American tennis has been in a bit of a slump the last few years. Serena Williams’ win over Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final this week probably won’t change things. Williams’ performance was a surprise but not a shock. It was a surprise because she came into the Open unseeded, with a World Ranking of 81, and not in the best physical condition. It was not a shock because she had already won 7 Grand Slam titles in her career, including two previous Australian Opens. Together with her older sister, Venus, she had dominated women’s tennis for a span of three or four years.
The recent drop off in her play, and even more dramatically that of Venus (who did not enter in Australia), can be blamed to a first order on injuries. She is 25, pushing middle age for a tennis player in a sport notoriously hard on the body. But therein lays a tale.
Her coach and father, the controversial Richard Williams, was no typical country club tennis parent. He said he wanted at least one of his daughters to succeed in sports so he could get them off of the mean streets of Compton, California. Tennis seemed the best bet to do that, even though Williams lacked a big-time background in the sport and though he made frequent claims of racial discrimination by the tennis establishment. The point here is that he kept the girls on an unusual path, which included restricting their tournament appearances during their early professional careers. He said he wanted to keep them from following the path of many teen tennis phenomena who burned themselves out from intense training and travel. He said he wanted to teach them there was more to life than tennis, including education.
Some thought this was all an act but the girls apparently took the advice to heart. They have acting careers. They became fashion designers (some of which products Serena Williams wears on the court, to raised eyebrows). They seem to enjoy life. These distractions, if you want to call them that, must have affected their training. Injuries, common to tennis even for the fittest athlete, cropped up and took longer to heal. Serena began to look, well, heavy. They skipped more tournaments, including the majors. They are both so talented that for a time when they did show up, they were able to play their way into shape during a tournament. They used physical ability and toughness to dodge early round upsets before they found their form.
Other young women, hungrier and more motivated, saw their vulnerability and were no longer intimidated by the Williams juggernaut. The Belgian women showed more pluck. The Russians, including Sharapova, arrived en masse. The victories stopped. Serena is still dangerous – as the Australian Open demonstrated – but the smart money says this is the exception rather than the rule. She will win again, maybe some other Grand Slam events, but don’t look for a return to her glory days. There will be no run like that of Steffi Graf and her 22 Grand Slam titles, no chance of being named the Best Ever.
There is no particular moral to this story. The Williams sisters are perfectly entitled to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Nobody died or went to jail because they didn’t train as hard as they might. No drinking or drug abuse is involved. It is easy for the Fan and the Expert to tut-tut about the loss of someone else’s athletic potential, how many records they could have broken had they only put their minds to it, etc. One recalls Chi Chi Rodriguez’s remark about Jack Nicklaus – hardly an underachiever – that he was a legend in his spare time. Maybe, as Johnny Miller likes to say, water finds its own level. Tiger Woods, no slouch when it comes to hard work, might win even more tournaments if he entered a monastery and did nothing but practice golf; as opposed to getting married, having kids, becoming a TV pitchman, and occasionally going bungee jumping. Or maybe he would win fewer.
Sometimes there is a price of sorts to pay. The New York Giants’ star running back Tiki Barber is retiring from football this year. He is obviously an intelligent man. He says, perfectly reasonably, that he just wasn’t willing to take the pounding any longer. He wanted to walk away with a minimum of the long-term pain and disabilities that affect football players. He has a lucrative career in television ahead. But when the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters consider his case some years down the road, they will probably decide that he finished one full season short of the necessary statistical accomplishments. And in the back of their minds, maybe the front, they will judge that if Barber had wanted sports immortality, he should have delayed his TV career, put up with the whirlpool and played that extra year. The risk of suffering a life-altering injury, they will say, is part of the price that must be paid for those who want to enter the shrine in Canton, Ohio.
I wonder what advice the Williams’ sisters would have given Tiki. And to make things a bit more interesting, Tikis twin brother, Ronde, a defensive back with Tampa Bay, will continue to play. After a few more excellent years . . . who knows?