Serena: The Princess and the Pea 16


You are the best ever. You lost because you were beaten by a better player on that day. That is what happens in sport. It is about today. Your rhythm was thrown off because of any extra day due to the rainout? Your opponent didn’t play the way your two prior opponents played? It was hard to play with the pressure of having to win the Grand Slam? You were tired from so many matches?

Are you Princess who cannot sleep because of a pea under the mattress?

As Roberta Vinci said in her post match interview after beating Serena, I am sorry.

I am sorry Serena but I need to write about you and disappointment I feel.

Before your Wimbledon victory I wrote that I thought that you might consider retiring. I projected that you were playing for the wrong reasons. You looked like you were in emotional pain when playing unless things were going your way. You were put out when your opponents challenged you, almost as if they were unworthy.

I told many that I doubted that you would win the Grand Slam. I projected my own feeling of focusing only on the win, the external one. I believe that the champion champions have a sense of more than just the title and that energy leads to performance that is otherworldly. To be focused only on the titles (and I know in your interviews you said you weren’t and that was a good story you were telling) drains competitive energy. It, in some cases, is able to defeat even the greatest.

There is no doubt in my mind that you are the greatest woman tennis player of the last 50+ years. You are truly a champion in your ability to dominate the sport. You belong in your own category.

But here is my disappointment. I want my heroes to be heroes. I want them to rise above the results that they gather. I want them to be “champion champions.”

You reminded me of Tiger Woods over the last few years. Seemingly unaware of the importance of a mission driven by a purpose greater than the win.

The last four games of the match against Vinci was painful to watch you acting as if she didn’t deserve to be hitting winners and drawing errors from you. You acted like you couldn’t believe that she could keep it together. You acted like a bully who, like many bullies, got scared when the person who was supposed to run away, fights back. She stole your power.

When Vinci kept it together to serve it out, in the greatest moment in her career, a person you have known in tennis for all of your years of playing, you were unable to find it within you to be truly congratulatory. Many times I have seen players who you defeated give you a genuine smile at the net. An appreciation for what you had done. But you couldn’t bring yourself to do it. I get it. You were really disappointed.

And you, in your defeat, could barely acknowledge the New York crowd who had pulled hard for you for two weeks. Barely a nod to the 20,000 who cheered your effort even in defeat. This crowd felt for you.

I thought about Nadal losing to Fognini earlier in the week. A devastating loss. Yet he thanked the crowd, he stopped and signed autographs. A champion champion.

I thought of Federer after losing to Novak in the Wimbledon final this year. Huge personal disappointment. At the presentation ceremony he was smiling. He carried the runner up trophy around Centre Court as a champion champion.

I wonder how you would have been if this were the final? Would you have been a champion champion?

When watching your press interview, I recalled post match press interviews of disappointed favorites who spoke of their opponents’ great efforts against them and how the match they lost was just that. A tennis match they lost. A champion champion’s perspective. You were just put out by questions that needed to be asked of you.

Many athletes say that they don’t need to be role models. They say they only feel responsible to themselves. That is fine. But, in my mind, they will never be a champion champion. Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Roger Clemens, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods. They acted as if they were special, owing nothing to the world that gave them opportunities of a lifetime.

So now, a better story for you from me, the storyteller:

I will study the greats of sports and find those who have risen above their extraordinary results. Those that have been loved for their attitude, not only in victory, but in defeat. I aspire to express to the fans who have helped me live a wonderful life as an athlete my gratitude. I will show appreciation over the next phase of my career. I aspire to be included amongst Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Davenport, Billie Jean, Magic, Peyton, Venus, Spieth, Ali and even Jack Nicklaus who, as fierce as he was, still was congratulatory in defeat. I will rise above my results to reach a level of humanness and become a champion champion.

The next phase of my career will be the one that will be my legacy.


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16 thoughts on “Serena: The Princess and the Pea

  • Ed Schroback

    WOW, JUST WOW Bob, i also told people that i felt Serena would not win the slam but my reason was because her luck of pulling out 3 set matches would run out..I was 10% right but you eloquently got the other 90%..Her attitude wasn’t right.The premature overly done screaming was bullylike and backfired against her…maybe it was too much for Serena..But i was hoping her coach/boyfriend could get her through..just for the good and popularity of tennis..But i underestimated our sport and it’s fans..Tennis came out even better. The fans cheered for Vinci and made me proud to be a tennis player..Vinci also showed it is possible to win a tennis match with slice and variety like her fellow Italian Schiavone winning the French..The story became Vinci . In the final the Italians showed us how to act and in my opinion a better story than Serena..

