A plus-sized heart
Almost an afterthought from the start, Serena Williams wasn't supposed to be much of a threat at the Australian Open. Bonnie DeSimone writes how, in spite of the so-called pundits, Williams proved she was more than fit enough to win her eighth career Grand Slam.
The deeper Serena Williams drilled into the Australian Open draw, the more one particular rock 'n' roll lyric seemed to apply.
Go out yonder, peace in the valley
Come downtown, have to rumble in the alley
Oh, you don't know the shape I'm in
It's unlikely that Williams' musical tastes stretch back to that rollicking number by Robbie Robertson and the group simply known as The Band. It's pretty certain she'd appreciate the sentiments, though.
Williams showed up in Melbourne ready to rumble, but she was discounted from the start, due almost entirely to the shape people thought she was in. Some observers used vaguely scolding euphemisms about form and fitness. Some flatly described her as overweight.
From there, people made assumptions. Serena couldn't be serious, showing up like that after last season, when she'd played so sparingly. Her extra poundage added up to lack of discipline and commitment. She's been on the fence for awhile now, the rationale went, and we're tired of the same old, same old! Fish or cut bait! Play or stay away!
Of course, whatever number Williams would have hit at an imaginary weigh-in before the tournament turned out to be as relevant as No. 81, her ranking going in.
It's no real wonder that people felt free to fire away at Serena's appearance, interpreting her silhouette like a fortuneteller parsing tea leaves. Celebrity weight has become everybody's business. The topic is a communal dart board in modern culture, and female celebrities take most of the shots.
Tabloids vigilantly report on suspected anorexics. Stars such as Oprah Winfrey have invited us along on their slim-down journeys. Kirstie Alley ballooned unapologetically to 200 pounds, then nailed down an endorsement with a weight-loss company and created a self-deprecating television show called "Fat Actress."
There's a difference. Actresses make their living off their body image. Athletes make their living off their bodies. All other things being equal, there's no question that the fittest players give themselves a better chance to win on any given day.
Yet trying to read Williams' body was as risky and imprecise as trying to read her mind. It was also presumptuous, since no one on the outside really knew what she'd been doing in the gym or at the table, and it completely discounted whatever internal work she did to get mentally and emotionally ready to invest in a whole season of tennis.
After annihilating Maria Sharapova in the final, Williams addressed those topics with a small group of reporters. Their entire conversation is posted at Peter Bodo's TENNIS.com blog. She laid it all out -- her "desperate" need for a break from tennis last year, her "Rocky"-style hard workout after the loss to 56th-ranked Sybille Bammer in Hobart, her reborn motivation.
When USA Today's Doug Robson asked the question: "Are you in better shape than people give you credit for?'' Williams showed a refreshing ability to walk away from the time-old "mirror, mirror" obsession.
"You know, it just looks like I'm not fit," she said, after candidly and hilariously dissecting various attributes of her hourglass shape. "I don't care if I didn't eat for two years, I still wouldn't be a size 2. No matter how slim I am, I'm always going to have this and that. We're living in a [Mary]-Kate Olsen world. I'm just not that way, I'm bootylicious, so to say."
Sometimes the body betrays the mind, and a supremely fit player blows a match. Sometimes, as more than one rapidly backpedaling writer or commentator observed during the Aussie fortnight, a player "plays herself into form" over the course of a tournament. Sometimes the mind leads the body.
The suspicion here is the bashing Williams took going into the Aussie Open was less about her actual shape than about the self-righteous irritation brewing in her audience over the last two years. Her desire would have been questioned even if she'd shown up newly svelte. Tennis fans and analysts were fatigued by her apparent ambivalence toward the sport. Her figure was simply more evidence for the already weary and skeptical.
As they say in court, that evidence was inadmissible. Those who wanted Serena to commit or quit -- satisfied now?
Williams freely admitted she was rusty and owned up when her play was uneven. But you'd be hard-pressed to find shots or points or games where her fitness alone -- as opposed to her lack of recent competition -- undermined her. Her serve stayed true. Absorbing her high-octane shots visibly wore down her opponents. She got off the baseline and got to balls. When she dug holes, she scrambled out of them. Each of these occurrences was treated as a minor miracle by the match announcers until they piled up to the point where it was obvious they were the rule and not the exception in her game.
She went into every match as an underdog because the people making weighty arguments against her refused to retreat from their original position. This held true even into the final, where Williams went up against one of the fittest players on the women's tour, a universally acclaimed tennis workaholic, and blew her off the court.
There's a bit of a lesson here. Before Williams took the court for the final, James Blake, speaking to reporters on a conference call to promote the upcoming SAP Open in San Jose, encapsulated it neatly.
"One of the most frustrating things for me to ever hear is people telling me what I feel like or what I look like I'm feeling," Blake said. "My coach, Brian [Barker], can attest to it. He knows now after many years not to tell me what I feel, but to ask me.
"To hear people say that I look this way, you can tell from something I'm doing on the court how I'm feeling, what I should be doing, it's very frustrating. I don't know if Serena deals with it better or worse than I do. She's clearly not listening to any of it."
An interesting thing happened along Serena's travels during the last two weeks. She joined the ranks of champions who might be better loved because they suddenly seemed vulnerable. Williams was vulnerable because she clearly cared, fiercely, again, and had something at stake. In the process, she exposed herself to possible disappointment and became a sympathetic figure -- even before she nearly broke down during her victory speech as she paid tribute to her late, tragically lost half sister.
Pete Sampras underwent a similar transformation in his final U.S. Open campaign, but in his case, retirement loomed. Williams said she's ready to embark on a new beginning, that her best days are ahead of her. Who could argue with her right now, given the audible beat of that plus-sized heart?
Before the tournament began, a creative poster on Bodo's blog came up with a list of amusing anagrams of players' names -- rearranged letters that all seemed to hold nuggets of their personalities. Serena Williams' was A RENEWAL IS SLIM. It seemed ironic and apt at the time. Over the course of the Australian Open, the Scrabble tiles shifted into another alignment: A LASER SMILE WIN.
Out of nine lives, I spent seven
Now how in the world do you get to heaven?
Oh, you don't know the shape I'm in
We have a better idea now, Serena.
Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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