Odd how we looked up one day and realized Tiger Woods was a con man, Lance Armstrong was a doper, and America didn’t offer as many global sporting paragons as it once did. Think about it: The world’s fastest human is from Jamaica, while the reigning team in the world’s biggest sport, which we call soccer, is from Spain. The U.S. has flaunted LeBron James, Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin and Gabby Douglas, but the latter three are in once-every-four-years sports, and LeBron has endured his share of losing and public-relations fallout drama.
Which means Serena Williams qualifies as this country’s foremost sports treasure, something we might realize if we weren’t so busy ignoring her.
The younger of the legendary tennis sisters won her 17th major title over the weekend, a total she has dispensed over 14 remarkably productive years. Oh, she has had her crash-and-burn moments, such as the tantrum she threw four years ago over a foot-fault call, but rarely has Serena let us down on the court or off. She is on her way, if not numerically than certainly via the eye test, to becoming the greatest of all women’s players, and while thirtysomethings in her sport usually are written off, she is showing no signs of aging or boredom. She just wants to know where to find No. 18.
“I think I’m a little crazy in that (way), like something must not be right, because I don’t even relish the moment enough. I just automatically think, `What’s next?’ ” said Williams, who won her fifth U.S. Open title Sunday. “When you’re always trying to write history — or join history, in my case — maybe you just get a little more nervous than you should. I also think it’s kind of cool, because it means that it means a lot to you.”
I’m not sure what is more impressive about Serena: the fact she has won four of the past six Grand Slam events, or that her dominance is such that she has only one real rival, Victoria Azarenka. If it might be too much to expect eight more major titles, which would crack Margaret Court’s record of 24, she certainly has a chance — having won four since turning age 30 and still able to pop a serve near 130 miles per hour when needed. She needs two to pass the most celebrated women’s players of her time, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, and she has banked the most prize money of any woman player, passing $50 million in career earnings. Having been immersed in high-level competition since her teens, it would be understandable if she wanted something else from life.
She doesn’t, at the moment. “I don’t play tennis for the money. I honestly love to play. I love Grand Slams. When I grew up playing tennis in Compton (Calif.), I just never thought about any of this,” said Williams, per the Associated Press. “I think my dad got me into tennis because of the money, but me being naive and silly, I never thought about it. I just thought, `I want to win.’ ”
If the wins have come with astounding ease — 98-5 with 14 titles since May of last year — credit a relationship with a coach who apparently has become her love interest. Patrick Mouratogiou joined Camp Serena after her shocking first-round loss that month in the French Open, and the results speak for themselves. It was at Wimbledon three months ago when Maria Sharapova, who has struggled with injuries and a bizarre coaching change in which she fired Jimmy Connors after one failed match, first let the world in on the Mouratogiou romantic connection. Regrettably, the catfight started when Williams, in a Rolling Stone piece, ridiculed Sharapova and her relationship with Grigor Dimitrov, who once dated Serena. “There are people who live, breathe and dress tennis. I mean, seriously, give it a rest,” she said, referring to Sharapova. “She begins every interview with `I’m so happy. I’m so lucky’ — it’s so boring. She’s still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it.”
To which Sharapova replied, cuttingly, in a press conference: “If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids. Talk about other things, but not draw attention to other things. She has so much in her life, many positives, and I think that’s what it should be about.” Mouratogiou, who says his divorce is pending, has three children who are ages 10, 12 and 19.
These would be the seeds of a juicy rivalry if Sharapova hadn’t fallen off the map, her best years probably behind her. That leaves precious little competition for Williams and her 43-year-old French mentor. In a USA Today interview, she said of Mouratogiou, “We have this great communication. It’s definitely a two-way street. I think coaches sometimes think it’s always their way. And it’s like, `You do this because I say it.’ Our dynamic is not like that at all. I think that’s what makes him so good. He’s open to me, and I’m open to him. It creates something special.”
She and her sister, Venus, have left a legacy far beyond major championships. They have served to inspire a new generation of African-American players, including Sloane Stephens, who beat Serena at the Australian Open and someday may become the best U.S. women’s player. But while Venus is fighting injuries and illness and nearing the end, Serena seems capable of several more prime seasons.
“She’s playing definitely her best tennis right now,” said Azarenka, who has lost to Williams in three sets in the last two U.S. Open finals. “It really shows how focused and how composed and how much she can raise the level.”
How nice if we’d stop taking that success for granted.