Great athletic careers typically come in three acts. In act one, a player bursts onto the scene, possessing skills that immediately put them in the elite of their game and exuding charisma that make them media friendly and accessible. In other words, they are the sports version of a star is born. In act two, the vagaries of time exert their inevitable gravity on the star’s performance and those once otherworldly skills suddenly seem more earthbound, but the star maintains his or her membership among the elite with the sort of guile and savvy learned from experience at the highest levels of the game. Then in act three, when grit, determination and wiles are no longer enough, the athlete must find a graceful way to transition into real life or the broadcast booth.
Here’s a remarkable facet of Serena Williams’ career: Thirteen years after she turned pro and nine years after her first Grand Slam title at the 1999 U.S. Open, she’s still in act one. Martina Hingis, who turned pro a year earlier, has retired twice during that time. Other top players who came after Serena like her Belgian nemeses, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin have arrived, won major titles and retired. Now, as Serena competes in her 10th U.S. Open, she towers over most of the field; only her sister, Venus, the reigning Wimbledon champion, ranks as an equal.
Three years ago, you could have made a few bucks by betting a tennis buff that the Williamses would still be on top of the tennis world in 2008. It would have seemed that they would be too enmeshed in designing clothes and homes, doing reality television and otherwise milking their celebrity to bother with the sweaty precincts of the tennis courts. It seemed that Serena in particular would only deal with tennis to model her new outfits, which she designed first for Puma and now for Nike.
Instead, Serena has been on a mission to regain her past glory. She has played more tournaments this year than any time since 2002, when she was arguably the best athlete in the world. That year she won the French Open, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and in January 2003, she won the Australian Open, becoming one of only seven tennis players to hold all four major titles at once. In addition, she didn’t drop a set en route to her Wimbledon and U.S. Open championships.
Serena’s game is the epitome of power tennis. When she is on her game, her serve is ferocious and her volleys are intimidating. It isn’t uncommon to see her opponents simply wilt under the heat of Serena’s attack. Rare exceptions were Henin and Clijsters. Watching them play against Williams was comparable to watching Muhammad Ali in his archetypal 1974 title bout versus George Foreman. Clijsters and Henin madeWilliams run all over the court, and they would capitalize on each error. There are only two other players who are not intimidated by Williams, her sister and Maria Sharapova. And against them, Williams plays a more complete game with more strategy evident in her approach.
I figured that Williams couldn’t rely so heavily on her athleticism for so long, but barring some surprise upset at the U.S. Open this week I’m wrong. Clijsters and Henin were the first group of tennis players to emerge knowing that the road to No. 1 goes through Williams. They created games to beat her, then burned out at an early age. Now, the latest wave of top women tennis players will be onstage at the Open, Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic and Dinara Safina. So far they have been alternately brilliant and shaky. Safina double faulted 17 times in losing her gold medal match in the Olympics, and Ivanovic didn’t make it to the first weekend of this Open.
The only major problem is the draw. The Williams sisters are both in the top half of the bracket and slated to meet in the fourth round, far too early in the tournament for such a classic matchup. The women’s final of the U.S. Open is the only tennis match that starts in prime time on network television and the Williamses are the reason why.
Venus Williams cemented her spot among the all-time greats of her sport with her fifth Wimbledon singles title in July. With this U.S. Open, Serena can start to assure her spot in the inner circle of greatness. The Open has a surface well suited to her playing style and rust certainly won’t be a factor. This has been her stage. During her 1999 finals win, I recall being on the streets of New York and the vibe seemed distracted as if there was something more important going on. 2002 will be remembered for Serena’s attire, but her catsuit seems prescient now rather than garish. Since then, we’ve watched an endless procession of swimmers, sprinters and even Australian women’s basketball players compete in the Beijing Olympics in similar outfits. An athletic body is typically earned with hard work and is worthy of a bit of self-celebration.
Serena’s legacy will depend on winning Grand Slam events. So far she is a few wins shy of 400, which pales compared to Steffi Graf’s 900 or Martina Navratilova’s 1442. However, she is still in her first act. Williams turns 27 in a few weeks, and she’s in a sport where many top players are long gone by that age. In other words, we’re still seeing the first phase of a career that could, barring injury, go on for a very long time.