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There is no way, nor will there ever be a way, to deny the amazing athletic brilliance and dominance of Serena Williams, who may be the greatest women’s tennis player ever.
But having said that, there are chinks in her tennis game and, perhaps more telling, chinks in her mental makeup and her public performance.
In case you missed it, Serena Williams choked away a chance to do something in tennis that had’nt been done in a quarter century: win all four grand slam events in a single calendar year.
It’s a horrible word to apply to athletes, and perhaps it is used too often. But Williams choked, not once but twice, during the just completed U.S. Open.
First she choked was in her semifinal match against Roberta Vinci. This was perhaps the greatest upset in the history of women’s tennis.
Vinci had never beaten Williams. She had never even won more than four games in a single set against her. She was an old-fashioned player who didn’t have power ground strokes or a blistering serve. And Williams jumped off to a 6-2 victory in the first set.
But it was as plain as day to anyone watching this match that the pressure got to Williams, point-by-point, game-by-game. Even on television you could feel things change.
And by the end this upset had turned into an incredible whipping.
In the final game Vinci won four straight points and Williams won none. And the match, as well as this Grand Slam quest was over.
Leave it to a champion with the record and grace of Martina Navratilova to pull no punches.
"She lost to the Grand Slam more than anything else," said Navratilova, who knows well the pursuit of the Grand Slam. It was the pressure of the quest that did Williams in.
The loss was obviously heartbreaking and only the heartless would find themselves without sympathy.
But the second choke was much less sympathetic and was more a choke of personality than of performance.
After the match Williams met with the press in a tense and abbreviated news conference. "I told you guys, I don’t feel pressure," she said. And then she went on for a few brief moments avoiding the real issue.
How in the world could she lose this match?
She wasn’t having any of it. There was no concept that she was to blame for this loss. She was short with people. She gave one-word answers. She was brusque and rude.
I have seen this Serena before. A number of years ago I was at a tennis exhibition as a fundraiser in New Jersey. Both Serena and her sister, Venus, were scheduled to play. They were walking separately toward the court, Venus joking and signing autographs. Serena was grim and ignored the dozens of youngsters wanting her to sign. The exhibition match started and, like most exhibitions, everyone was having fun.
Except for Serena who was clearly unhappy and didn’t want to be there. Finally she walked out about 15 minutes after the match started to be whisked away in a black, tinted-window SUV.
Since then I’ve always felt the private grouchy Serena is much more realistic than the public sweetheart Serena.
Losing with grace is a critical measure of a champion as is taking responsibility.
Anybody with any experience in sports who watched that match saw clearly that it was pressure that got to Serena. She owed it to people to explain, honestly, what happened; what it felt like to reach back to get that extra edge and find the cupboard bare.
Instead she couldn’t, or wouldn’t explain how her performance contributed to the upset.
That kind of graceless performance is even worse than what happened on the court.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
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