I’m going to start this piece by reminding people that I have been the biggest fan of the World Number 1 for well over a decade now. I’ve slowly, surely, and now suddenly come to the realisation that I can’t avoid the fact that what comes with her is bad for tennis and it has nothing to do with her dominance of the game. It’s the ongoing illnesses, the lack of grace when winning, the disgraceful background that sits behind some of her biggest losses and her general on-court demeanour. Forget the Williams Sisters story and where they came from (that will always be a model to follow) but look instead to how she behaves now at the pinnacle of the sport and ask yourself the question – would you want a child of yours to behave like that when in a position to inspire new generations? Some of you will answer yes, and point to the fact that winners are made of different stuff. But I say right here that in my opinion Serena Williams is a stain on the current game and her legacy will be forever stained.
It’s often said that we hold sport stars to different moral codes to the rest of the population. There are arguments to either side of that but I’m going to suppose here that we do and look at the incidents away from Serena’s incredible haul of Grand Slam and Olympic titles. There are very few champions that go through a whole career without putting a foot wrong or occasionally erring on the wrong side of a moral code but then there others where it becomes more of a pattern. For me, Steffi Graf will always have an asterisk against her Grand Slam total for the point in her 1999 French Open Final in which she pointed the incorrect mark on the clay court to the umpire. This was not a wily old champ showing gamesmanship; this was a desperate act of cheating to hold off the new guard. Couple this with Graf’s desire to remove Monica Seles’ protected ranking when the American was recovering from BEING STABBED ON COURT and this is why I don’t hold Graf in fond memory, despite how we have all been seduced with her ‘love match’ with Andre Agassi. I love tennis and I don’t like anything that goes with it which makes me dislike the sport.
And this is the thing that is now impossible to ignore with Serena Williams – there are just way too many things that she does that makes the experience of watching the sport I love a thoroughly unpleasant one. Let’s go through the big ones first, the ones we all know about; namely the 2009 and 2011 US Opens. In the 2009 US Open, Serena Williams was correctly given a code violation and lost a point on match point after threatening to shove a tennis ball down the throat of a line judge who had correctly called a foot fault on Williams’ serve. Our distinguished World Number One denied this and then refused to apologise until audio evidence was produced to confirm that she had indeed made that threat. So not only did she bully a line judge, but she also lied. The fact that the Grand Slam Committee chose to issue the biggest possible fine instead of suspending her from Slams serves only to show that top players are treated differently, which is not the main idea behind this piece. Fast forward two years to her appearance in the final of the 2011 US Open. The chair umpire correctly called a hindrance when Williams shouted ‘come on!’ after hitting a shot which her opponent Samantha Stosur still had a chance of reaching. Again, Williams showed the lack of class and grace (look away from the twirls and the kiss-blowing, for goodness sake) that has blighted her career by launching into a tirade on the chair umpire, including telling her that she was ‘ugly inside’ and should ‘look the other way if you see me coming’. She later went on to passive-aggressively claim in the trophy presentation that she “hit a winner but I guess it didn’t count”. Her refusal to accept when she breaks the rules does not do her any favours.
And then there are the ‘minor’ quibbles. The disgraceful use of ‘Fuck’ in all its variations throughout the second set in yesterday’s final is something we don’t want to see from a professional athlete. I note Andy Murray takes criticism like this and apologies for it and realises that it’s a bad example to set to watching kids. However, to date Serena hasn’t bothered to apologise for the example that her foul-mouthed audible conversation with herself yesterday sets to the generation of future players she often talks about inspiring.
For a professional athlete, she does tend to get ill a hell of a lot. I would suggest she looks into her training and fitness regime because for somebody at the very top of her game to come into two successive Slams grumbling about her body’s ails is at best suspicious and at worst for her, extremely worrying. The tennis Twitterati went into meltdown when British Number 9 Tara Moore claimed that Serena is one of the best actresses to ever play the game. I mention the fact that Moore is the British Number 9 because the people who ridiculed her seemed to think that because Moore is ranked lowly in the tennis world she is somehow not allowed an opinion (despite her being a better tennis player than all those disagreeing with her and claiming she was unqualified to comment due to her ranking). Nobody is questioning Williams’ ability; her serve is the best that the women’s game will likely ever see and her groundstrokes and power play have taken the game to a level unthinkable even ten years ago.
