Posted: Wed July 11, 2012 4:29PM; Updated: Wed July 11, 2012 4:39PM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>TENNIS MAILBAG

Serena Williams: Complex public figure and the greatest of all time

Story Highlights

Serena Williams is a controversial figure, but no denying her unrivaled success

She divides public opinion like few others as tough questions are prevalent

Breaking down the equal-pay-at-Slams debate; plus more post-Wimby mail

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Serena Williams
Serena Williams is an emotional tennis player, which often draws mixed reviews.
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• I know you probably won't post this is your mailbag, but I sincerely hope you watch or have watched this ESPN debate. It voices every single thing I think of Serena Williams and my continuing frustration with the tennis establishment/fans. The video is a great watch and raises the huge question of American support (or lack thereof). I'm with you on the notion that qualitatively she is the best ever. But why all the backlash? Yeah dislike her for whatever reason, but she deserves more respect than she gets. All of the fans who do not like her fall completely silent or give backhanded compliments when she wins. Most of it is simply uncalled for. I know only part of Serena's public figure was presented in the video and find some consolation in the idea that history will reflect kindly on her and her sister, but that is maddeningly a cop out answer for many. And the questions of race and other "difficult topics" have to be asked. No matter how taboo it has somehow become to ask about racial tension. ("Oh no! *gasps, monocles break* I played the race card!") But any-who... many congratulations to her for her 5th Wimbledon title and the doubles as well. And to every critic out there: Serena is the best player of her generation -- no contest -- and one of the greatest athletes (not just tennis players or female athletes) ever with as compelling a personal narrative as can ever be conjured up. Treat her like it.
-- Zech of Lawrence, Kan.

• Where to begin? I'm with you to a point. I've long said that one of the real challenges of covering this sport is covering the Williams sisters, Serena in particular. There is so much complexity and contradiction. And, of course, there is the ever-present patina/prism of race. And let's be clear: anyone who denies the element of race lives in a land of dragons and unicorns and stable ozone layers. I've said before that I could write something as bland as: "Serena has an awesome forehand" and I can be assured that some people will respond, "Steffi Graf had a better forehand but because of political correctness you can't admit it," and others will respond, "Serena's backhand is awesome too, but because she isn't blond, you can't give her full respect."

I consider her achievements, her mental strength, her power, her (terminally underrated) court smarts, her longevity and the overall arc of her career and I reach the conclusion that she is the greatest of all time -- a claim I made in 2010 and have gotten grief for ever since. No question in my mind: she is the greatest living female athlete. That she has played (check that: lived) independent of the establishment and conventional thinking makes her all the more admirable. I have no doubt that I will be telling my grandchildren about her.

I firmly believe that some fans -- whether they admit it or not -- will never be wholly comfortable with a strong African-American woman. I also firmly believe that for other fans, when Serena threatens a lineswoman and uses vulgarity, they are entitled to prefer rooting for other players. Long as we're being honest, Serena is not Venus or Roger Federer or Steffi Graf. I think it's fair to say that she has a rare ability to transition from the incontestably wonderful to the indefensibly bad. And this compounds perception as well.

As fans, we like to reduce athletes in binary terms, angel or devil stuff. Typical question: Is Andy Roddick a good guy or a jerk? Should I love Serena or hate her? The reality, of course, is that people are complicated and erratic, bundles of contradictions who evolve through the years. As Josh Levin of Slate put it yesterday, "[Serena] is the sunniest, warmest best interview when she wins and she is the least gracious loser in all of sports when she loses. And you forget both sides of her personality after she wins and after she loses. And it's good to keep them both in mind."

I guess in the end, your affection for Serena comes down to what you want out of your athletes. If, like me, you most value athletic excellence, Serena is Athena. Her qualifications -- in terms of records, longevity, fighting spirit -- is beyond reproach. If you want a different connection with an athlete (Do I like them personally? Do they represent my values?), that's obviously personal. But to Zech's point, for those of you with disdain or even grudging admiration for a 14-time Grand Slam champion, a multiple medal winner with "as compelling a personal narrative as can ever be conjured up" ask yourself -- really ask yourself -- some uncomfortable questions.

