My Sportswoman: Serena Williams
Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for 2013's Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 16. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by a former Sportsman recipient.
Being a south Florida resident, I'm aware of LeBron James. I am also in awe of Diana Nyad, age 64, swimming from Havana to Key West. I know there are football players and baseball players who are larger than life. But for me, the clear Sportswoman of the Year is Serena Williams.
Serena won two Majors this year, giving her 17 for her career. She made a true believer out of me, becoming a clay-court specialist as she won the French Open for "only" the second time in her career. She also won the U.S. Open once again, beating Victoria Azarenka in the finals. She finished still another year ranked No.1 and, playing a full schedule, won more matches in 2013 than she has in any other year.
But her most impressive performance -- and what sealed her as my Sportswoman -- came at the year-end WTA Championships in Istanbul. The tennis season is grueling. There are almost 10 months' worth of matches, in different countries, in different climates, on different surfaces. By the end, you are depleted, mentally, emotionally and physically. Especially if you are a top player. When I played, there was a late-season event held in Germany and, in addition to prize money, the winner was given a Porsche. My eye was on that Porsche and I must have played that tournament eight years in a row. I never won it -- I think Martina Navratilova beat me to win, like, five Porsches -- because I was so fried at the end of the year.
By the end of 2013, Serena, also, was exhausted. In those last matches, she wasn't playing for much -- she was already going to finish with the top ranking. But, for her, pride is enough of a motivation. And she persevered, playing through pain and fatigue, simply not willing to accept losing. As an athlete it can be so hard to conjure up that energy when you're just not feeling it. But this is the essence of Serena. She is a tremendous athlete and probably hits the ball harder than anyone else. But her real weapon might be her competitive instincts.
We're used to this all by now. Serena won her first Major in 1999. She's still going strong almost 15 years later. Casual fans -- and even more serious fans -- will take a look Serena's record in 2013 and think it was a typical year for her. But it wasn't. Like all champions, she worked to improve the few weaknesses in her game. Early in the year, she stated that her goal for 2013 was to cut down on her errors. She got into better shape, which enabled her to become a better defensive player. On the run, she was putting balls in the court neutrally, rather than hitting risky shots because she didn't trust her fitness. She used to win by hitting 60 winners, but making 50 errors; now a typical match is 60 winners and 20 errors. Making those changes late in her career, really speaks to her professionalism.
Fans might also think that Serena benefits by not having a true rival. But nothing could be further from the truth. When you have a rival, it's in your subconscious and it motivates you to work harder. It's an instinctive feeling: you almost don't have to push yourself consciously because your competitor on the other side of the draw brings out your best. If anything, not having a real rival makes it harder on Serena.
Finally, the way Serena conducted herself and represented herself in 2013 makes her worthy, too. In the past, she's had her dips, had her moments. This year? She was calmer on the court and showed a real humbleness off it. More than ever, she was gracious, both in victory and in her rare defeats. (At Wimbledon, she blew a lead in the third set to Sabine Lisicki. It was very uncharacteristic and must have stung, but she gave her opponent a lot of credit.) She's had adversity in her life, and it was clear she felt grateful to be out there competing. And there was a sense of history and her place in it.
A few years ago, I wrote Serena an open letter, asking her to rethink her priorities and to realize that she was short-changing herself by letting outside interests surpass her tennis. I wrote: "I offer this only as advice, not criticism, from someone with experience ... Just remember that you have in front of you an opportunity of the rarest kind -- to become the greatest ever at something."
It caused some controversy, but I always stood by it. I'm the first to give constructive criticism when I think it's deserved, But I'm also the first to give praise when it's deserved. In 2013, Serena, my Sportswoman, deserves more praise than any other athlete in sports.