Serene(a) at 30

Tuesday, September 27, 2011 /by

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by Pete Bodo

It's official; Serena Williams has joined Roger Federer in that hazy, uncertain land tennis players enter when they turn 30. It shouldn't be a big deal. It may not be a big deal. Thirty is just a number. But it's a big deal. At the professional level, tennis is as much a mind game as body game, and nobody, but nobody, can claim ignorance of the implications of turning 30. 

The big questions in this regard are: how much longer will Serena play, and how many more major titles will she bag before she calls it quits? It's a question of enormous import for tennis folks in the United States, because barring a miraculous resurgence by Serena's sister, Venus, it's unlikely that the USA will have serious contender at Grand Slam events once Serena packs it in. But the question resonates in the rest of the world as well, because Serena has become an iconic figure. And unlike her fellow 30-year-old icon (the male, from Switzerland), Serena is also a lightning rod for controversy, a woman who stirs deep feelings in supporters and detractors alike.

My, my, how times flies. It seems like just yesterday that Richard Williams walked into the press interview room at the Miami combined event, after one of Venus' first professional matches, with a shy, powerfully built, watchful girl kitted-out in a gray track suit trailing behind him. He introduced her as his other daughter—Serena—and told anyone who would listen that she would be even better than Venus. 

Serena just stood by his side, wide-eyed, bashful, seemingly unsure of what to make of it all.

Many in the clutch of reporters rolled their eyes. There goes Richard Williams, blowing smoke again. Isn't it enough that he's got Venus? What's he trying to do, build up this poor kid's confidence? 

I'll be the first to admit that you could count me among the skeptics. Young Serena, though appealing, was built like a linebacker—her shoulders were already broad, those thighs even then strained against the fabric surrounding them. She was fleshy, almost doughy-looking. By contrast, Venus was lean, lithe, and she looked supremely athletic. My own feeling was that Venus represented a kind of ultimate female tennis player, the one John McEnroe always had in mind when he opined that tennis needed to attract a higher grade of athlete—code, of course, for just the kind of African-American that tennis inevitably lost to football, track or basketball.

Well, it turns out that McEnroe's (and my) "ideal" tennis athlete isn't the end-all and be-all—proof once again that tennis is not a one-size-(or body-type)-fits-all kind of game, and that what goes on between the ears, in the heart, and along the sizzling nervewires embedded in the muscles counts for much—for more, we've learned, than the advantages bestowed by a superior body.

Back then, I thought Venus had the goods—she was a female Bjorn Borg whose wingspan, quickness, stamina and use of topspin would render her unbeatable. But it turned out that she didn't have Borg's steely concentration and stroking discipline.

It also turned out that Serena was something better, or at least more useful in the context of her life, than a mere athlete. She was a . . . tennis player! Shoulders and thighs and all. A tennis player in a way that nobody could teach. She was never a ball chaser or rallier, unless it was absolutely necessary. She's always been a point-ender, with a nose for the shortest route between points A and B. Serena can be lazy in the same sense that Pete Sampras was lazy. Both knew when to tread water and when to give it the gas. And Serena always was brave. For her, big points represent opportunity, not trip-wires. 

Serena's qualities don't necessarily or exclusively come by nature, either. Tennis is a pretty ritualized game with a flat learning curve. You become good in small increments, and along the way you find out if, like the best of players, you're more than a good athlete, a disciplined and hard-working disciple, or a solid competitor. You find out if you're a tennis player, in the way Roger Federer is a tennis player and Serena Williams is a tennis player. Each of them exudes a kind of ownership when he or she plays; tennis isn't just something they do, it's something they are. Which doesn't mean they'll always win or don't make hideous mistakes. It just means that they have an innate feel for and comfort with the game in all the areas where it counts, including the mental. It's an advantage few of their peers or rivals can match—win or lose. 

Perusing the news yesterday, I came across an interesting roundtable about Serena's legacy and future at SI.com. The writers there devote much time to allocating Serena's specific space in the tennis firmament, and they also predict her future beyond the age of 30—suggesting that she may win between three and five more majors (she presently has 13).

When it comes to determining Serena's place among the greats, we come up against that age-old tension between statistics and subjective judgments. A remarkable number of observers think that Serena at her best is the greatest woman player who ever lived—much the same has been said for two men who aren't really in the hunt in the Greatest of All Time debate, Lew Hoad and Pancho Gonzalez.

Serena is unlikely to come anywhere near the Grand Slam title total amassed by Steffi Graf (22), whose record includes a "Golden Slam" (all four majors plus an Olympic games gold medal collected in the same year—it remains a singular feat). But she shares a profile of those two male legends. All three were power players whose serves were great weapons. Their power could pre-emptively determine the outcome of any given match. And they were superb, fearless ball-strikers and competitors.

One of the more interesting statistics cited in the SI piece is that in six of her 13 Grand Slam finals, Serena's opponent was. . . Venus Williams. While this is a great tribute to the legacy of the Williams family, it undermines Serena's personal history slightly owing to the family dynamics. That's a subject best left for another time (like, never), but it's good to keep in mind that the saga of the Williams family remains one of the least probable ones ever created in sports. It's nothing short of amazing and will probably tower even higher than Serena's biography and record in tennis history.

But the big question remains hanging—how much does Serena have left in the tank? The writers at SI seem to suggest at least three years, but I'm not as sanguine. While Serena has shown a formidable talent for vanishing from sight only to return and clear the decks, restoring something like a natural order in which she sits perched atop the food chain, I'm not convinced she can keep doing that. Before she lost to Sam Stosur at the U.S. Open, Serena last let a major final slip away in 2008 (she lost to Venus at Wimbledon). She's lost only four finals in her career—two at Wimbledon, the other one on the same hard court where Stosur took her measure a month ago. And that was back in 2001.

During the most recent final, Serena looked tired and subdued. Flashes of that storied determination and hunger were few and far between. You could put that down to some form of fatigue or lack of mental or emotional fitness (after all, she was just back and playing just her sixth tournament after a layoff lasting nearly a year), but that's never hampered Serena before. And it's unlikely that she's going to experience a late career change of heart and start playing tournaments left and right in an attempt to recover her mojo. She's clearly comfortable with the approach she's taken, but I'm not sure it can continue to work. The inevitable, age-related decline in motivation and focus, combined with a paucity of match play, will present Serena with formidable obstacles. Stosur's win was convincing as well as resounding. It will hearten other WTA contenders.

But above all else, 30 is 30. We saw how Federer slipped on the slope of his age this year. He failed to win a major for the first time since 2003, failed to close out Jo-Wilfried Tsonga when he had him on the ropes at Wimbledon, failed to convert either of two match points in his U.S. Open semifinal with Novak Djokovic. 

Martina Navratilova and others have shown us that the number 30 is less menacing for WTA than ATP members, but we also know that Serena hasn't raised fitness and training to the level of art, the way Navratilova once did. The way it would seem any player past the age of 30 and still hoping to be a major, consistent force must do. We learned a long time ago never to count Serena out of the hunt, but at this point the chase only becomes tougher. That's a hail of a birthday present, I know, but that's the life of a tennis player.

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