What I am questioning is how many times has Serena Williams genuinely given praise to an opponent who has beaten her without somewhere along the line hinting that she was in some way ill, whether that be pre-match, post-match or worse of all during the match? 2004 was the first sign of this when she suffered an abdominal injury mid-match to Maria Sharapova in the finals of the End of Season Championships. She limped around like a sulking child and gave Sharapova minimal praise, either in verbal form or body language. One could argue that as a fighting champion she doesn’t believe in retiring mid-match but a series of retirements and withdrawals in the few years that followed, including in the semi-final of the same event two years later, put paid to that line of defence. She also missed three months due to dental surgery; something which I guess would have less effects than stomach cramping and acute muscle spasms. The assumption can be made that Serena knows the age-old adage that an injured player is difficult to play against and sticks out there to get in her opponents’ heads when she is injured – if she is injured, of course. The Australian Open of 2007 is perhaps her biggest triumph when she came into it overweight and written off but claimed the title for the loss of just three games in a final with Sharapova. But again, the footnote reads: struggled on-court with a cold during the first six rounds. Yes, a 12 day cold for a professional athlete. No further comment.
Fast forward five months to her Wimbledon third round match with Daniela Hantuchova when at a set down and 5-5 in the second set, Williams collapsed on court, later citing an acute muscle spasm. She could barely walk for the next three games but managed to force a third set. It was horrendous to watch and little knows what it was like for both players to experience. The fact that she managed to come through this has more to do with the fact that her opponent was left stunned, like she was having to put a dying animal out of its misery and couldn’t stick the injection in. Serena refused to withdraw and limped around in the following match where the more-ruthless Justine Henin didn’t have the problems that Hantuchova had. If you’re so unfit that you can’t walk, surely as a professional athlete you make a decision thinking about long-term consequences? These are the stand-out injury performances over the years, most Slams are littered with at least one match in which Serena visibly struggles with her fitness. There is this underlying current in which Serena almost forces an opinion on the watching audience that no opponent on tour is capable of beating her unless she is seen to be struggling with an illness. It’s happened numerous times in non-Slam events and happened in Paris against Sloane Stephens and Timea Bacsinszky; it does appear to happen more regularly against players who are not used to playing on the stage on which they are playing ie Bacsinszky’s first semi-final appearance. Again, no further comment.
Finally, I take you back to one of the things that tarnished Graf’s legacy in my eyes. In the third round of this year’s French Open, the line umpire called for a point to be replayed after an incorrect call had been made. It was at a vital stage of the match; Azarenka leading a set and 5-6. The point should not have been replayed as Serena knew it was a clear winner from Azarenka. So this 20-time Grand Slam champion that is often hailed as a fair and sporting champion chose to carry on without pointing that out. She is quick at other times to overrule the umpire for her opponents, but not at crucial points against women she knows are capable of bettering her. A chance to be truly virtuous missed.
Only Serena Williams herself knows how often she is ill, and what leads to all of these badly-times illnesses. Only Serena Williams herself knows why she chooses to inspire a generation with fighting ability but doesn’t care if she drops the F bomb numerous times and doesn’t have a problem in doing so. Only Serena Williams herself knows why she so rarely gives credit to opponents without it being qualified with her own health issues. Only Serena Williams herself knows what lies behind the anger that spills over towards officials when they make correct decisions which go against her. Only Serena Williams herself knows how much of her on-court antics and lack of sportsmanship are genuine, gamesmanship or simply cheating. Her book when she retires could be a gruesome insight into all of this, except here’s the thing – I wouldn’t believe a word she said in it. And that will always be Serena Williams’ legacy: the greatest of all time? Possibly, maybe even probably. Unbelievable? Yes, on so many different levels.