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Sunday, July 4, 2010

This is what a champion looks like...

Like a good middle-class British boy, I love tennis, and especially Wimbledon. It seems to be taken for granted that men's tennis is more exciting to watch than women's, but I always preferred the women's game. Watching Wimbledon as a kid in my school holidays, I witnessed the last years of Martina Navratilova's dominance, followed by the rise of Steffi Graf, and the rivalries always seemed more exciting than those between, say, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. For the last decade of course, the dominant figures in the women's tennis world have been the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. Their success is extraordinary in many ways, but the most amazing thing about it is the unconventional way in which they entered the circuit. Trained by their father from a young age, he largely kept them out of the junior competitions that it was always assumed were a necessary training ground for the major tournaments. Instead, they were unleashed onto the tennis world as adults around 1997/8, surprising everyone by becoming strong competitors immediately, and dominant forces within only a few years.

I have huge respect for them both, but for various reasons Serena has always been my real heroine. Largely it's because she wears her heart on her sleeve more than Venus, who is a much cooler customer. Serena never hides how hard she works to win, or how important it is to her to do so. As a result, I go on the ride with her every time. There's something so thrilling about the tennis she plays - both powerful and skilful - and about the fact that it seems to come from instinct, defying all the conventions of this most conventional game. It's always appealing when an outsider bursts into a stuffy and uptight environment and shakes it up, and Serena has been able to do this because she is demonstrably the best player in the world, and therefore commands respect - however grudgingly people in the tennis world afford it to her (and that's without even going into the race issue).

The above Nike ad sums up what it is I admire about her - I know it must have been invented by a marketing executive, but it distills the impression she gives about her attitude to her career (in this case, when she had to work her way up the rankings after taking time out due to the murder of one of her sisters - when she returned people mocked her for being out-of-shape and 'past it').

In fact, Serena gets a lot of criticism, mainly for being aggressive, arrogant, etc - most of which, it seems to me, is rooted at least to some degree in good old-fashioned sexism. But the great thing is that, while this bothers people like me, she herself doesn't seem to care. She's not interested in being liked, she just wants to be the best player she can be.
"Luck has nothing to do with it, because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours, on the court working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come." Serena Williams

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