Serena Williams is already the greatest women's tennis player of all time, apologies to Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova. But the dominance Serena is displaying now is taking her to new heights.
Serena might be the greatest female athlete of all time. Surely, such is a tough case to make next to the resumes of Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Babe Didrikson Zaharias. But on the Mount Rushmore of women greats, the only question regarding Serena is whether her likeness should features beaded braids.
(Message to sculptors: Go with Serena's current look.)
This kind of greatness doesn't come around often. There aren't many women, no matter the sport, who can leave viewers in awe the way Serena can. Few female athletes have men shaking their heads in amazement as they would for LeBron James or Madison Bumgarner.
Serena is a beast of beasts. A physical specimen, no doubt. But she has reached this level -- capturing her 21st Grand Slam title Saturday -- because her skill and IQ are incredible. And she has a killer instinct worthy of a nod from hard hats with cold beers.
Unfortunately, our nation's appreciation of her doesn't match her greatness.
Sure, she is the subject of adoration in tennis circles and urban barbershops. But people spend more time talking about her outfits and mannerisms than her dominance and social impact. Her appeal is more about her looks and personality than her unstoppable serve and epic shotmaking.
Serena's status should be at young Tiger Woods' level. She is LeBron James with a racket. Messi on a tennis court.
But from a beloved perspective, in her own sport she trails Maria Sharapova by a mile, just as she did Anna Kournikova.
By winning Wimbledon for the sixth time, Serena holds four Grand Slam titles dating back to last year's U.S. Open -- the second time in her career she has pulled off this rare feat. If she wins this year at Flushing Meadows, she will have swept the 2015 majors and tied Graf for most Grand Slam titles in the open era.
Doing so would silence those who can't bring themselves to anoint Serena as G.O.A.T.
Yet, her legacy is, in the mind of many, cat suits and celebratory dances and debates about whether she's too bootylicious.
Unfortunately, Serena's status speaks to how the nation at large views women athletes. No matter the feats accomplished, no matter the quality of the play, the female professionals can't get half the love men receive. That was evident in the Women's World Cup, where they played on turf and split a pot that could fit in FIFA's bribe suitcase of choice.
Unless a female athlete fits the cookie-cutter vision of beauty celebrated in this country, and is willing to milk it, she will be fighting for just desserts.
Serena has the added burden of being African-American -- playing a sport known for petite princesses in pretty skirts -- so that's two strikes.
To be sure, Serena can't cry poor. She doesn't know the plight of women soccer studs and basketball stars. Women's tennis is a lucrative sport for the elite players, and Serena has made quite a bit of money.
But whereas Serena's dough comes from winning, Sharapova had double the endorsement money in 2014, per Forbes. That's right, Sharapova couldn't beat Serena if Venus gave her the cheat codes, but Sharapova's $22 million bounty in endorsements and sponsorships dwarfed Serena's $11 million.
Here is the odd part: Serena is the American dream. She came from humble beginnings. She worked on her craft to become great. She plays the right way. She steers clear of drugs and jail.
She is on her second stint of dominance, much like Jordan.
Serena was a child prodigy -- at 17, she won the U.S. Open by beating a hitters row: Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martinez, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis, all Grand Slam winners -- who maximized her potential.
She has overcome injury, critics who questioned her passion for the game, by resurrecting her career. Now, at age 33 -- which makes her a senior citizen in tennis -- the only player who can beat Serena is Serena.
And whereas the United States hasn't produced a men's world No. 1 since Andy Roddick over 10 years ago, Serena routinely represents American exceptionalism by dominating on a global scale.
She should be a national jewel. Does she have some quirks? Absolutely. But what great doesn't? We usually like our superstars with texture.
If collectively we can get past the gaudiness of her muscles. If critics can just relax on the occasions her cultural tendencies violate the status quo (such as when she did a hood dance to celebrate her Olympic gold). If we can focus more on her immense talent and the way she competes.
Then Serena will find her way to the pedestal she deserves.
©2015 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)
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