By Blair Henley
It’s been almost three months since Serena Williams last played a tennis match.
Since her victory at the Australian Open, she has visited Kenya to open a secondary school in her name, appeared on the Home Shopping Network to sell her Signature Line and even enrolled in courses to become a nail technician. Her interests outside of tennis have raised eyebrows regarding her dedication to the game, but perhaps her frequent layoffs, injury related or not, are actually what have enabled her reign atop the women’s tour for so long.
It’s easy to root for the grinder who eats, sleeps and breathes tennis. Society says that hard work pays off, and we love seeing proof. When Ana Ivanovic won the French Open in 2008, fans cheered her gritty style of play and analysts seemed to think there were big things in store for the marketable Serb. Her ranking now sits at No. 57 and she has not come close to replicating her Grand Slam success. The same could be said for Nicole Vaidisova, who went from the world top 10 in 2007 to the top 200 in 2010. She recently announced her retirement at the ripe old age of 20. Jelena Dokic is another young and promising baseliner who reached the top 5 in 2002 before slowly sliding out of the spotlight.
These are just a few examples of players who have clawed their way to the top only to have trouble staying there. On the other hand, Serena has proved herself against the best in the world for over ten years and doesn’t seem fazed by the pressure of heightened expectations that has knocked many would-be stars off their short-lived pedestals.
Despite her incredibly successful career, critics are quick to say that she has failed to make the most of her talent and athleticism. They wonder what she could achieve if she completely immersed herself in the game, but I’ve yet to hear anyone laud Serena’s unusual approach as a contributing factor in her unparalleled longevity in tennis’ modern era.
There’s no denying that tennis is a training intensive sport, and any top tour competitor has paid her dues. For some, however, tennis becomes all-consuming – and not in a good way. There is pressure to train constantly and play as many tour events as possible at the expense of a well-rounded existence.
Serena seems to shrug off what people think she should be doing and as a result comes into events with a rested body and a fresh outlook. If all her spare time were spent on the court and at the gym, perhaps her career would have fizzled a long time ago like so many of her peers.
Tennis fans were amazed at Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters’ recent comeback success, but their dominance was simply a result of a renewed perspective. The intermittent breaks from competition that we are used to seeing from Serena are, in a sense, mini retirements. Like Henin and Clijsters, she returns refreshed and hungry after having pursued other passions.
While it may not be in every player’s best interest to step away from the game to develop a new line of merchandise, I do think there is value in Serena’s approach. Taking time to remember that there is more to life than wins and losses on a tennis court could be a good thing.