As I watched Serena Williams take on Johanna Larsson during last weekend’s USA/Sweden Fed Cup tie, I will admit I was surprised by the level of her intensity. Given where she was, playing a relegation rubber in front of a rain-affected crowd, it seemed – how does one put this? – out of character.
Surely, I jest. Anyone who has watched even a smattering of tennis in the last decade can attest to the intensity this living legend possesses. Such intensity almost single-handedly took her to the pinnacle of the sport and helped her through the darker days, both on and off the court. It never mattered her shape, scoreline, or state of mind. It mattered even less who was across the net, be she rival or sister, Venus. In a game where many have been lambasted for their lack of mental toughness, Serena was the WTA’s rock, who relied on her relentless intensity and competitive fire to finish off many a tough match.
How has she been able to do these incredible things for so long? It could be said that what has kept her at the top of the sport for nearly 15 years has been what could be deemed an “economy of intensity.” Williams has made a career out of bringing her best when it matters the most. Arguably our sport’s biggest star (at least in North America), she shapes her seasons around the Slams, peaking at the right time during those all-important two week stretches.
This extreme prioritizing has all but cemented her place in history, but often created a few problems for her in the present. Those who tuned in solely during the Grand Slams (or even those with a more comprehensive view of the sport) would see the most dominant player in the game ranked outside the top 3 and wonder “why?” A cursory glance at her results outside of the Slams would reveal a fair share of no-shows (she essentially took herself out of the race for year-end No. 1 when she withdrew from the Fall Asian swing) and shocking losses (Austrian journeywoman Sybille Bammer retired in 2011 undefeated against her).
A desire to explain this vast incongruity shifted the blame from her comparative lack of focus on a smaller stage to a lack of commitment to be a full-time tennis player. This truism dates back to 2006, when Chris Evert took to Tennis Magazine to write an open letter to Williams questioning her desire. At that point, she had won seven major singles titles, yet at the time, the tennis world felt gypped, and that Serena still had something to prove.
For all she has accomplished since then, it has been difficult for Serena to shake that stick.
Yet, for any of us to fall back on this notion is to ignore this latest incarnation of Serena Williams. The veteran of 30 who fought off a toe injury that led to a pulmonary embolism only to find herself back at No. 1 two years later. The woman who shed tears after her first Wimbledon match after that lay-off, and again when she was told of her return to the top of the rankings in Doha.
What more does she need to do to prove how much she wants to be here?
Against Larsson, she celebrated her good play, admonished herself for her errors, and was jubilant in a victory that tied the US with Sweden at one match apiece. We have been so conditioned to expect a flat, even blasé Serena show up on a smaller stage that this “new” Serena continues to shock us. But should we really be so surprised? When we remember who she is, what she’s been through, her love for the game is suddenly apparent. And after 15 years, the sport should be grateful that that love is stronger than ever.