Last thought: Overall I thought the discussion Zech linked on YouTube was intelligent and thought-provoking. But I cringed at the "blame the tennis media" line of reasoning. Inasmuch as there even is a tennis media, I would argue that ESPN -- the network that devotes hundreds of hours to commentary and coverage on multiple platforms -- is the driving force. Patrick McEnroe (who took some swipes at Serena in his book) and Chris Evert (whose history with the Williams family is well-documented) do far more to shape opinion than a columnist or blogger.

Jon, I'm all for tradition, but in a world where tennis fans only get four weekend days of coverage to the world's biggest tournament, I'm perennially frustrated by lack of middle Sunday play at Wimbledon. Why not swap a middle Monday for middle Sunday? Or better yet, forget it altogether.
-- Josh, Utica, N.Y.

• I don't disagree that it's frustrating for the fan. Selfishly, when you work at these events, an off-day midway through is such a blessing. But more than that, I love that a sports institution has thumbed its nose at the gods of television and essentially said, "We value our tradition more than we value your money."

Jon, isn't Angelique Kerber an improved version or Caroline Wozniacki: Moves just as well, gets back a lot of balls, very few unforced errors, but with more power and aggression both on serve and groundstrokes? Thanks Jon, love your column.
-- Octavio, Hummelstown, Pa.

• All credit to Kerber for this mid-career surge. We all know that careers aren't straight lines; it's often two-steps-forward-one-step-back. But who can recall a player going from sub-journeyman to top ten mainstay? Last year, at age 23, she was struggling to stay in the top 100. Now, she is in the top 10 and has played deep into three of the last four majors. That said, I still need more convincing that she can win majors. Defense alone just doesn't do it. Even a player like Radwanska, who can -- and just did -- go multiple sets without missing a ball, is hamstrung by her lack of a kill shot.

Hi Jon. In "50 parting thoughts" you wrote "There should be a name for players like Xavier Malisse and Marcos Baghdatis." There is one: journeyman. Sad, but true.
-- Ira Greenberg, Sunnyvale, CA

• Luke Rosol is a journeyman. These guys have each made the late rounds of Slams. They have won titles, they've been in the top 20, top 10 in Baghdatis's case. They have tons of talent. But they always seem to play the foil for the heartstring players. (Nadia Petrova is my female comparison, by the way.) Malisse lost to Brian Baker in Paris and Federer at Wimbledon. After losing to Agassi in that unforgettable U.S. Open match, Baghdatis has stayed in character, too. He loses to Hewitt in Australia, Murray at Wimbledon, Isner in New York. These two always put on a good show. They always win fans. They seldom win.

I've enjoyed your column for years, and I haven't been prompted to write in quite a while, but here goes: Trying to minimize Rafa losing in Wimbledon's 2nd round to someone whose name I can't remember even as I write this by comparing it to Steffi Graf losing to Lori McNeil is way lame. McNeil was a fixture at every Grand Slam during her lengthy career, usually both in singles and doubles, and she was ranked 17th in the world the day she beat Graf at Wimbledon, in an age when only the top 16 players were seeded. Graf drew one of the most dangerous floaters in Wimbledon history. I just hope Lori didn't read your article.
-- Glen Janney, Miami

• The curmudgeon in me would suggest that the talent gap between Steffi Graf in her prime and the No. 17 player was comparable to the gap between Nadal to the No. 100 male today. But you're probably right. McNeil was a fine player for many years who never won a Slam obviously, but gave many top players a challenge on many occasions. My unforced error there.

For the same reason, I had to laugh when people suggested Soderling def. Nadal as the biggest upset ever. Soderling? You're talking about a guy who reached No. 4 in the rankings, won more than $10 million and has played deep into all four majors. Even coming back from an injury, he was the 23rd seed when he beat Nadal in Paris in 2009.

