This idea of changing the game through winning reminded me of a moment in Howard Bryant’s book The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron. As Bryant tells the story of the all-time homerun champ, he describes Aaron’s career-long struggle for respect: in the media, in his salary, and as a black athlete in America. Early in his career, Aaron sought to chase Stan Musial’s all-time record for hits. But as he became more socially and politically aware, Aaron recognized that in order to rewrite his own narrative ("Hank" was the sport media's nickname for him, meant to reinforce a false, simpleton image) and make others pay attention to him beyond just as a really good ballplayer, he would need to do something larger, he would need to put his own unavoidable stamp on greatness. Bryant wrote, “If [Aaron] corralled [the all-time home-run record], they would listen to him. They would all have no choice but to pay attention to what he had to say for the rest of his life.” (298)
In a sport that celebrates her excellence while not fully welcoming her presence, perhaps this is what drives Serena.
Venus and Serena aren’t the first champions of color in tennis, but they’re the ones who’ve most remade the game in their image--power, athleticism, intelligence, speed, and complexion--inspiring the next generation of American women, and black women among them.
Still, as the Greatest Tennis Player of All-Time goes after her record tying 24th grand slam title today, most of the country will be too caught up in college football and tomorrow's NFL chatter to notice.
That's too bad.
As the US Women’s National Soccer Team has proven once again, it matters whom we cheer for.
In a nation that continues to struggle to see the humanity in every human being, it matters whom we love.
I, too, wore braces when the sisters--and their megawatt smiles--debuted on the professional tour in theirs. I played doubles on a junior varsity tennis team outside Minneapolis, Minnesota--nary a jock among us--and my first impression of Venus and Serena was of how fun it was to watch them smack the crap out of the ball. I hadn’t watched much tennis on TV, but I wanted to watch them. They were American, my age. They were also goofy, awkward, best friends, and unabashedly themselves. I tracked their ascent up the tour rankings on the back page of my monthly Tennis Magazine. It was clear even then that they could bring a sea change to the sport--its power, its tactics, its historic lines.
Yet since she and her sister arrived on the professional tour--and even before--their presence in the sport was questioned, scrutinized, notable for how they were different, their success too often undermined or explained away. When they won, it was expected because they were bigger and stronger. When they faced each other, they were derided for not competing hard enough. When they pursued other professional interests, they were chided as disrespectful to the game for not fulfilling their talent. They were bumped, booed, and baited all along the way.
I'm 37 now, married with a baby, and I can't name any other athletes whom I've traversed most of my life cheering, still at the pinnacle of their sport.
Though she shows no signs of slowing, there may not be many more opportunities to watch the G.O.A.T. in her dominance.
Have you stopped to watch her yet? Have you stopped and said, Wow?
Maybe it matters that you do.
There's always a way to critique someone who challenges your idea of champion--they seem boastful, push fashion boundaries, act out their frustrations on court... Actually, those easily apply to Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic respectively. But we don't define the men by these faults; we brush them aside and instead revel in their game, their achievements, their contrasting characters.
I, too, see the ways Serena doesn't conform--isn't always easy to watch or to like--but I brush them aside. It's easy, actually. I go back again and again to that feeling, the joy of watching her play.
If we can't love Serena, what she has done and is doing, how are we going to love the next young woman or girl who comes along? Say, Alexis Olympia, Serena's daughter. What more will she have to prove?
Maybe Serena is staying in the game for her daughter. Or maybe she's still playing for us, because we need the chance to love more generously and expansively than we have so far.
The U.S. Open final is today at 4pm EST on ESPN.
There is still time.