  • Eric Friedman

    Very well written. You captured what we all observed and how it made us feel. Serena claimed she felt no pressure about seeking the calendar year grand slam during all her interviews, but we all knew better. She should have acknowledged the pressure. It’s not a sign of weakness. Then she could have channelled her focus and energy on embracing the competition and enjoying the struggle that makes winning worthwhile.

  • Stacy McHugh

    AMEN! I couldn’t agree more. A good sport when she wins, a poor sport when she loses. Her athletic talent is admirable, her character is not. Kudos to Vinci for not letting that steal her thunder.

  • Sharon Moskowitz

    I waited patiently for your post and was not disappointed. You said it all and right on! Such depth and clarity! I think it makes you look even more the champion because of all the points you brought out. Honesty in my mind is always the forefront, because without it, one really just fools ones self into believing what they want. The lack of gracious sportsmanship shown by Serena was both sad and a disappointment to her supporters and the tennis public! it was not the fact that she lost, because she truly deserved to lose due to her poor quality of play that day, but it was because her opponent really played better and deserved to win!!!!

  • Mel Di Giacomo

    wonderful post.i had commented weeks ago Serena would not win.many reasons that i wish i had the time to list.i’m still editing what i shot.i’m pleased you pointed out how rafa and roger handled their losses.admittedly neither men were headed for a grand slam.sadly many young players don’t know the history of tennis.serena for me is all about serena.when she wins she applauds the crowd.when she looses she holds a 3 minute press conference.i would bet my Canons that serena has never watched any of margaret court’s matches.any of billie’s,stefai’s.ether. in my eyes they were Champions and if they played in the same era,serena would not be serena.martina at her best was better.the press needs serena since they know little about tennis.THE BEST EVER they cry.nonesense.i witnessed the aforementioned from the best seat in the house.i have been exceedingly lucky to have been where i sat and for as long as i have.i’ve seen True champions and some champions were emperors who wore not the clothes of a champion.take a lesson from your gracious sister and head the words of rudyard kipling,“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same…”

    please overlook any spelling errors.i did.

  • Ahamed Moideen

    Very well said Bob. I felt ashamed and embarrassed about her utterly unsportsmanlike like attitude. Screaming and yelling when your opponent commits an error? Give me a break. I am so happy you lost and please go away for good, because, Tennis is bigger than you. Flavia and Roberta showed New Yorkers and the world, how to behave like a role model, which you are not. You are a bully and we are sick and tired of you.

  • richard horsley

    Surprised,nore mention of the delightful,courageous effort of R Vinci than Serena—the WIN was better,deserving than the LOSS…….Great athletes ALL go thru periods of up’s and down’s in focus and motivation(Muhamed Ali,Tiger Woods,Serena Williams,Roger Federer…).

  • David Herman

    Bob,

    We met when I tried out for the 2013 Maccabiah Games (I won a Bronze in the 2009 Games) and I was very impressed by your thoughtfulness and understanding of the many levels of not only tennis but life itself. This is an excellent post that I have been feeling about Serena (and many others in sports and entertainment) for years. It’s not just Serena and it’s not just athletes. Unfortunately, most of the public can’t recognize the attributes of a champion champion…a standard that the rest of us ought to practice in our everyday lives. Most people only focus on the “score” not the process. The scores and titles are all important because they can be easily tracked and measured. It’s far harder to evaluate the champion champion qualities you mentioned. Hopefully coaches will take note and perhaps even sponsors who want their spokespeople to symbolize trust not just winning (the ads that featured Federer seem to focus on his character).

