Sunday, April 6, 2008

On being a fan of Serena Williams

Some moments in tennis are stellar. Martina Hingis’ breathtaking performances during 1997 that resulted in her becoming the world’s youngest Number 1. Steffi Graf beating Hingis at Roland Garros 1999 in a match filled with more drama than tennis. Federer humbling Sampras at Wimbledon. And, for a time, Gustavo ‘Guga’ Kuerten’s dominance of the terre battue.

But there is no tennis story like that of the ascendance of the William sisters and the awe and fear they still inspire. And this is one of the few times you will ever see me referring to them as a unit, because I generally think of them as two separate individuals.

I respect the heck out of Venus but she’s just not my cup of tea. I can’t bear to watch her interviews. They are so carefully worded while disclosing absolutely nothing that they end up irritating. I can’t bear to watch her play either, especially when she starts to lose and copes by chewing away at the inside of her cheek. I’ve always wondered what the inside of her mouth looks like after all that gnawing. And then when she starts to panic in a match, it becomes painful to watch. Sure she plays her best tennis when she is in a hole, but I find it too emotionally draining and not at all enjoyable to witness.

And I hate to say this but I wish I could just once see Venus out on a date with a brother. She has only been photographed with white men. Of course she has the right to find happiness with whomever she pleases, don’t get me wrong, but I wish that just once you could see her going for some coffee without cream. There is something about the complete rejection of one’s own race that speaks to possible self-esteem and self-image issues. Not that Venus would ever go there in an interview.

Serena however is on a completely different level. In the early years she used to panic like Venus, and choked more than a few matches away. I don’t know how she learned to gain better control of her nerves, but I do know that at some point she did, and thereafter became a formidable opponent. I credit her with single-handedly running Hingis out of tennis the first time. [Cocaine did it the second time].

Any player who beats Serena knows that revenge is waiting around the corner. And when Serena gets revenge, she doesn’t just beat you. She crushes you to a pulp. She pounds you into oblivion. She gets into your head so that the next time you meet, you might seriously consider just laying down your racket and handing her the win. Just ask Justine Henin, the current #1 player in the world. There has been no love lost between these two ever since Justine cheated during a 2003 French Open match when she held up her hand to delay Serena’s serve, and then refused to admit having done so, to the Chair. Their matches have ever since been tainted with bad blood. Justine beat Serena three times in 2007. Each match was painfully close. Serena was in poor form. Then they met in Miami a few days ago. Serena crushed her 6-2 6-0. She made the #1 player in the world look like a junior as she ate the bagel Serena force-fed her. Revenge was sweet, but also bitterly cold.

Serena is one of those rare athletes who seem able to play their way into good form during a tournament. She may start out seeming out-of-form, but if she makes it all the way to the finals watch out, because she will be in scintillating form. This approach to match preparation is not recommended by any coach I know, and it may be a factor in Serena’s history of injuries. But it has also worked for her.

As an actress, thus far Serena has been a failure. The bulk of her IMDB profile features roles in which she has appeared as “herself”. In other words, almost her entire acting career has involved her not getting into any character. I’m not sure how that qualifies as acting.

I happen to agree with those who believe that Serena has wasted her career by pursuing dreams of becoming a Hollywood star. I wish she had dedicated those years to tennis, to surpassing Steffi Graf’s and even Margaret Court’s records. Serena has the talent to do this. But she lacks the interest, dedication, and motivation. She plays tennis on her own terms. Frank Sulloway would say that as the last-born in her family, she was born to rebel. I think that this is what happens when people end up being overly deprived in some spheres and overly indulged in others. Their dreams can get distorted.

Over the years Serena has faced a barrage of criticism for some of her fashion choices. I have never been sure if Serena was just playing the Hollywood game (by letting her boobs hang out), or if she truly has the internal self-image of a skinny petite chick. The former is less disturbing and suggests that she is in control of her image and is simply playing by the rules. The latter calls to mind similar concerns regarding self-image that plague her sister, and makes one wonder about what it was really like growing up Williams. I have on occasion been embarrassed for her by the spaghetti straps and bra-less gets-ups she sometimes forces on her chunk-sized frame. In her own mind, she is clearly all girly-girl, never mind that she has the muscles and shoulders of a quarterback. But when she periodically gets it right, her real beauty shines smilingly through.

I have learned not to count on Serena. I accept with humility the terms she has set down for her fans. When she is focused on her tennis, we show up in numbers to support her. When she stopped going to Indian Wells, we joined the boycott, knowing that there is indeed a difference between booing and booooooooing, and that the latter was tinged with racism. When she is off her form, we wait patiently for her to get back on it. During her Brett Ratner phase, we held our breath. When Jackie Long reportedly broke her heart, we wept on her behalf. Now that she is allegedly dating Common, we exhale and wish her well. And through all of her permutations, we keep the faith that she can see that history is within her making, that the Serena Slam is just the start of what she can accomplish, that she has the capacity to be stellar - if only she could see this as clearly as we do.

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