All Day, Serena Williams, Tennis, U.S. Open -

An ode to Serena Williams My favorite athlete of all time

All Day, Serena Williams, Tennis, U.S. Open -

An ode to Serena Williams My favorite athlete of all time

Serena Williams is my favorite athlete of all time. It took me a good decade to come to say this out loud. Not because I had a problem with admitting that, when it came to watching sports, my machismo wouldn’t let me say I preferred to watch a woman, but because for so long Williams has been appreciated by men, particularly black men for nearly everything except for one: her tennis game.

When she first emerged on the scene, all the narratives were wrapped up in her being Venus Williams’ little sister. They were doing it for the culture, and everyone appreciated it. She was part of this “Black Girl Magic” duo that seemingly could not be accepted or understood in the tennis world and that sense of rebellion was a major draw for many black people who still viewed tennis as something for retired people to do in country clubs. But don’t forget, almost immediately, she took those braids to the top.

In the 1999 U.S. Open, she beat four players who’d won Grand Slam tournaments before, knocking off No. 1-ranked Martina Hingis to win the title. Hingis wasn’t ready. (Sidebar: Serena and Venus won doubles at Flushing Meadow that year, too.) As far as tennis is concerned, she never looked back. It took her less than five years to complete what’s now known as the “Serena Slam,” holding all four Grand Slam titles at once, even if not winning them all in the same calendar year.

But when we think about comparisons to the great athletes of our generation, perhaps because she’s black, perhaps because she’s a woman, or perhaps because so many men are blinded by her style, her body or her dance moves, we fail to recognize her on-court ability. We still don’t appreciate Serena Williams the athlete enough.

In a strange way, losing in the last two U.S. Open semifinals has helped us recognize what we had. The fact is that her personality itself might have “Made Tennis Great Again,” but more importantly, her skills made tennis great again. It took a long time for broadcasters and analysts to describe her approach as anything other than power and intimidation because that’s the instant thing they saw when a strong black woman entered the arena. She single-handedly created and destroyed the career of Maria Sharapova because we as a culture are so obsessed with Great White Hopes once black people start dominating sports, never mind the so-called “ideals” of beauty discussion.

Again, the tennis was forgotten. If you’re counting, she’s more dominant that Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, combined.

“There have been examples in other sports of spectators being aware that they were watching a one-of-a-kind talent and ought to cherish the opportunity,” Tom Victor wrote for Joe.co.uk. “Usain Bolt is one such example, as is Michael Phelps where the aura and legend bubble to the top before others catch up with the talent, to the point that they are spoken of in the past and present tenses simultaneously. You have to force yourself to enjoy and appreciate something in the knowledge that there will undoubtedly come a time in which you’ll get to tell your children and grandchildren ‘I was there.’ ”

But as far as the proverbial barbershop convo goes, Williams’ name isn’t coming up much. Maybe her position as a feminist icon scares dudes away from having a real discussion about her court control and mental prowess. Yet, seeing Williams now, even the casual fans notice they’ve witnessed something great for longer than they probably wanted to realize.

“My mind was just a little bit everywhere, but it was what it was. Yeah, serious left knee problems. But fatigue had nothing to do with it. If I was tired, I need to find a new career,” Williams said after her U.S. Open loss to Karolina Pliskova on Thursday, who’d beaten Venus earlier in the same tournament.

She hasn’t hung up her racket yet and is still the No. 2 player in the world. Nobody wants to put an early end to her illustrious run, and she likely still has a couple Grand Slam wins left in her. But now that she seems, well, mortal, your mind does begin to wander off the court.

We’ll be watching Williams do quite a few things for a long time coming, as she is a woman who is successful at everything she does. Fashion, entertainment, philanthropy, literature, politics, who knows. But I, for one, will miss watching her play tennis, the most.


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