While we're here: quick story about McNeil. When I was still in school, I wrote one of my first pieces for Sports Illustrated on McNeil and her coach at the time, John Lucas, who was between jobs as an NBA coach. Lucas and I are still friends and I always think fondly of Lori McNeil for both "introducing" me to Luke and for helping to start my career.

So? Brian Baker had no ranking one year ago AND he had 12 million surgeries? Can someone please go over that story again because I'm not sure I got it. Gah...
-- Susan, Rockford

• When we hear the Serbian swimming pool story again and again or when we get another retelling of Justine Henin attending Roland Garros with her late mother, well, that's one thing. When Brian Baker continues winning matches and ascending the rankings, his story getting more preposterous with each event, it's something different. What's the alternative, anyway? Talk about him without context?

I don't agree with the logic of equal pay at majors. Here's an example: Varvara Lepchenko lost 6-1, 6-0 to Kvitova in the third round, and the match ended in under one hour. The third round match between Sam Querry and Marin Cilic ended 17-15 in the fifth set and took over five hours. How do both Querry and Lepchenko deserve equal pay? It's obvious that the WTA fields an inferior product and their players play for half the duration of ATP players at majors. How do they deserve equal pay?
-- Muhammad Ali, Lahore Pakistan

• Here's my Cliff Notes version of the equal prize money debate.

1) We can all cherry pick extreme examples to make our case on either side of the debate. This, ultimately, gets us nowhere.

2) Best-of-five versus best-of-three is not relevant. First, there are women's matches that entail just as much ball-striking and as many strokes as a men's match. Duration does not equal value. And if the women said, "Okay, we've decided that we're willing to play best-of-five," would the discussion be over, would Gilles Simon and his minions agree to a 50/50 split? Unlikely.

3) Saying the longer men's matches give sponsors more value is also inaccurate. Stewbop, a favorite pen pal, puts it thusly: "The commercials are pre-sold before the event. The same commercials would be shown during that time period regardless of which match was shown. And if, say, one of the players in the men's final turned an ankle early, and they filled in the airtime with a tape of women's legends doubles, there would be commercial breaks longer than the usual 90-second changeover, allowing for more commercials. By the "value" argument, you could then say this women's legends doubles match provided greater value than a men's singles final. By common sense, of course, that would be ridiculous... There are only so many different commercials rotated around, so they repeat quite frequently. After they've been seen 2 or 3 times, they lose impact. So, a sponsor gets more value from ads being seen 3-4 times by more viewers in a shorter women's match than being seen by fewer viewers perhaps 8-10 times in a men's match."

4) It's irrelevant that the No. 100 male would beat the No.1 female. First, we like who we like. Second, Sam Querrey, to pick a name, would beat Aga Radwanska 6-0, 6-0, 6-0, mostly by serving her off the court. Is he the better tennis player? I would argue: no.

5) Saying: "If we want equality everyone should play in the same draw" is not bringing reason to the debate. A marginal heavyweight could beat up Floyd Mayweather. I'd rather watch the best college team than a crappy NFL team, even if the latter would beat the former head-to-head.

6) The bad publicity, the PR hassle and bad vibes stemming from paying the women, say, 95 percent of the men's purse -- the case at Wimbledon until the WMD that is Larry Scott's political acumen was brought to bear -- outstrips any incremental gains. Besides, one of tennis' organic virtues is its equality, its comparable and simultaneous men's and women's competitions. Be careful messing with this.

7) This is where I get hung up. The WTA has yet to give an adequate response to this question: If their product is worth less in the open market, why should their players be entitled to a 50/50 split at combined events? Compare the ATP's sponsorship with the WTA's sponsorships. Compare purses from "segregated" (separate) events. Compare endorsements of the top players. (Bless Sharapova, but Federer still reportedly makes DOUBLE her off-court haul.) I resist bringing this up but ask yourself this: What would be Billie Jean King's response if you said to her, "The WTA is demonstrably more valuable by virtually every metric than the ATP. The women players make more money than the men do. (And play best-of-five matches). And yet the men are clamoring for a 50/50 split."

