Taking stock of Serena Williams on her 30th birthday (cont.)
4. Has she tarnished her legacy and public perception with high-profile outbursts?
Price: Sure. But so did John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Pancho Gonzalez, Andre Agassi and countless others. The fact is, tennis is a stunningly forgiving sport, secretly in love with its misbehaving children, its appalling rogues; how else to explain Johnny Mac's evolution into the sport's avuncular gramps? Also, it's clear that Roger Federer's sometimes off-putting arrogance is part of the formula that makes him special; something about tennis allows a player's worst qualities to be a key part of what makes him or her great. Those outbursts are the flip side of the competitive fire that we all find so compelling and admirable, and I suspect that she could never have one without the other.
Wertheim: Yes, sadly. And even more sadly, I don't think Serena realizes the damage she's done. She's not quite Barry Bonds, but she also doesn't enjoy the respect and affection accorded her big sister who, of course, doesn't have nearly as impressive a tennis résumé. A player of her background and achievements should not be polarizing; she should be universally revered. And this, obviously, isn't the case. We can point fingers and ask unpleasant questions, but even Serena's most ardent fans admit that she can be her own worst enemy here. For better or worse, in tennis -- as in most sports -- history/legacy takes personality and "good of the game" contributions into account. This works to the benefit of some and the detriment of others. And Serena will probably pay a price for her outbursts, her mistreatment of her fans, her off-putting behavior.
On the other hand, I see Serena as precisely the type of player whose legacy will grow in retirement. Hers is a remarkable narrative, and with some detachment and time, it's easy to see this becoming a real sports legend. In X years, what will endure? A fit of pique against an official? A dubious withdrawal from a tournament? An ungracious remark? Or a family from Compton, Calif., that came to rule tennis? Also, in tennis, there is vast potential for image rehabilitation that can extend well into retirement (see: McEnroe, John). Given how smart and personable Serena can be when willing, she could very well win back fans for many years to come.
Jenkins: Without question. Just when it seemed her reputation might be cleared, she stepped right back into the gutter at the U.S. Open. Maybe I'm in the minority, but I think she was right on the two incidents that tarnish her name. You don't call a foot fault in that situation (the '09 Open), and you play a let on that crucial point against Stosur. But that's no excuse for Serena's response. Would there have been less commotion over her verbal assaults if she were a man, and especially a white man? Absolutely. Andy Roddick has made a career of vicious, inappropriate remarks to chair umpires. But the fact remains that Serena has done great damage to her legacy. Mention her right now, at season's end, and a typical fan's reaction would be disgust.
Deitsch: Yes, but it doesn't transcend her tennis. Serena can be a bully and at times she's been given a free ride by a Tour that needs her more than she needs it. Her actions at her last two U.S. Opens are a part of her story -- and a deplorable one -- and people will factor it in when they judge her career. I think "tarnished" is too strong a word. She'll always be able to sell her name in the marketplace and tennis fans will also recognize her achievements. But the bad behavior is a part of her history.
Nguyen: Absolutely. In the age of YouTube, it's impossible to ignore the fact that casual tennis fans (or the public at large) have been inundated with videos of Serena's outbursts. For every video showing her lifting a trophy, there is another one of her shaking a racket at an umpire. That's her public image now. On one hand, it's completely unfair to Serena, who for years was an outstanding citizen when it came to her on-court behavior. People don't remember the number of times she's been wronged on the court, whether it be in the infamous Capriati match or "The Hand" incident against Henin. Instead, she's now known as the hot-headed bully who has no problem threatening and insulting umpires.
On the other hand, Serena should know better. While these types of outbursts may be forgivable at the beginning of her career, chalked up to immaturity, fans are less understanding now. That said, if she keeps playing, she'll have some time to fix these image problems. As we've seen in other sports, winning makes people forgive and forget pretty darn quick.
Graham: "I'm, like, drama. And I don't want to be drama," Williams said at Roland Garros in 2009. "I'm like one of those girls on a reality show that has all the drama, and everyone in the house hates them because no matter what they do, like, drama follows them. I don't want to be that girl." Do the outbursts undercut her public perception? Probably, but it's what makes Serena Serena. Besides, didn't we laud McEnroe and Connors for similarly churlish behavior?
5. What are her most notable overall contributions and hindrances to the game of tennis?
Price: In one sense, Serena has been the anchor of quality of an otherwise lackluster age. She's also been a trail blazer for African-American talent -- and, remember, she and her sister arrived in the wake of Capriati's burnout; the two of them brought a wide-ranging interest in the world to the Tour, and the idea that a woman could and should indulge interests outside the game to stay psychologically healthy. Her refusal to play in South Carolina during the 2000 Confederate flag flap showed that the activist tennis player wasn't a dead idea. Her behavior? At times: egregious. But overall, she's proved to be a great asset to the sport.
Wertheim: Hindrance? What's a hindrance, anyway? It's hard for me to say that Serena has "hindered" tennis in any way. Is she the epitome of sportsmanship? No. Are there other players, starting with Venus, I'd prefer for my young daughter to emulate? Yes. But let's step back here and reflect on this remarkable story. Here's an athlete from an unlikely background who's brought a new level of athleticism and power and speed to tennis. She's played on her terms, a model of independence, causing many to question tennis conventional wisdom. While her contemporaries have quit or burned out, she's been at the top for more than a decade. She's brought color and passion and celebrity and complexity and controversy and relevance. Inasmuch as she still splinters public opinion, at least people care. One shudders to think about the state of the women's game, especially in the U.S., when she departs. That says a lot about her contributions. She just turned 30. Here's to many more.
Jenkins: Like Venus, Serena does a lot of work behind the scenes without asking for any credit. She has spread the good word of tennis worldwide, working with kids and trying to get more young African-American players involved. In that sense, she is a role model to more people than a lot of her critics could imagine. I also think she's an infinitely nicer person, deep down, than some of her on-court displays would indicate. Then again, she's Serena, a person for whom there is no clear-cut identity. By ignoring so many lesser tournaments, and withdrawing from countless more, she sets an appalling example to players on the way up. She gives the distinct impression that she can call her own shots, and there's not a thing anyone -- the Tour, the fans, the media, the tournament directors -- can do about it. I guess it's kind of cool, if you're Serena. Under the public microscope, not so much.
Deitsch: Her impact is undeniable, from her race to her style to the story of how she and Venus shunned the traditional junior tournament route to become champions. She redefined the dominance of the power player and brought new people into the sport. There are those who will argue that had she competed more and been more focused on tennis, she would have easily been the greatest of all time. Impossible to answer, and I'm a fan of choosing your own path for your athletic career. Her demeanor on the court at times -- and the Tour's failure to corral it -- is part of her legacy and not for the better. Still, we're talking about an all-timer here, and someone who will never be forgotten in the sport.
Nguyen: Serena changed the sport. Along with her sister, she brought a new level of athleticism and intensity. She didn't just kick it up a notch; she elevated it to another stratosphere, and the rest of the field has been left trying to keep up. In doing so, those other players stressed their bodies and their minds and yet no one has been able to truly match her level over the long haul.
Graham: Tactically, Serena (and Venus) raised the bar from an athleticism standpoint, upping the attacking ante without compromising defensive play. On a larger scale, the Williamses' contribution is obvious: They built on the progress made by Althea Gibson, Zina Garrison and others to show that minorities can not only play tennis but also succeed at the highest levels (while demonstrating a proven alternative to the traditional academy route).
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