Did Serena Williams deserve the ‘Sports Illustrated’ sportsperson of the year? – For The Win
When it was all said and done, Novak Djokovic had a better tennis season than Serena Williams. Not even a fan with the biggest Serena blinders could say otherwise. He also won three Slams, but he dominated everywhere else — almost having double the rankings points of the second-best player. He didn’t bail on his sport after losing two matches shy of immortality. He didn’t stop talking to the press after those losses, initially refusing to answer questions about his desires to get that Grand Slam. He didn’t use some injury as an excuse to bail on his season after the U.S. Open, then go play for a reported seven-figure fee in an exhibition season in southeast Asia.
But Novak Djokovic also didn’t get two matches short of the Grand Slam. He didn’t have to fight off multiple comers who got up double breaks or within service holds of stopping his mission. He didn’t get to that halfway point — after the French Open final — when the pressure really would have started. He didn’t show intense bravery, conviction and a sense of forgiveness with a return to a place of one of the sport’s greatest shames. He was the best tennis player, but not the best sportsman, or sportswoman. It could only be Serena.
She spent an entire summer knowing her tennis destiny was going to come down to an 90-minute stretch in September at Arthur Ashe Stadium against an opponent she would beat nine times out of 10. And, for a while during those three months, I don’t think she believed it would happen. Rather, I suspect she was forcing herself to believe it wouldn’t happen, operating under the idea that if you keep your goals low, you wouldn’t be as disappointed when you don’t reach them.
But then she survived two wild matches at Wimbledon, two matches any other women in the world would have lost, and held up the Venus Rosewater trophy with only the U.S. Open in front of her, a tournament she’d won three times in a row. Her draw came out and initially looked tough, with a run of young up-and-comers, the kind of whom have stymied Serena before. Then, her possible semifinal opponent, Maria Sharapova, the world’s second-best player, dropped out. (Sure, Serena hadn’t lost to her in a decade, but still.) Then the carnage started, with all the top seeds falling out and none of her early tests even reaching their match. The path was wide open. She had to beat a young, big-serving American (Madison Keys) in the fourth round, then her sister in the quarters (Venus) and then that wide-open path just turned into a clearing.
Serena Williams was down to a Final Four of Roberta Vinci, an unseeded Italian journeywoman ranked No. 43 in the world, whom she’d play in the semifinals. On the other side was the world No. 2 Simona Halep who would play another Italian journeywoman in Flavia Pennetta, seeded No. 26. But Pennetta played first, beat Halep and there was Serena Williams’ road to the Grand Slam: No. 43 Roberta Vinci and No. 26 Flavia Pennetta. It was all but a formality from there, it was being said.
Except that anyone who’d been watching Serena over the past two years would tell you that nothing was a certainty and playing top-10 opponents was far better than facing middling players who Serena, for whatever reason, can struggle with. And that she did, falling to Vinci in three sets, stunning the nation, who’d finally started to pay attention to tennis, but eliciting a knowing, resigned head nod from tennis fans, who saw it coming all along.
So, back to that Sportsman or Sportswoman thing. (Frankly, it’s an overwrought award anyway. It’s been shared by two people four times in the past 17 years. Teams have won the thing. In 1987, the award was presented to eight “Athletes Who Care.” So let’s not act like this thing is the end-all, be-all of sports awards. It has to be picked with sales and attention in mind and Serena Williams in a sexy pose is far better than another picture of American Pharoah trotting down an unknown track. Although, if SI really had wanted controversy, giving a sportsMAN/sportsWOMAN award to a horse would have been a pretty good troll move.)
Still, people pay attention to it and get unjustifiably passionate about it. And if one of them was to say “Novak Djokovic or Steph Curry had better sports years than Serena Williams,” you could argue, but you’d be wrong. Curry won a title and then led a team on a start that’s never been equaled in NBA history. Novak Djokovic had one of the two or three best tennis seasons in the history of the sport. (But foreigners don’t win much either. Since Roger Bannister won the first award in 1954, only two foreigners from a non-big four sport have won: Sweden’s Ingemar Johansson in 1959 for boxing and Norway’s Johann Olav Koss in 1994 for speed skating.) Serena Williams ended up having a really good tennis season with those three Slams, but it’s been done 21 other times in the Open era. It was actually nothing really special. Steffi Graf did that eight times.
Serena was still the easy winner. She dominated the conversation even among people who don’t often converse over a sport that’s slipped in popularity in America. She captivated the sporting world every time she stepped out for a match. She made women’s tennis briefly more popular than men’s tennis at the U.S. Open (if ticket prices are an indication.)
So, while there were dozens more sporting (Serena is the epitome of a sore loser) and one or two who played better, no one epitomized the year of sports better than Serena Williams and her epic, but ultimately unfulfilled Grand Slam quest. She’d have been a no-brainer selection had she won the Slam. But, oddly, the fact that she didn’t almost makes her more of a no-brainer. In her 2015, Serena Williams showed both the domination and vulnerabilities that come with being one of the greatest athletes in the world and the greatest female athlete who ever lived.