On Serena: Expectations vs Reality

We’ve seen this drama before. Last September 2015 and now in January 2016. We didn’t expect it, but perhaps we expected too much from Serena Williams. 

That’s reality. 

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She blinked.

She wilted under the Grand Slam final spotlight.

Perhaps most shocking of all was that she was being dictated to. The greatest women’s tennis player of all time was succumbing to the play of her opponent.

When January 1, 2016 began, we expected this to be a new, fresh start for Serena Williams. Her Australian Open start did not disappoint. Prior to Saturday, Williams had not dropped a set all tournament. It appeared that 2016 would start the same way 2015 did – with an Australian Open title.

Instead, it ended in the same way we saw 2015 end for Serena…with a loss.

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When I’m playing at my best, it is difficult to beat me. ~Serena

On this night, Williams was definitely not at her best. Part of that was due to Angelique Kerber’s nothing to lose attitude and part was Williams’ poor play. From the first serve game of Kerber, something felt off with Serena. She wasn’t as focused as in her previous matches. The footwork, the serve, the court coverage – nothing was as it had been. Unforced errors, inconsistent serving, questionable tactics – actions that Serena usually forces on others, not the other way around.

Serena was searching for answers to Kerber’s game and finding none. Nearly every angle Williams would hit, Kerber would do her one better. Normally a Serena staple, it was Kerber who came up with a critical ace or serve to keep Williams at bay.

Serena blinked   Google Docs

 

Angelique Kerber’s game didn’t overwhelm Serena. Not if you base it on stats alone. Stats won’t show how Kerber made Williams hit that extra ball, how she kept Serena from getting into any sort of rhythm like Williams is accustomed to. Kerber punished Serena’s hesitation with wicked cross-court winners and a strong return game.

Fans and broadcasters kept waiting for Williams to flip that switch, to raise her level like we’ve seen so many times before. It turned out to be a feeling…and a match…that was all too familiar.

 

Serena blinked 2   Google Docs

 

Then again, it’s all too easy to compare this loss to Williams’ U.S. Open loss. Two different opponents, same outcome. Yet, we expected something different. In her post-match press conference, Serena addressed that notion, “It’s interesting. I mean, every time I walk in this room, everyone expects me to win every single match, every single day of my life.”

We expected it in September when she was going for the calendar year slam. And, we expected it yesterday. Williams’ stellar play in this tournament and throughout her career has made us believe the unbelievable. When it comes to tennis, whatever she wants to do, whenever she wants, we believe she can do it.

It’s an unrealistic expectation.

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“As much as I would like to be a robot, I’m not and I try to,” Serena told reporters. A robot doesn’t blink. A robot doesn’t wilt under the spotlight. And yet, we still expected a robot-like performance from her on the way to another Grand Slam title. As one of the Williams is one of the me

Nothing short of perfection.

It’s a funny thing, perfection. Athletes, teams, coaches and organizations strive for it. They may say they don’t want it, but, in reality, perfection guarantees victory. Victory is success. There is no failure in sports perfection. Failure, however, teaches us to work on imperfections, be it individually or collectively. It shows us where we need to improve or adjust. The greatest of athletes recognize and embrace it. Failure is part of the process.

Yet, when it comes to sports, fans often cringe at failure. A favorite team or athlete has somehow become part of their very identity. Failure then becomes a reflection on them. Their team or athlete failed so they themselves are a failure. Fans sometimes lash out at their own team or an individual athlete in response. Fair or not, it’s become a natural reaction.

All because of perfect expectations in an imperfect reality.

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In defeat, Williams showed a grace and class that reflected the heart of a champion who has learned from failures. Congratulatory of Kerber, Williams seemed genuinely happy on court after the match. It was as if the weight of expectations was lifted off, even in defeat.

Some didn’t expect this side of Serena.

“I was really happy for her,” Serena said when questioned about her emotions after the match. “She’s been around a long time. I’ve beaten her a lot. She played so well today. She had an attitude today that a lot of people can learn from – just to always stay positive and to never give up.”

More tournaments lie ahead before the next Grand Slam in May in Paris (French Open). Will she finally get that elusive #22 and catch Steffi Graf for #2 on the list behind Margaret Court? Given her track record, there is no doubting she could. Williams knows how to make adjustments. Improvement is a continual part of her process. She’ll come back more focused and resilient than ever.

But, for one Saturday night in Melbourne in January 2016, she blinked.

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War On Football

Oh, war has shattered many young man’s dreams

Made him disabled, bitter and mean

Life is much too short and precious to spend fighting wars these days

War can’t give life it can only take it away, ooh

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War On Football

Edwin Starr’s song “War” came to my mind recently. Not because of an actual war or skirmish going on around the world, but rather this tweet:

War on football

ESPN’s Danny Kanell was commenting on this article about former Pittsburgh Steeler, Antwaan Randle-El. In it, Randle-El discussed his life after football and the regrets he has playing the sport he loves. He told the Pittsburgh Gazette’s J. Brady McCullough, “I ask my wife things over and over again, and she’s like, ‘I just told you that,’” Randle El said. By morning, Randle El added, he’s forgotten it.

Randle El’s story is not a new one. It also comes on the heels of the movie “Concussion”. Starring Will Smith, Concussion tells the story of renowned forensic pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu, and his quest to bring his findings of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which pits him against the mighty NFL, to light.

Some pegged the movie as another dent in the NFL’s armor.

Quite the contrary.

According to Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch, league ratings increased for nearly all networks this season versus 2014.

