by: Stephen Tignor, TENNIS.com
posted: Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Serena Williams turned 26 on Wednesday. Are you shocked that she's reached such an advanced tennis age already? On the one hand, it's hardly surprising, because Serena seems to have been around the game forever, either dominating it or looming over it -- we've been watching the Williams sisters since they were preteens. On the other hand, her career seems strangely unfulfilled at this stage. I say "strangely," because it's hard to say that about a player who has won eight Grand Slams. Perhaps Bjorn Borg, who retired at 26, is the only other one who qualifies.
Then again, few players promised as much as Williams. She won the U.S. Open at 17 and completed her Serena Slam, when she held all four major titles, at 21. Just as impressive, she brought a level of power and aggression to the sport that put her miles ahead of the competition.
If great players set the bar for future champions, Serena set it higher than most. The generation that has followed her -- Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Jelena Jankovic, et al. -- has yet to match it.
Along the way, the Williamses smashed through any color barriers that lingered in tennis and attracted people who had never watched the sport, or any sport, before. As the younger Williams once said after scanning a mob of people gathered around her, "Yep, got to get a look at Serena." The family, from father Richard on down, did it their own way, and they remain polarizing figures. What was the biggest story of this year's U.S. Open? If it hadn't been for Novak Djokovic's imitations, it would have been Serena saying that Justine Henin had hit a bunch of "lucky shots" to beat her.
Which brings us to the present. What should we think of Serena's career at this point? I've never begrudged her the ability to take months off, get out of shape, and come right back to win a major. John McEnroe hated practicing and working out, but this was just considered a sign of his "genius." The fact that Serena is instead credited as a great "athlete" tells you all you need to know about how black and white sports stars continue to be stereotyped today.
Still, Serena should be held to a higher standard, for her sake and ours. It's aggravating to watch a player perform below their ability on a regular basis. Seeing Serena look slow, sloppy and unprepared in losing to Henin at the Open, I felt like she was at a crossroads. This was the Belgian's third straight win over her at a Slam -- a woman had finally shown clear superiority over Serena. Now the question is, how will she react? Will she admit to herself that can't keep one foot in the game and still expect to roll over everyone? Will she give tennis, and Henin, her best next year? Serena should consider herself lucky to have the challenge: At 26, she has a chance to fulfill her tremendous potential -- and prove the world wrong -- all over again.
Simply Stunning, Simply Serena
57 Consecutive Weeks as World #1
Olympic Gold Medalist ('00 Doubles w/ Venus)