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1:55PM

RealClearSports: Serena Williams, A Conundrum of a Champion

By Art Spander

It’s her life. Maybe we should let it go at that. Maybe we should appreciate what Serena Williams has given to sport, to her sport of tennis, appreciate the championships and the panache, acknowledge what is, rather than question what might have been.

Maybe the gentle arrogance and the irritating independence are at the heart of her success, and the success of her sister, Venus. Maybe if she acted like the other players, thought like the other players, she’d be just another player, and not one who earned the titles, if not always earning the proper respect.

Serena won a first-round match at the French Open on Tuesday, won it in agonizing fashion for someone who, depending on either her viewpoint or the WTA rankings, is the best or second best female player on the globe.

She staggered and stumbled and squandered eight match points before finally dispatching somebody named Klara Zakopalova, who is ranked 100th.

But she won. As she has so often, confounding some, enthralling others. Oh, what a gift those sisters were awarded, such athleticism. Oh, what brilliance those sisters displayed. Oh, what doubts those sisters created.

The critics have badgered Venus, older by 15 months, and Serena, practically forever. When they weren’t praising them.

Venus and Serena were different, two African-Americans in a sport once as white as the attire prescribed for Wimbledon. They grew up on the tough streets of Compton, east of Los Angeles, instructed and shepherded by a father who made bold predictions and made others outraged.

The Williams sisters, the Williams family, were separate from the rest. They were more powerful than the rest. For a while in the early 2000s, it was Venus against Serena or Serena against Williams in virtually every final of every Grand Slam. A whimpering Amelie Mauresmo, who eventually would go on to win Wimbledon and the Australian, once proclaimed such domination unfair.

Then Venus either lost interest or was constantly injured. Or both. Then Serena got bored and went into movies or was constantly injured. Or both. But when Venus won Wimbledon in ’07 and ’08 and Serena the ’08 U.S. Open and ’09 Australian, a new theory was put forth. The opportunity to escape to other interests is what enabled the Sisters Williams to stay after other winners — Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin — departed because of burnout.

Still, Mary Carillo, the great tennis commentator, was adamant about the Williams’ careers, particularly that of Serena. Not that long ago, Serena and Tiger Woods were at the top of their respective sports. Tiger hasn’t left. Serena was a missing person.

“You can’t waste time when you’re an athlete,” said Carillo. “Careers are short. I thought Serena was going to break every record. She should have.”

But even with 10 Grand Slam victories, she has not.

Two weeks back, when Dinara Safina of Russia replaced her in the No. 1 position in the rankings, Serena huffed, “We all know who is No. 1. Quite frankly I’m the best in the world.”

Did we detect a bit of bitterness? Or was Serena attempting to remind us that when dropshot comes to forehand, she’d be the last one standing? The great thing about individual sports is you go out and beat everyone and you can’t be denied.

We’re never going to get into the psyche of Serena or Venus. We’re never going to learn why they always seem to be hurt when they lose. Or why they don’t always give an opponent credit when they win.

“My goal,” Serena said last year, “always has been to have the best time and to do the best I can.” She’s had the time of her life. Others worry that at age 27, time and tennis have passed her by. That would be hard to believe, especially since Serena has talked of competing in the ’12 Olympics.

The French, at Roland Garros in Paris, is played on red clay. Americans traditionally haven’t done well on the surface, although Serena won the tournament in 2002. This year, Serena had lost her only three matches on clay, one of those to Zakopalova, a Czech.

“I think I just played horrendous,” Serena said of her first-round win, sounding very unlike the young lady who a few days earlier boasted she was “quite frankly the best in the world.”

“I think I was a little nervous because I hadn’t won a match on clay all year, and I was desperate for a win.”

Desperate is a word new to Serena’s vocabulary. She’s never felt the need to use it. Now she understands. She owes us nothing, but she owes herself the chance to play every match as if it will be her last.
As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009. 

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