Speaking the Language

Thursday, May 23, 2013 /by

What was the most impressive aspect of Serena Williamswin over Victoria Azarenka in the Rome final on Sunday? There were the big serves and the winning ground strokes, of course; few players have dominated their closest competition as thoroughly as the women’s No. 1 has this spring. But while her play was excellent, it was hardly a shock; we’ve been watching Serena hit and run circles around her opponents for 15 years now. It’s what she did afterward, in her victory speech, that surprised and impressed me the most: She spoke in Italian. According to most knowledgeable reports, it wasn’t perfect Italian; there may have been a few Spanish words that made their way in as well. But it was good enough to earn the appreciation of the trophy presenter, and the applause of the Roman audience. Whatever they thought of Serena's pronunciation, the effort alone from an American must have stunned them. 

But that’s Serena, and to me that speech was one more indication of why she’s been so successful. She showed no fear, she embraced the challenge with a smile, and she didn’t seem at all concerned about failing. Take it from one of her typically unilingual countryman: It’s easier for me to imagine hitting my forehand as well as Serena than it is giving any kind of speech in a language other than English. 

That's always been the Williams way. Whether it’s playing tennis or launching themselves into life in Europe, they tend not to recognize any limits to what they can do. Serena, who trains at the Mouratoglou Academy in Paris, has had an apartment in that city for years, can speak passable French, and has no problem using its bike-sharing plan to cycle her way through its chaotic streets. Venus, who is also a lifelong globe-trotter and a person of many interests, said last week that Rome is her favorite city (outside of her hometown in Florida). The sisters have a downright un-American attitude toward the world, in the best possible way. 

It’s also an attitude that some of their male counterparts from the U.S. could do well to imitate. At the same time that I was watching Serena roll through Rome, I was reading updates from other American players about their own adventures in Europe. The men, as a whole, didn’t sound as content as Serena. 

The last I heard, John Isner was beginning his first run through the entirety of The Sopranos, 14 years after its debut. In 2012, Isner’s promising season was undone by his disastrous spring trip to Europe. He complained then of the long, dull days on the road; a year later, he still seems to have a fair amount of time on his hands.

In another part of France, Ryan Harrison was taking pictures of the foul weather that greeted him there, pointing incredulously at the tiny cars on the cramped streets, and wondering how to eat the gigantic whole fish that was placed in front of him at a local restaurant. Harrison finished his fish tweet with the hashtag, #IsThisRealLife

Only Jack Sock sounded pleased to be in France, though that didn’t mean he had embraced the local food or culture. The Kansas native tweeted, with satisfaction, that his quest to find a Chipotle in Paris had proven successful. (I can’t really blame him. I myself once went to bed hungry in Paris because the only thing open at 1:00 A.M. was a McDonald’s, and I would rather have starved than eaten at a McDonald’s in Paris. I guess I can’t scold Sock for doing the more sensible thing and finding something he liked for lunch.)

With tennis players, struggling to savor life in Europe is a tradition dating back, at the very least, to Vitas Gerulaitis. Even as he was winning the Italian Open in the late 1970s, the brash Brooklynite still maintained that Rome was the “a--hole of the universe.” As a teenager, Gerulaitis's friend John McEnroe was fueled by pizza grease in London and Paris. In the early 90s, Andre Agassi pushed aside three-star French meals to go in search of Taco Bell. Pete Sampras portrayed his slog through the fall European indoor circuit in 1998, in a successful attempt to finish No. 1 for a record sixth straight year, as something akin to the seven labors of Hercules. Three years ago, Sam Querrey, after doing the full clay tour, was so fried by the time he lost in Paris that he bailed on the doubles with Isner and flew straight back to home sweet home in California.

The language barrier doesn’t help; most of us Statesiders can’t speak anything other than English. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the only U.S. man to win more than one title at Roland Garros in the last 50 years, Jim Courier, also developed a worldly spirit and learned to speak French. In the tennis sense, clay is the equivalent of a foreign language to us.

It could also be a function of this country’s exceptionalist psyche, which is well represented in athletics. Tennis is one of the few sports where Americans mix in on the same tour with the rest of the world. For the most part we play our games—U.S. football, basketball, baseball—while Europe and the world play theirs—soccer, cricket, rugby. Golf and race-car driving are international in theory, but each is divided into U.S. and European tours. In tennis, Americans are forced to take our place in the society of nations, to play on the same surfaces, to broaden our horizons, to live with everyone else on equal terms.

I’m not saying that visiting the Louvre or learning to say "Merci" is going to lead any of the American men to a French Open title anytime soon. Maybe, rather than Venus or Serena, a better role model for them is Jimmy Connors. Like his fellow ugly Americans, Jimbo hated Paris at first; after being banned from the French Open in 1974, he boycotted the event for four years. But Jimmy being Jimmy, a tennis lover and a cussed punk at heart, he returned in 1979 and reached the quarters or better every year until 1985. Connors says that he learned to love the atmosphere in Paris, where "the crowd was close to you, and you got down in the dirt and really battled.” 

A couple weeks ago, Connors told me, “There was nothing more satisfying than grinding it out for four hours and beating a clay-courter on his surface”—that's a dirtballer’s mindset if ever there was one. I got the sense that, rather than going to Europe discouraged that he probably wasn’t going to win the tournament, Connors took pleasure in the process, in the novelty and challenge of the clay-court game, in the adventure that came with staying in Paris and trying to win one match at a time there. You don’t have to be Serena Williams, the No. 1 player in the world, to have that attitude.

Speaking of the sisters again, it should be noted that as African-Americans, they could be thought of as belonging to another American tradition. Successful black performers from the U.S.—artists, writers, jazz musicians—have often been more comfortable in Europe, and have ended up moving there. But I’d like to think that we could all learn from the Williamses’ self-confidence. And Serena has certainly not been a favorite at Roland Garros in the past. She was booed off the court there after losing to Justine Henin in 2003.

I look forward, this year or another year, to listening to Serena stun that same Parisian crowd by accepting their winner’s trophy with a few fearlessly imperfect words in French.

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