“Serena is such an important figure for our sport. There really aren’t that many really outstanding personalities in women’s tennis. For example, Agnieszka Radwanska is playing well, but still is not the best. Vika Azarenka, admittedly, not all see her as the leader of our tour. Kvitova, Stosur, Kerber—great players. But Serena is only comparable to Maria Sharapova.”—Nadia Petrova to Sport Express Russia.
This may not seem like such a big deal to readers in the U.S., but it’s notable because the remarks were uttered by a player from abroad (Petrova is Russian, although she now lives in Miami, Fla.). Some players from outside the U.S. have traditionally been reluctant to heap too much praise on players from America—the rich getting richer and all that.
As well, American players tend to speak only English and usually exist within the bubble of their culture. It’s natural for them to be seen as insular and less likely to mix with foreign peers than for those others to mix with each other.
So Petrova’s remarks can be taken as a comment on Serena’s growing global reach; she may be making the transition from American athletic-cultural icon to a global one. It’s another step taken in a direction that can be called Agassi-hood.
Agassi was 29 when he bagged the only Grand Slam title that had eluded him, coming back from two sets down to win the French Open—thereby becoming just the fifth man to record a “career Grand Slam” (Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have since joined him).
That victory bore a variety of fruit for Agassi and propelled his transformation into a kind of ambassador-at-large for tennis. The former rebel, who in his own way was as distinctly (and often painfully) “American” as Serena is, finally embraced his identity as a tennis player. And he set about using it to establish a degree of credibility he had never previously known. That in turn led him to charitable work in education and he emerged a highly respected world citizen.
Although Serena is two years older (she’ll be 32 in September) than Agassi was when he won at Roland Garros, she’s going strong and—more important—seems to be playing the game with greater gusto and more appreciation that ever before. She seems more content than ever to be known principally for her tennis, and she isn’t the polarizing figure she once was. That’s partly because she’s become more conscious of her image and the power of words.
Last year, Serena was the victim of a spectacular, first-round upset at Roland Garros by the hands of French pro Virginie Razzano. The French Open has always been the toughest of the majors for this 15-time Grand Slam champion; Serena has won it just once, in 2002.
Another win in Paris would further enhance her status—and carry her one step closer to becoming something like a female version of Agassi. And after that, who knows?