Will Serena Williams ever escape from the continuing case of the mysterious boot?
Serena Williams is to tennis fans what Marmite is to most people. It’s a love or hate predicament. We’re so used to her imposing physique, her nothing-to-something story, her celebrity antics, her dramatic absences and reappearances, and her less-than-sensible statements, that it’s almost become old hat. And so today’s announcement that she will not be defending her Australian Open title next year as a result of her on-going foot injury was greeted with the usual mix of bafflement, befuzzlement, speculation about her future, and not much surprise. Cutting her foot outside a restaurant was a very Serena-like thing to do.
But a freak tendon tear that required 12 stitches in her right foot and six in her left, and two subsequent operations is no cough or cold. “I came back to the United States from Germany and knew something was not right,” Williams revealed in September. “My big toe was drooping, and I thought, ‘My toe shouldn’t be hanging like this.’ I saw a specialist in New York and had an MRI, and he said I had a tendon that was torn. He said I didn’t necessarily have to fix it, but I’d have a droopy toe the rest of my life. I thought it over and decided it was better to have the surgical procedure, for my career and for my life.”
Ask any other player and, surely, they would have done the same. Their bodies are their lives. But Serena was vilified. Accused of faking it, of not being committed to the game. That it was just another excuse to fly around the world attending fashion shows. True, taking three months to explain to the world exactly what happened outside that restaurant in Germany was not the smartest move. She may have been wearing Iron Man’s answer to footwear on her right foot, but sadly, we don’t all have x-ray vision.
Orville Lloyd Douglas wrote in the Guardian earlier this month, that in certain circles of the US tennis establishment, the superseding of Serena by Caroline Wozniacki at the top of the women’s rankings is seen as a positive development, precisely because it puts Williams “in her place”.
“Some of the establishment’s almost palpable relief at Wozniacki’s elevation is, frankly, because she’s young, white and blonde; and is a physical type that conforms more closely to western stereotypes of female beauty than Williams’ highly athletic physique. A female athlete, it seems, is not respected for her hard work and dedication; she still has to be a product on display to sell to heterosexual male consumers – and a dark-skinned, self-willed African American is not the preferred model,” he argues.
But, love or hate, there’s no escaping the fact that Serena is an extraordinary anomaly: A decade-long winner in a sport where longevity has gone the way of wooden rackets and white balls. When she gets that banshee wail going, double-fisting left, right and centre from every square inch of the court, hooped earrings flapping about her face, most of today’s opponents simply stop and stare. And you can’t blame them. But reputation alone does not hand you 13 Grand Slam singles titles on a plate. Nor does talent. However well Serena wallops the ball, she has beaten far more talented ball-strikers than herself. And for that, she has to thank her approach to the sport.
Half the battle in tennis is staying healthy, but staying interested is most of the rest. The Williams sisters, first Venus, and then Serena, have always played sparingly, which lent them a certain mystique long before they were champions. Everyone knew about Richard and his two young daughters, they just didn’t know what made them tick. Since then Serena and (to a lesser extent) Venus, have picked and chosen when to be immersed and when to step back. Few athletes have the self-assurance to do that and to handle the inevitable fallout. In every walk of life, few people would admit to liking the ones who waltz along while putting in half the effort. Wozniacki played 22 tournaments this year, Williams six. But Serena doesn’t seem to care.
No matter how you may feel about her – and for the record, I admire and like her, despite her sometimes torturous press conferences – there’s no denying that the younger Williams has a passion for life, and a passion for tennis. That unusual ability to combine the two seems to be her secret. But how long for? The debate now filling message boards and occupying bloggers keyboards is whether the continuing case of the mysterious boot is just a pre-cursor to retirement. What is there left for her to prove? She’s beaten Billie’s 12 Slams, and surely Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova’s 18 is a stretch too far.
So have we seen the last of Serena Williams? Maybe, maybe not. She can’t play in Australia, where she has lifted the title five times. But wouldn’t it be just like her to come back and show us how it’s done at Wimbledon.Americas, Australian Open, foot, headline, injury, Serena Williams, Sport, Sports, Tennis
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter