- Joel Drucker
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It was already known that Serena Williams was not going to play the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of a Williams title run marred by controversy and confusion.
But after Williams' announcement that her absence from tennis is the result of something even more troubling than the foot injury that's kept her out since Wimbledon, it's a good time for a deeper look at what's lacking in a tournament when she's not on the grounds.
Williams has become the preeminent women's athlete of the 21st century -- not just by racking up more major tennis titles, but also by generating the rare kind of crossover headlines that can make a tennis player not just an athlete, but a cultural icon.
Evidence for this comes from the skill Williams wields not just with her racket but with her mouth, be it descriptions of herself as "booty-licious," or feeling "violated" after a loss or waxing on family, Jehovah and all the attendant goodies of life in the fast lane. If her inability to credit opponents in the wake of defeat can infuriate, Williams' visceral charisma certainly compels.
At a time when contemporary players frequently make nice with one another, her agenda is entirely different, less about diplomacy and more about the advancement of a sensibility that makes tennis players such supreme avatars of individualism -- run for glory or simply ego run amok. "I'm not a tennis player," Williams once said. "I'm a superstar."
Of course she is. Williams at a tournament is a magnet -- for cameras, reporters, fans. Her words, her wardrobe and her family always draw attention. Though it's uncertain if some of her decisions are random and uncertain -- what was the idea behind the infamous cat suit? -- she is unquestionably willing to speak her mind regardless of implication. In the wake of the infamous foot-fault incident in the semifinals of the '09 U.S. Open, Williams wiggled out of accountability with all the manipulative, demagogical skills of a politician.
But talk and walk pale to what Williams brings inside the lines. Here is where she shines most with her own brand of precision and persistence. In 2008, she regained the world No. 1 ranking after a five-year exile. In '09 and '10, she snapped up four Grand Slam titles, demonstrating her prowess in a variety of ways. At the '09 and '10 Australian Opens, she once again proved what makes her a supreme tennis escape artist, rallying from significant deficits in the quarterfinals both years -- and doing so not just with scrappy counterpunching but with bold, emphatic offense.
Every tennis player is taught the value of playing aggressively when under pressure. To execute that axiom, particularly at the highest levels of the game, is a tall order. Throughout her career, she has done so repeatedly. It starts with her serve, quite likely the greatest delivery in the history of women's tennis. The motion is deliberate, simple and while apparently bold, when executed as well into as many corners as frequently as Williams has, it's hard to call it high-risk. Ditto for her service returns, where so often Williams will add pace, depth and accuracy on big points. Her run to the Wimbledon title last year was more of a romp, grass-court tennis' emphasis on first-strike tennis -- even on slower lawns -- thoroughly rewarding Williams' appetite for offense.
Without Williams, women's tennis today is a sport mostly won with disciplined defense -- fine movement, solid counterpunching, minimal flash. This is simply the way players have built their skills. Right now, it's a sport of four-cylinder cars, with Kim Clijsters a superb six-cylinder, which handle well, have good mileage and are mechanically sound. But Williams is a hearty eight-cylinder vehicle. In the manner of Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, her artillery upped the ante, compelling other contenders -- Jennifer Capriati, Justine Henin, Maria Sharapova and even Clijsters -- to beef up their arsenals. In Williams' absence, the highway is indeed still filled with speedy autos, but it's unquestionably less engaging.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.