  • Irwin Shorr

    Bob — I just finished reading your incredibly insightful blog, your explanation of who Serena is, not how she plays tennis. Your words gave me a chill. I am a Bob Litwin fan, and Bob, as you so often do, you nailed this, you brought out what’s really important in the Serenas of this old world of ours — you spoke of her more than self-serving character, her personal goals that outweighed the legacy of her predecessors. For the longest time I was not a Serena fan — it’s hard to like someone who cusses out in the most vulgar language, which was televised, a little lineslady who called footfauls on Monster Serena; it’s hard to like someone who rarely if ever gives credit to an opponent — does anyone remember one of her post match interviews when she said that any of her opponents have to “…play the match of their lifetime” to beat her? What a pompous thing to say. When Serena beat Azarenka in the finals of a tournament, Azarenka said in her on-court interview immediately after the match “Serena showed us today why she is the number one player in the world” — what a humble thing to say after having Serena on the ropes of the finals of a WTA tournament. It’s hard to like someone who tells us that she is not nervous, that she is not thinking of the Grand Slam — baloney! It’s hard to like someone who really doesn’t care about anything except, well, Serena. I do give her some credit — I have seen her on more than one occasion applaud with her racket on court a good shot that an opponent will make, but to me, what’s overshadowing is what she really believes, what she really thinks about, which is, well, Serena and what is OWED to her. Two other players come to mind who have improved immensely and have been catapulted into the limelight because of their recent successes, but whose inner character just oozes with “ME” and “what the world owes THEM” — Donald Young and Sloane Stephens. Last year (2014) I saw Donald Young beat some of the world’s best tennis players in the Citi Open in Washington, DC, but when he finally lost, he came to net and barely touched his opponent’s hand while looking away. John McEnroe commented on this attitude thing of Young’s after a similar almost-handshake after a loss that he wished Donald “…would enjoy the moment more” and give his opponent his due credit. Sloane Stephens to me, also has an attitude — I think these players and Serena don’t have a chip on their shoulders, they have TWO chips on their shoulders! These people need to learn that the world does not revolve around them, that they are not OWED anything just because they exist. Again, Bob, right on with your insightful blog.

  • Neil Kearney

    Bob, what was a great post! I totally agree with the notion of a champions champion – and it would be nice if all of the best players had the attributes and actions that you mention. However, there are very few who can separate the absolute selfish focus it takes to be the best with the compassion and unselfish attitude it takes to be a champions champion. It is always disappointing when a pressure packed situation reveals a person who we don’t necessarily like or connect with. As you said it’s understandable, and it leads me to applaud those who have the total package even more. Next time you beat me I assure you that I will beat you to the net and mention you fondly in my post match comments. 🙂 Well done.

  • Sarah Dobbin Footh

    First, I don’t really understand the “champion champion.” Do you mean a “champion’s champion?” I’ve also never read your blog so maybe this was discussed previously..
    Anyway, I disagree with ALL the negative commentary on Serena Williams. I was rooting for her to the end, and felt badly for her, even after the press conference.
    She’s an entity unto herself, and I find the constant comparisons to other champions, how she “ought to behave” just tiresome. For one reason or another, we have the same lens through which we always judge top athletes. Serena needs to be seen through a different lens…her story is so unique (and I don’t even think we know half of it) that I DO perceive her differently than others. The woman was CONCEIVED to be a tennis champion, with not always the best emotional role models (her dad) and grew up on the “other side of the tracks” from most tennis clubs and players. It has always been clear to me that she is EXTREMELY fragile. I don’t think we know the half of what it’s like to be an African-American trying to succeed in the world of tennis, I certainly don’t but I keep trying to figure it out. Her sister Venus “plays the game” – excelling in a white sport – much better than Serena and from the get-go was just better equipped to manage it….it has always been a bumpy ride for Serena although she is the more physically gifted of the two. On the race issue also, I find it curious that it seems like 100% of black folks support her while sooo many white folks are such haters and say just awful, really awful things about her…I think over time it just becomes so exhausting for her and on all fronts she just hits a wall…that’s what happened at that match and in the press conference…she just couldn’t do it….but you know what…I think she did her best, I really do.
    I’m not so comfortable bringing up the race issue but it does sort of feel like the elephant in the room in a lot of conversations about her, whether we realize it or not. Thank you, just trying to add to the conversation<3

  • Anne Schwartz

    Bob,
    Thanks for writing what I, and many others, have been feeling. You said it perfectly! Unlike the commentators who felt they needed to apologize for Serena, and make excuses for her.
    -Anne

  • judy r. goldsmith

    Once again, your post captured the situation so articulately. And I usually read it as much as to apply it to myself and what I can learn, as I read it for the analysis of the situation itself. I am going through a very bad time with my back. I do not know whether this is permanent, or whether there is a way, including surgery, to solve the problem. Obviously, I am very uncomfortable, feel alienated from activity and involvement. Reading your post, I realize that within me is the ability to rise beyond this setback/failure; to find pleasure and meaning in my life as I live it now, and to be engaged, not to be withdrawn. That’s the challenge, therein lies the benefit. Thank you. Drawing this lesson from your post makes me feel lighter and engaged.