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02 Feb 2007 10:10
There is nothing that reduces me to a howling baby more than an unlikely sporting triumph—Kelly Holmes staring at the screen unsure that she has won her first Olympic gold before yelping with joy; Manchester City coming from 2-0 down to beat Gillingham at Wembley; Alex Higgins bringing wife and baby on stage after winning the world snooker championship—any of these makes me want to blub.
Serena Williams provided those of us that way inclined with another all-time weepy classic last weekend.
By the end of the Australian Open I was such a quivering, snot-gobbling, lumpy-throated wreck that I had to leave the room.
Serena triumphed over everything—the odds (she had fallen to 81st in the world), the sceptics (who said her power game was passé), her lack of match fitness (it was only her sixth tournament in 16 months) and tragedy.
I have always loved the Williams sisters, particularly Serena.
Venus was great, but Serena was the greatest. She had won six Grand Slams by the time she was 22.
Everything about her was larger than life—the self-belief, the backhand, the muscles, the smile, the serve, the personality. She was imperious in victory; did not conceive of the possibility of defeat.
Her father hoped that his girls would burn like supernovas then retire by the time they were 24 because, he said, he did not want a couple of “gum-chewing illiterates for daughters”.
Cartoonists would have been hard pressed to create Serena. First there was the body—all bosom, bottom and muscle. In her skin-tight faux leather body-suit she gave Lara Croft a run for her money. (The great kinkster cartoonist Robert Crumb told me that she was his ideal woman; his idea of heaven was to be given a piggy-back by Serena.)
But she was a fantasy figure in more ways—she played like no other woman had done—with brute strength. She made us believe that one day soon women would take on men in power sports and give them a good tonking.
But it was not to be. And her fall proved just as dramatic as her rise. When I read last year that she had fallen to 106th I thought it was an old-fashioned typo. She was given such a hard time by the tennis world—much harder than, say, Martina Hingis, who retired and returned, or Kim Clijsters who is about to say her farewells at 24.
There was a widespread, and at times patronising, belief that she had betrayed her gift—how could a girl from the Los Angeles ghettos (or so said the myth-makers), blessed beyond blessedness, so disrespect her gift? How dare she dedicate so much time to fripperies like fashion, acting and living?
What people forgot was that she had been playing tennis all her life, that the opportunities her sporting fame brought her had a short shelf life, that she had been badly injured and, perhaps most important, she has been grieving since 2003 when her much-loved sister Yetunde was murdered. In terms of tragedy, three years is no time at all.
In the early rounds of the Australian Open, the unseeded Serena, now 25, was playing (just about) from memory. She was slow and overweight. She had to regularly slap her thighs and swear at herself for motivation. But somehow she clung on until she reached the final where Maria Sharapova was due to wipe the floor with her.
But by then Serena was transformed. Over a fortnight she had not simply rebuilt her game, she had rebuilt her body. She was lithe, fast, subtle and brutal. There is no greater sight in tennis than Serena going to work.
She glared at the ball, her bottom swinging like a metronome as she waited to receive serve, her muscles bright as her earrings. She licked her lips, pounced and bullied the ball into impossible corners. She simply annihilated Sharapova.
At the end Serena was in ecstasies. She rolled on her back, legs kicking in the air like a puppy. She bowed and blew kisses, mouthed “Oh my God!” and whooped and whooped and whooped again.
And then she made the shortest, most poignant speech you will ever hear. “I would like to dedicate this win to my sister, who’s not here. Her name is Yetunde. I just love her so much ... So thanks, Tunde,” she said, before breaking down. She was not the only one. Welcome back Serena.—Â
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