The Psychology of Serena
Women’s tennis doesn’t make it onto the front page of Deadspin.com very often. The USTA probably wishes it didn’t this time, either. Top junior players customarily have their travelling expenses to the US Open paid by the USTA. Top-ranked 16-year-old Taylor Townsend wasn’t extended the offer this year because the USTA wanted her to improve her fitness. Deadspin.com had a predictably less-than-diplomatic take on the snub, originally reported by the Wall Street Journal’s Tom Perrotta:
…unbeknownst to everyone outside her inner circle, the USTA wasn’t happy to see Townsend in New York. Her coaches declined to pay her travel expenses to attend the Open and told her this summer that they wouldn’t finance any tournament appearances until she makes sufficient progress in one area: slimming down and getting into better shape. ”Our concern is her long-term health, number one, and her long-term development as a player,” said Patrick McEnroe, the general manager of the USTA’s player development program. “We have one goal in mind: For her to be playing in [Arthur Ashe Stadium] in the main draw and competing for major titles when it’s time. That’s how we make every decision, based on that.”
But according to The Wall Street Journal, the USTA is not impressed. Townsend is a product of the USTA’s relatively new tennis-development program and they declined to pay her way to the U.S. Open because she was … too big. So her mother ponied up the expenses instead and here she is, ripping her way through the U.S. Open juniors tournament. [Patrick] McEnroe wants to send a big and loud message—even the No. 1 player doesn’t get to skate by our guidelines—but it’s becomes tricker when you realize on both the men’s and women’s side the pipeline remains dry for young American talent. So now you have McEnroe and the rest of the USTA rooting against a player because the farther she goes, the bigger a public-relations disaster this becomes. And it’s made even worse because even if the USTA wants to talk about fitness, the message becomes: We are publicly judging your body.
After about 48 hours of terrible publicity, the USTA did the right thing (if a few weeks too late) and picked up the expenses. Perrotta again:
“It was a miscommunication,” said Patrick McEnroe, the general manager of the USTA’s player development program. “I apologize that they feel that way, it’s not right.”
Serena Williams’ fitness has not always been ideal, but nobody so thoroughly dominates the game when she’s healthy, interested and in control of her emotions. Grantland.com’s Brian Phillips writes a terrific story examining the psychology and drive behind Serena’s greatness:
Is it strange to say that this is why I’ve come to love Serena more than all but maybe three or four active athletes? Love is probably the wrong word here; love implies a kind of sympathy or protectiveness that I only feel toward Serena in flashes, and never because she seems to need it. Serena took over tennis and then … just kept on taking it over. She never stopped being a conqueror. I followed her around at Wimbledon this year, and let me tell you. Have you seen her play in person? The difference between Serena live and Serena on TV is greater than the difference between Roger Federer live and Roger Federer on TV; I’m not kidding. She is just — and I mean, you can spot this with one eye closed from the top row of a stadium — playing a different sport from her opponents. This is true to the point that I kept taking that famous Bobby Jones quote about Jack Nicklaus (“[He] plays a game with which I am not familiar”) and applying it to her in more and more general ways, trying to find the right level (“She occupies an order of being with which I am [explodes]“).
Phillips says Serena isn’t out there playing for history or to promote equality in the sport. It’s simpler than that:
None of this is to say that Serena doesn’t have the normal complement of human feelings and fears. But the thing I love, or admire, or am in awe of about her, though it took me years to appreciate this, is that on the court, she makes everything except tennis appear not to matter. The sport is full of subtly prejudiced upper-class white people? Well, here is an F5 tornado. Katharine Hepburn said at Humphrey Bogart’s funeral that he liked to drink, so he drank; Serena likes to win tennis matches, so she wins tennis matches. It isn’t to make you like her, or prove you wrong, or sell you a sandwich. It isn’t to overcome the global history of race. It isn’t to expand our sense of the meaning of Americanness. It’s to do a thing she wants to do. And miraculously, she is herself such a force that all that other stuff scatters like paper.