8) Keep your eye on the ball! We're talking pennies on the dollar compared to what the men and women would make if they offered a united front and lobbied (i.e. threatened) the majors for a more equitable slice of gross revenues. The Slams must love that the players are fighting over table scraps when there are steaks in the next room.

9) On balance, I'm OK with equal prize money. In a strict business sense, it probably shortchanges the men. But it's worth preserving, especially if the players can make up the difference by going after the real market inefficiency.

It looks like Fish isn't on the U.S. Olympics tennis team (and Donald Young is). I wonder what the reason is? It couldn't be his heart problems, since he's been playing at Wimbledon. N'est pas? Thanks.
-- Linda, Phoenix, Ariz.

• Fish begged off by his own accord. He's already played in the Olympics. Health is a concern. He needs to maximize these last few years of his career. Donald Young made the team by dint of his ranking. You'd be in your rights to wonder how a guy with a 2012 record of 2-15, is on the team while, say Brian Baker is not. But the rules is the rules.

I just finished watching the semi-final match between Radwanska and Kerber (impressive match for Radwanska by the way), and I couldn't help but notice a new, distracting noise that I had never heard discussed before. In between every third or fourth stroke, you could distinctly hear the shutters of numerous cameras clicking. I was wondering if the players can hear this -- and if they can, how can it be any less distracting than some inadvertent crowd noise or grunting?
-- Tom Ireland, Boston, Mass.

• If I'm a player, I'd rather have the distraction of cameras clicking (people care!) than the isolation or silence of the back courts. But the larger point: for a lot of players, competing on a Stadium Court is a wholly different experience.

I can't believe in your 50 parting shots for the Wimbledon tournament you did not mention that Venus and Serena teamed up to win the women's doubles... what's up with that!!
-- Someone, Trinidad & Tobago

• I mentioned in the spot expressing happiness that Venus would lose on the tournament's first day yet win on the final day of women's matches. Speaking of Venus, watch this interview with Charlie Rose from Tuesday.

Hi Jon, in your parting Wimbledon thoughts, you didn't give mention to Taylor Townsend from the U.S. and her partner Eugenie Bouchard from Canada winning the Girls doubles final. Don't know much about Taylor -- is she an up-and-comer we should be watching?
-- C. Butler, Southfield, Mich.

• Click here and get yourself some Taylor Townsend. Short answer: there's a lot to like here, both on-court -- she serves-and-volleys! -- and in terms of disposition.

Jon, how and when do the players who don't win the tournament receive their prize money?
-- Laura R., Arnold, Md.

• Each tour has a designated goon. He doesn't say much and looks like Joe Mantegna. For a small piece of the action, he handles all transactions and roughs up tournament directors -- Larry Ellison notwithstanding -- failing to pay in an expedient manner. Also, there is a "prize money" desk (sometimes designated by the more tasteful "exchequer's office") where players eliminated from the tournament appear to collect their booty. As I understand it, the tournament knows in advance the different tax implications so the payouts are made in net.

Kirilenko made it to the quarters, did you know something we don't? I almost ate my own...
-- Frankie, San Diego, Calif.

• Well then, I suppose that it's fortunate she lost before the semis. I feel like I say this all the time, but these picks -- which are meant to be fun -- generate way too much passion and scrutiny, both pro and con. Pick Federer and you're a genius. Pick Sharapova and you're an idiot who "jinxes" draws. Pick Serena to win the French Open and you are a Williams lackey, a Serena Kool-Aid drinker. Decline to pick her at Wimbledon -- instead picking the previous Grand Slam winner -- and you are Williams hater. Pick Kirilenko? Genius. Barthel? Mouth-breathing moron. Paszek to beat Wozniacki gets you points. The Bryans winning doubles deducts those same points.

