Serena Williams was bounced from the U.S. Open on Tuesday night, a surprising quarterfinal exit in the first Grand Slam event of the season. She was beaten by Sloane Stephens, a 19-year-old who is on the short list to be the next American star in women’s tennis.
Stephens was excellent and rightly is getting her due. But this was largely about Serena. It’s always about Serena. There has never seen anyone as athletic and powerful and ferocious as Serena; few women’s sports have. She is the female LeBron James, an impossible mix of size and strength. She is beast mode.
But even the most physically gifted are susceptible to mental malfunction.
Serena lost it Tuesday night. No, she didn’t scream at any line judges, but she smashed the crap out of a racquet and then kicked it just to make sure it was dead. She was frustrated. By the fact that a one-set lead was slipping away. By back spasms that struck atop an ankle tweak. By the fact that she and older sister, Venus, were knocked out of the doubles bracket a day earlier. And maybe by the storyline that she, an African American tennis player, was a mentor to Stephens, another African American tennis player when that’s reportedly not entirely true.
There she was, 31 years old, a millionaire maybe a hundred times over having a meltdown on live television. This is part of what makes her transcendent and somewhat relatable to, say, a stressed-out, sleep-deprived father of five.
Serena is a 31-year-old woman. She’s accomplished everything possible in her profession. Essentially, she has won tennis. Yet she keeps at it despite having other passions and semi-frequent injury issues, continuing to put this game above life (relationships, kids, etc.). She could not be great without being slightly cracked because great is not the norm. Average is the norm. Serena is not normal or average or calm. She can appear like an overgrown child from the ill-advised celebration dance this summer (apparently gang related) to threatening an official during a 2009 tournament.
Does this mean Stephens, by virtue of being mature beyond her years in a relatively small sample size, can’t be great? No. Rage is not mutually exclusive with greatness. (Think Peyton Manning.) But something has to be slightly off or obsessive in order to be the best in the world at anything. Perspective is – or at least can be – the enemy of excellence.
Still, it was a fantastic night for tennis: A known star, a rising star, American interests, physical specimens, a foreign land, primetime television, a close contest, an upset and, yes, smashed racquets. Twitter was all a twitter about it … or least there was some mention of the game on the popular social network. That’s better than nothing, especially for a sport that too often gets incorrectly labeled as boring.