There’s an old maxim which states that with age comes maturity and wisdom, but as is customary, there’s an exception to every rule. Despite her multiple major titles and twelve years on the tennis circuit, Serena Williams has yet to learn how a true champion carries herself. Winning is the easy part of sportsmanship, but the character of a class act player shines not in victory but in defeat, when he or she demonstrates that adversity can be borne with grace and honor.
When the Williams sisters first arrived on the scene, there had been a dearth of minorities succeeding in the game. Surely, one remembers players such as MaliVia Washington and Zina Garrison who encountered fame and fortune, but none of these was touted as the heir apparent to Althea Gibson or Arthur Ashe; black players who actually reached the summit of the sport by holding some of its most coveted trophies. In the prim, proper, predominately white world of tennis, these black teenagers from the inner city with beaded hairdos were different from those who had come prior, resulting in their behavior possibly being scrutinized a little more. Although tennis conventional behavior had been challenged by the likes of foul mouth Americans such as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, their diatribe was somewhat excusable either because they were Americans or white, probably more the latter.
Initially, Serena’s behavior may have been excusable, the stares across the net, the exhibition of self-confidence in order to prove to others and herself that she could indeed reach the pinnacle of her profession knowing all the hurdles that she has had to overcome. Despite her success and the adulations of fans (for the most part, Serena seems to be well supported by the public regardless of the event she participates in), Serena’s attitude has changed little over time irrespective of the lessons that she has learned on or off the court.
At the last two majors this year, Serena’s advance was halted at quarterfinals by Justine Henin, the #1 ranked player. On both occasions, rather than giving credit to her opponent for exposing the weak spots in her game by comprehensively beating her, Serena’s analysis of the matches boiled down to her counterpart making lucky shots. Moreover, at the US Open post match press conference, Serena was churlish to reporters. This type of behavior is inexcusable.
When it comes to these two individuals, there is more than just an intense rivalry; one would probably be on cue in classifying their relationship as antipathetic. The history of animosity between the two stems from an incident at the 2003 French Open whereby Henin clearly prevaricated, not acknowledging that she had placed her hand up during Serena’s serve in order to ask for time, affecting the latter’s concentration resulting in her dumping the ball into the net. To Serena’s dismay, Henin’s action also went unnoticed by the chair umpire, who subsequently refused to give her a first serve anew. The situation further deteriorated when the crowd turned against Serena for protesting despite the fact that she was in the right. After leading by a break in the latter stages of the third set, Serena’s game became unhinged costing her the match and possibly a second French Open title.
Unfortunately, bad calls come with the territory in any sport, more importantly; there are players who take gamesmanship to the extreme, as was the case with Henin at the French. Hence, although it may sound trite, the time has arrived for Serena to demonstrate that she is the classier champion by recognizing great play, irrespective of the racket from which it is being produced. Moreover, these are not insular instances with Serena, one at times get the impression that she suffers from the sore looser syndrome. There is no dishonor in confessing that one’s opponent was the better tactician that day, thereby, recognizing one’s own failings. It is only through defeat that one can learn the aspect of his or her game that needs to be improved upon.
From my viewpoint, in the last few years, there has been an epidemic of poor sportsmanship on the women’s side. In particular, two incidences come to mind, one pertaining to Maria Sharapova and the other again to Justine Henin. At the 2006 NASDAQ Open in Miami, in her semifinal match with Sharapova, Tatiana Golovin injured her ankle. At first, Golovin tried to play through her injury, but within a matter of seconds, her ankle swelled to the point one thought that it had swallowed one of the tennis balls. While being attended to by the trainer, Golovin was teary eyed and grimacing in pain. The entire time, Sharapova remained on her side of the court playing shadow tennis, oblivious or simply not caring as to what was going on the other side. Who knows, maybe Sharapova believed that this was a ploy on Golovin’s part to slow down the match, which would have been preposterous thinking on her part considering that Golovin was winning and outplaying her. In the end, Golovin had to retire from the match and was sidelined for weeks with torn ligaments in her ankle.
The next case worthy of analysis is that of the 2006 Australian Open final where Henin was being summarily beaten by Amelie Mauresmo, this was to be the latter’s first major championship. Her moment of glory was marred by Henin deciding to retire with a stomach ailment after loosing the first set and with Mauresmo ahead in the second, needing just a few games to win and claim her moment in the spotlight. Mauresmo showed first and foremost that she is a great person with the conspicuous concern she demonstrated for her opponent despite the disappointment she must have felt at the way her triumph was tainted. Surely, that day, she gained a few more supporters. In their quest to reach the top of their sport, these women have forgotten to work on the fundamentals, how just to be decent human beings. Because of their lack of empathy, the public views them as unsympathetic characters.
Coming back to the issue of Serena Williams, her behavior may be in part dominated by the example set forth by her father. Richard Williams finds it difficult to praise or give credit to his daughter’s opponents regardless of their high ranking or proven past successes against his offsprings. In his mind, by elevating the stature of the challenger that would be giving something away, ultimately affecting the outcome of the match. Therefore, it is refreshing to see Serena’s mother Oracene applauding when the opponent plays a brilliant point or makes a spectacular shot. Thus, perhaps Serena should follow her mother’s example; in my opinion, being deferential is by no means a sign of weakness or a way of giving one’s counterpart the edge. It is simply a confirmation of the old adage that mother knows best, advice that many of these women could benefit from.