Again I quote my -- he loves it when I use this term -- role model, Frank Deford: "Like most sportswriters and, for that matter, like most other people, few of us ever predict sports correctly. It isn't even worth the effort, and you shouldn't pay attention to what anyone predicts, but everybody keeps trying and many people take it seriously."

For the record though, reader M. Ng of Vancouver informs us that of all the prognosticators on SI.com and ESPN only three picked both winners correctly: Evert, Shriver, Tandon. "Are women better at picking winners, or are they just less fickle?"

For all the (deserved) accolades given to Serena, how about some acknowledgment of Lisa Raymond? What a career, and still at the top of her game. I don't think she gets enough credit for what she has done for U.S. women's tennis over the decades.
-- Andy, New York, N.Y.

• Right on. What a career and, in keeping with the prevailing tennis theme these days, she's still going strong well into her 30s. She lacks look-at-me sensibilities and is terminally underrated as a result. "Chase Utley in a world of Manny Ramirezes," some hack once called her.

I enjoyed watching the replays of previous Wimbledon finals on ESPN Classic leading up to this year's tournament and noted two things. First was the lack of commentary. It was enjoyable to simply watch the tennis. By contrast, today's telecasts make me think they've spliced in the audio from "The View". The second thing was the speed between points. Players got balls bounced to them, turned around and served. Nowadays it is apparently so hot that after even the most marginal effort players must towel off between points. Do you think that settles the climate change debate?
-- Richard Kunz, Dakota Dunes, SD

• Love it. I look forward to Congressional testimony. "I didn't believe in Climate Change. But then I saw Novak Djokovic go to the towel between first AND second serve. Now I'm convinced."

Shots, miscellany

• Hang Up and Listen to this tennis conversation.

• Kris Schaefer of New York: "Regarding: 'Liezel Huber and Elena Vesnina on the undercard. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi as the main event. Three rounds. UFC rules. Mandatory interviews with Joe Rogan after the fight. Who else is buying the pay per view?' ... Forget Joe Rogan. Winner has to answer to Sania Mirza."

• Jon Fischer of Ann Arbor: "Jon, I agree with your midterm grade comments about the TV coverage. Basically, there is nothing to dislike about the coverage, its just that there is nothing to love about it. One suggestion I have is to use new, and varied camera views. The view we get tends to slow the action, although it does cover the full court. A camera set lower and behind a player would better demonstrate what a player sees, and reacts to, during a point, and would better show the speed at which things occur. A camera in the corner, behind a serve returner, would show the real difficulties in returning a 135 mph serve."

• Anand Mamidipudi of Chelmsford, Mass.: "How about this one from the Wimbledon final? Federer vs. Murray = Mur-Derer."

• Press releasin': The USTA announced that professional tennis will make its return to Joplin, Mo., after a one-year absence. The break was due to the damaging effects of the tornado that forced the cancellation of the USTA Pro Circuit men's Futures tournament in 2011. In honor of the tournament's return, Joplin Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean today declared July 16-22 as "Tennis Week" in Joplin through an official proclamation.

• Federer's win netted a six-figure check for charity.

• Random trivia: Yaroslava Shvedova, she of the golden set, was once up 5-0, 40-0 without dropping a point. She then double-faulted. And she lost the match 1-6, 6-0. 6-0.

• More juniors coverage from Colette Lewis.

• Helen of Philadelphia: Long lost triplets: Taylor Kitsch, Gary Stretch and Marat Safin.

• And since we were away last week, here's another LLS. (Note: any comparisons of players to metal band members draw extra consideration.) Doug Laidlaw of North Plainfield, NJ: Hi Jon, I just wanted to submit two long lost lookalikes: Fabrice Santoro and Dave Lombardo (drummer for the heavy metal band, Slayer).

Have a good week, everyone!

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