Press Box: Give underrated Serena her due

Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune

Roberta Vinci had never reached a Grand Slam semifinal before this month. She was unseeded in the just-concluded U.S. Open and ranked No. 43 by the WTA, lowest of all semifinalists. She said after her 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory Friday she gave herself no chance of winning her match and reaching the finals.

That is the player Serena Williams couldn’t beat, the player that kept Williams two wins shy of the first “Calendar Slam” in more than a quarter century.

And yet, I am here to praise Serena.

Ridiculous, right? No one praised the Russians in 1980 or Mike Tyson after he lost to Buster Douglas. No one had to. They were already regarded as legends, which is what made their failures such legendary upsets.

And while people are treating Vinci’s victory as a huge upset, I would argue much of that stems from those who relish in an opportunity to bash Serena. That’s an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often.

Williams has 21 Grand Slam titles under her belt, one shy of Steffi Graf’s 22 and three away from Margaret Court’s all-time best of 24. There’s a good chance she will end her career with the most Grand Slam victories of any player ever — she already has the most of any American, men’s or women’s.

Williams has been ranked No. 1 in the world on six different occasions in her 20-year career. Her 256 weeks at No. 1 are fourth all time. No active player has more major singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles, male or female. She is only the third player of any gender to win four majors in a row more than once.

I’m not going to argue Williams is the best female player of all time. I’m not confident enough in my tennis history to do justice to an argument between her and Graf or Court or Chris Evert or Martina Navratilova. But Williams is in the discussion; I don’t think that’s up for debate anymore.

And still, Serena, having a charmed season at the age of 33, was hardly a blip on the sports world’s radar until the prospect of a Grand Slam sweep approached — and c’mon, we’ll even pay attention to a horse when it does that.

The U.S. seems to be perennially in search of its next star on the men’s side, all the while failing to acknowledge the genuine legend playing in her prime on the women’s side. Roger Federer has been a bigger star the past decade-plus in America. Roger Federer — who, mind you, never won a calendar slam either — has four fewer Grand Slam wins than Williams. Also, he’s from Switzerland.

Part of this discrepancy can likely be chalked up to the fact women’s sports simply do not get as much play as their Y-chromosome counterparts. If you think sexism in sports is a thing of the past, just take a look at the lazy “Why aren’t you smiling?” questioning Serena had to put up with last week — not to mention the dog-whistling that persists whenever her body type is, for some reason, a point of discussion.

But I think much of the problem lies with another -ism. Tennis has a history of being a country club, white-centric sport, and it’s naive to think there isn’t still some racist residue there. Williams boycotted the Indian Wells tournament in California for 13 years after she and her family were taunted with racial slurs, according to her father. “One guy said, ‘I wish it was ‘75 (the year of the Los Angeles race riots). We’d skin you alive,” Richard Williams said.

American crowds have opted to cheer for foreign players instead of their native daughter Williams. Williams did a supposed “crip walk” dance, which has origins in her hometown of Compton, Calif., at the Olympics in 2012 and the tennis world acted as if she had celebrated with a Nazi flag draped around her shoulders. Racism against black tennis players extends off the court, too. Just this past week, retired player James Blake was violently tackled and arrested in New York on an alleged case of mistaken identity.

Look, it’s not always easy to convince people that racism could still be at the root of a problem in 2015. It’s a gray-area issue that’s often treated as a black-and-white one. But just take a second to consider the basics: In a historically white, upper-class sport, an African-American star hasn’t gotten her due credit.

Serena Williams should be a bona fide American sports icon, up there with Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter and the like. This year we treated her as if she were American Pharoah.

Sometimes the easiest explanation is the best one.



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