Different standards for Mac and Serena
I try to approach most things with an open mind. But these days we are so drunk with information it is virtually impossible not to be just a little judgmental. Still, I consciously tried to put any preconceived notions aside as I prepared to watch the woman who has made the most money in sports ply her trade on one of tennis' biggest stages.
She's American, of course, and hers is a compelling tale. It's the type of rags-to-riches yarn that Americans can never get enough of and makes her a marketers' dream. Her image should be omnipresent. After all, she has been carrying American tennis for the past 10 years. Andy Roddick was the last American man to win a grand slam at the 2003 US Open and since that time she has won seven to give her 13 for her career. Throw in 14 doubles titles and she has 27 grand slams. Her sister also has seven singles and 14 doubles titles giving the family a mind boggling 48 grand slam titles. There is no sister or brother combination in the history of American sports that has been anywhere near as prolific or successful . It's not even open for discussion. So why isn't Serena Williams on the cover of every Wheaties box?
Well, there is the matter of her occasionally petulant behaviour. Two years ago in the semi-finals of the US Open she was so incensed at being called for a foot fault she stormed towards the line judge and screamed: 'I swear to God, if I could I would shove this f***ing ball down your f***ing throat.' She was fined US$10,000 - later bumped all the way up to US$82,500 - and put on two years' probation. But even more damning and a somewhat recurring theme is Serena's unrepentant nature. Instead of apologising to the line judge, she issued a statement that 'everyone can see the passion I have for my job... and in the heat of a battle I let it get the better of me'.
Fair enough, but according to a market research company her 'N-Score', a scale that rates a player's likeability, went down significantly after the outburst. 'Serena's got incredible awareness but the positive appeal figures have never really been that high,' according to the vice-president of the Nielsen research group. 'She's always been a bit polarising, not as much of a fan favourite.'
Really? That's kind of odd. John McEnroe has made a ton of money in his post-tennis career by parodying his renowned petulance in TV commercials. In fact, when he plays in senior tournaments it's considered a disappointment if Mac doesn't go off at the umpires. He has become a loveable rogue and a 'fiery' competitor whose N-Score is climbing by the minute. Somehow, I don't see Serena being warmly embraced for her blow-ups, which are significantly fewer than McEnroe's, a few years down the road. And we can tip-toe around this issue forever, but the simple truth is that many feel the difference in the way they are treated is the colour of their skin. Ironically, McEnroe as an announcer is one of Serena's biggest backers.
Frankly, I am not entirely sure how much of Serena's 'polarising' effect is due to racism and that's why, as she prepared to play Australia's Samantha Stosur in the US Open final last weekend, I was trying to concentrate on Serena as a tennis player and nothing else and in that respect her greatness is undeniable. Granted, she has been blessed by a fairly weak field these past few years. Pat yourself on the back if you knew that Petra Kvitova is the reigning women's Wimbledon champion.
In contrast, look at the path Novak Djokovic took in winning this year's US Open. In the semis he had to beat Roger Federer, who is perhaps the greatest player of all time, and in the final his roadblock was Rafael Nadal, one of the top five players ever and he beat both in matches that were compelling and memorable displays of tennis at its highest level.
Serena hardly broke a sweat as she bullied her way to the final. The most powerful player in the history of women's tennis, she destroyed Caroline Wozniacki, who passes for the number one-ranked player in the world these days, in the semi-finals. While Stosur is also a very physical and powerful player, she was expected to be little more than a speed bump as Serena captured her 14th grand slam.
But Stosur played the most inspiring tennis of her career and effectively bullied the bully in rolling over Serena with ease in straight sets. Sadly though, that was not the story of the day. Serena snapped at the chair umpire over a verbal interference call on her and, well, you know the rest. She refused to shake the umpire's hand after the match and refused to apologise. Presumably, her N-Score dropped a couple hundred points as well. But one thing did not change; Serena Williams is still one of the greatest players ever. Just not on this day. At least that's what I saw, open mind and all.