova.
But Graf is still the best ever, with 22 majors and eight years ending at No. 1.
Williams still has plenty of time to catch up. She hurt her ankle and her back at the Australian Open, leading to her loss to American teen Sloane Stephens. At some point, everybody breaks down, but I think Williams still will have several more years.
Probably more than Nadal.
I’m remembering Cincinnati two years ago, when Williams withdrew with a foot injury, and later in the day, photos were posted of her at the amusement park across the street.
Williams might have discovered a new method for mental stability in sports. At the same time, she might never go down as the greatest player ever.
It seems like a worthwhile trade, really. But I still can’t help but wonder how much more she could have done.