I’ve got some good local color to share, but it will have to wait for now (One story so rich, so perfect, so needing being told, that I’m frankly disturbed that I have yet to publish my thoughts on it). Allow me to slip on my sports writing hat and talk about the Williams sisters for a while.
I watched probably 2/3 of today’s Wimbledon (there’s no T in there, Stuart Scott) Ladies Final match between Venus and Serena Williams. Anytime I watch either (or both) of the Williams sisters, I’m struck by how they embody all that is needed in the modern, American hero. They’re dynamic. They’re soulful. They’re genuine. They have moments when they’re almost too much to take. They have a story worth learning. They’re engaging. They demand attention and respect. I could go on-and-on, but basically there’s nothing about the Williams sisters that isn’t interesting.
This morning’s match was painful. It was heart wrenching. It was terrific drama, to use a phrase a couple of us enjoy immensely. By no measure was it a classic, but it required you to invest all your attention. On one side was Venus, who burst onto the scene as the gangly teenager with braids and beads. She was audacious. The tennis establishment had never seen anything like her. And there was no mistake, from day one, that she would be great. Unlike Tiger Woods, who came into the public eye at roughly the same time, we had a young, ethnic sports phenom prepared to dominate a traditionally country club sport who obviously loved being on the court, in the public’s eye, and wanted nothing less than to be a star.
On the other side was Serena, who in my opinion is the most physically striking female athlete I’ve ever seen. She entered the scene about a year after Venus. While Venus was making it into the quarter and semi-finals of majors, tennis experts quietly whispered, “Venus is going to be great, but Serena is going to be better.” Since then, they’ve lapped the world of women’s tennis. Sure, another player will occasionally win a tournament that both sisters are competing in. But there’s no question that Serena and Venus are far and away better than anyone else playing.
Which brought is to today. The Williams sisters have been accused of not playing to their highest level when they play each other. Some of that is nonsense, based on dislike for their father (Really, given some of his antics over the years, that’s to be understood. At the same time, for all the crazy things he’s said and done, you can’t fault him for the way he raised his daughters.). But if there is a little less effort expended when they face each other, can you blame them? Can any of you imagine being such a cold blooded competitor that you can block out the fact your sibling and best friend was standing across the net from you? Is it that surprising, that when given the opportunity to rip a cross-court winner, or fire back a returnable shot, there’s a moment of indecision where you balance winning versus living with and loving your sister for the rest of your lives? It’s one thing to do that when you’re playing in the backyard. It’s another to do it in front of a crowd of tens of thousands, with millions more watching on TV.
What I enjoyed most about today’s match was the fact this dilemma, which could easily be hidden under the steely gaze of a competitor, was right out front for us to see. Serena couldn’t bring herself to look at either her mother or sister in the family box, or across the court at Venus between points. She kept her face frozen, and focused on the ground. When Venus called the trainer out to consult about her abdominal injury, you could see that the stress of the match was killing her. There was the pain of the injury. There was the pain of losing a Grand Slam final to your sister. Even worse, there was the pain of falling even further behind your little sister professionally, who you looked after while growing up. There was no hiding the emotion, no matter how tightly she set her jaw and refused to look up. To her credit, she gutted it out, hit a few more nice shots, and put up a legitimate fight before Serena closed her out three games later.
What happened at the end of the match was as telling as anything. Serena didn’t celebrate, pump her fist, or throw her racket into the air. She and Venus calmly walked to the net, embraced, and then turned to their chairs. After a quick stop, Serena strolled to her sister’s chair to check on her. For the first time all day, both women allowed their emotions to come out, and it was beautiful. They broke into smiles. They giggled. Serena pulled a chair up and sat next to Venus. From a pocket in her racket bag, Venus pulled out a camera and had an official snap a picture of the two. It was an amazing moment that said more than the hour and a half of tennis could say.
I’m as guilty as anyone of putting athletes on a pedestal. Whether it’s some 17 year old kid who’s going to come in and be the missing link for KU’s basketball team, Tiger Woods, or anyone else that I’ve bought into over the years, I’ve been there and done that far too many times. I was there cheering on Venus when she made her first run through the US Open six years ago. I was getting fired up when Serena first started to realize the genius of her game. But what the Williams sisters gave me this morning was far more important than what Paul Pierce, Michael Jordan, or any other athlete I’ve worshiped has ever given me: a reminder that they too are humans with feeling and emotions like us lazy slobs watching on TV. Even with all the money and media pressures, some of them are smart enough to remember the things that are more important than the competition itself.