October 11, 2009

On, Over, and Somewhat Past the Line

I wonder how I'd feel if I'd read Serena Williams' new book before the U.S. Open.

As it was, though, the current world #2 -- she'll regain the top spot on Monday after her third round showing in Beijing this week bested Dinara Safina's early exit -- released her autobiography just after play in Flushing Meadows began and didn't begin promoting it in earnest until after her meltdown at the New York semifinals. And so as I read it, I couldn't help casting a somewhat cynical eye on her words.

Ironically titled On the Line -- you'll recall Serena's alleged stepping over the line was the root of all that drama a month ago -- the book details her life and career from the first time she stepped on a court ("The regulation racquet was probably bigger than I was!") to her winning her ninth Grand Slam title at the 2008 Open. Along the way she recounts matches that defined her game and her spirit as well as anecdotes from her family life that shaped her character, but she ends on a cautionary note: "everything you've just read is subject to change." It almost makes you wonder...

The first story that sticks out to me tells of a match Serena played in a Domino's Pizza league, a set of recreational matches organized between children in her Southern California community. Serena gives herself a lot of credit for her integrity, saying that while a lot of girls would cheat, she never did. But then she goes on to tell of one match she was losing -- even then she'd regularly dominate her opponents -- where she flat out switched the score, saying the set was 5-2 in her favor rather than her competitor. She even justifies her behavior:

"I was also angry that ... she couldn't take things seriously enough to keep score ... Even in this match I didn't cheat on the lines. If my shot was out, I called it out. If her shout was in, I called it in. I just gave myself a bunch of games when she wasn't looking."

Age and circumstances might have been a factor, sure. Serena was the baby of the Williams family, the youngest of five sisters and as such was used to getting her way. She was a mischief-maker, smashish oranges on her hometown court and blaming her sisters. And she was a bit of a whiner. In the first tournament she entered (without her father's knowledge or permission), she made it to the finals before losing to her older sister. But when Venus saw the disappointed look on Serena's face, she ceded the gold first place trophy with the excuse: "I've always like silver better than gold. You want to trade?"

As she progressed through the professional tournaments, Serena was clearly a talented force. She beat Mary Pierce and Monica Seles in one of her first Tour events in Chicago when she was just sixteen. Two years later in 1999, she truly broke out, winning five titles including the U.S. Open and the Grand Slam Cup. But a couple of the matches she describes as having had huge impacts on her life and career -- and which I found somewhat interesting, given recent events -- came a little later.

First there was Indian Wells in 2001 where -- go figure -- she met Kim Clijsters in the finals. There had been a bit of a controversy in the semis -- Venus had been trying to withdraw as she was in no shape to play that day, but apparently the tournament officials delayed calling the match for hours and allowed a stadium full of fans to wait and wait before finding out they wouldn't see the match they'd been anticipating all afternoon.

Serena paid for it on championship day as the crowd turned against her and summarily rooted for Clijsters, even throwing out wholly inappropriate racial slurs throughout the match. But somehow Williams battled through the negativity and, after losing the first set, came away with the title in three. It's a great show of her fighting spirit but sad that, at nineteen years of age, she was more mature than she is at twenty-seven and that then she could rise above the negativity and hold herself together, something she clearly could not do last month. Though, to this day, she and her sister skip Indian Wells on Tour.

Then there was the quarterfinal match at the 2004 U.S. Open -- the match credited with instituting the often-used challenge system on both the WTA and ATP circuits. Serena was playing eighth-ranked Jennifer Capriati who was on her own comeback run and had thus far been advancing with little trouble. But a slew of bad calls -- on both sides of the net -- seemed to be dictating the play more than the two competitors were.

Serena took the first set easily, but Capriati battled to win the second. A confused call, a misreading of the score by the chair ump, in the first game of the third allowed Williams to be broken, and the pair traded breaks back and forth.

"I was so rattled by this latest missed call that I actually said something to the umpire during the changeover. I said, 'I can't believe you would sabotage me like that.' It wasn't like me to mouth off to an official -- but at the same time it wasn't like me to blindly accept an abuse of authority either."

Again, remembering how Serena treated the lines judge this year, I wonder whether she's regressed to a point before all the lessons she's learned during her long and decorated career. She lost that match to Capriati, 4-6 in the third set, but came back to win the 2005 Australian Open. That was her last title for quite some time, though, as she battled depression, a loss of interest in the game, and saw her ranking drop into the triple-digits. It wasn't until late in 2006 that she finally got her head back in the game and refocused her efforts on winning again.

Of course there are a couple of touching points in her story. Williams dedicates an entire chapter to her oldest sister Yetunde, who was killed in a senseless act of violence in Compton, California just after the 2003 U.S. Open. Tunde, as she refers to her was nine years her senior and often more of a mother-figure than a friend. Serena also talks about two trips to Africa where she did some great work, opening schools and holding tennis camps for destitute and sick children. She highlights an afternoon when she was honored to meet Nelson Mandela at his home in Johannesburg.

Also clear throughout the book is Serena's deep respect for and desire to be just like Venus. She would enter the same the tournaments as a child, had begged to turn pro shortly after V, and tried to lock down her own sponsorships after her elder had signed with Reebok. She spends a lot of time in her '08 U.S. Open journal fuming over the fact that they'd have to meet in the quarters instead of in the finals, apparently feeling that they should be the last two standing in almost any tournament.

There's no question that Serena Williams possesses a great amount of talent and perseverance. How many players can climb back from #149 in the world and reclaim the top spot after a five year-plus absense? And as she gets the position back again tomorrow, she'll have a lot to live up to -- yes, she's won two Majors this year, but she also hasn't earned a non-Slam title since Charleston in 2008. This past week right after she secured the spot over Safina, she lost to Nadia Petrova in the China Open.

After reading her autobiography I'm a little torn about my feelings for Serena. I obviously respect the good she does for the under-privileged and the obvious athleticism that's just innate in her. But I hope she gets a chance to re-read her book. I don't care if she's able to regroup and wins every tournament from here to retirement, but I do want her to remember the integrity and honor she claims were instilled in her early on in her career, and remember exactly what it is she's playing for.

As she says herself, "That's what champions do, right?"

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