  • NBC: 22.5 million viewers (21.3M in 2014)
  • Fox: 20.75 million viewers (20.73M in 2014)
  • CBS: 19.1 million viewers (18.7M in 2014)
  • ESPN: 12.9 million viewers (13.68M in 2014)

Only ESPN saw a dip in ratings numbers. Given the chatter that occurred on Twitter this season during Monday night games, better games could have helped that cause.

The bottom line, however, is that despite negative publicity like “Concussion” or domestic violence by players, fans are watching like never before. Sponsors are buying ad-time like never before. 

Which brings us back to Kanell’s war on football comment. The NFL is the shepherd and fans are the sheep. They will follow the shepherd’s voice (watch games) no matter what. As long as fans are tuning in and kids are still playing, there is no war on football.

Yes, like the song says, it is shattering many young man’s dreams and making them disabled, bitter and mean. Despite that, football is still America’s sport. 

But, it would be ignorant to think that the negative publicity and medical research isn’t affecting today’s young parents. The parents of today’s toddlers will be the ones deciding the fate of NFL and college football. Will they let their current 2-5 year-olds play football? 

What former player stories or medical research will come out between now and then? Will there be more Concussion-type movies? Or stories like Mike Webster, Junior Seau or Antwaan Randle El? 

In its current state, as long as the money and fans are there, nothing ever will. Forever is a long time though. If there’s one thing I have learned in life is that no entity, not even the NFL, is immune from controversy forever. Controversy like we haven’t seen yet will come the NFL’s way.

Someday. Not today.

Until then,

Oh, war has shattered many young man's dreamsMade him disabled, bitter and mean (2)

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Will 2016 Be A Golden Year in Women’s Tennis ?

Let the majors begin! 

Tennis made people pay attention in 2015. The potential calendar-year Grand Slam run by Serena Williams overshadowed Novak Djokovic’s stellar year. Some would say that Djokovic had an even better year than Williams – his only Grand Slam loss was the French Open final to Stan Wawrinka. 

But, Djokovic doesn’t quite move the needle with casual American sports fans like Williams. 

Whether it is her competitive spirit or her backstory or her dominance, Williams captured our attention in 2015. No…on second thought, she demanded it. 

When Serena plays in a Grand Slam, people tune in to watch. The GS numbers for 2015 (via SportsMediaWatch.com) speak for themselves: 

  • Australian Open: Serena vs Maria Sharapova = 0.7 rating (+40% over ’13 and ’14 – both without Williams) 
  • French Open: Serena vs Lucie Safarova = 1.4 rating (vs 1.3 in ’13 – sans Williams; equal in ’14 with Williams)
  • Wimbledon: Serena vs Garbiñe Muguruza = 1.7 rating (+89% over ’14 and 31% in ’13 – both without Williams) 
  • U.S. Open: Italy’s Flavia Pennetta vs countrywoman Roberta Vinci = 1.1 rating during its first year on cable only (-62% from ’14 and -73% from ’13 when both were on CBS – both with Williams) 

For reference, the ratings for Serena’s U.S. Open quarterfinal match against her sister Venus drew a 3.7 rating. That equates to about 6 million viewers watching tennis on cable. 

Serena moves the tennis ratings needle. Her presence spans not only generations but race and culture. She had an incredible year – completing her second “Serena Slam” (four consecutive GS titles) and a near calendar year Grand Slam. 2015 also marked her return to Indian Wells after a 13-year hiatus.

Heading into 2016, the question will be can she duplicate or exceed her stunning 2015 season? 

Given that it’s Serena Williams, it’s hard to say no. Even at age 34, the #1 player in the world can still play at a high level. No one else on tour has the ability to raise their game to a higher level more often than Serena. The opportunity is there for an even greater 2016 with the Olympics this summer. A “Golden Slam”, which would equal Steffi Grab’s magical year of 1988, is possible. 

However, she is 35. She is coming off a layoff due to injury (knee inflammation). But, injuries are nothing new for Serena. She’s played through them before and will continue to do so. In a Q&A with the U.S. Open, her coach Patrick Mouratoglou said, “Even sick or injured, she can still find a way to win and proved it in 2015.”

Recommended Reading: Christopher Clary’s 2016 Tennis Wish List

Healthy or not, all eyes will be on Serena to start 2016. Another start to the year like she had in 2015 and people will take notice. But there are other names to watch…not just for the Australian but the rest of 2016 as well. I want to watch the names who may or may not be on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

And, they are names that this Hispanic female sports writer is paying attention to. Let’s be real here. Tennis is a predominantly white sport. I’ve watched tennis since the days of Evert, Navratilova, Connors, Ashe and more. When there are athletes who don’t fit the stereotype of what people expect of a tennis player to be, I pay attention. 

  • Sloane Stephens (USA) – just won the ASB Classic, an Aussie Open prep tournament. 
  • Garbiñe Muguruza (Spain) – breakout 2015 season with a Wimbledon final as her GS highlight
  • Madison Keys (USA) – continuously improving game; ready to take the next step. 
  • Heather Watson (United Kingdom) – almost slayed Serena at Wimbledon in 2015. New coach in 2016.
  • Monica Puig (Puerto Rico) – 2013 rising star could be ready to crack top 50. 
  • Vicky Duval (USA) – Young American returns after kicking cancer’s a$$.

While none of these ladies will match Serena’s 2015, they could make some waves in 2016. Stephens has shown flashes of the Sloane Stephens of old. She has the game to match Serena – see 2013 Australian Open – and the mentality to do it. Injuries will be key, as they always are in tennis. 

Will the mantle by passed in U.S. women’s tennis? Will another rise above the Williams torch? 

In this Olympics year, the only thing for certain is that we have a golden year of tennis ahead. It all begins and ends with Serena. 

She is the queen after all. 

Updated: Incorrectly indicated Serena’s age as 35. She is currently 34 years old. 1-18-16

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