By Peter Bodo, Tennis.com
You know we'll probably be in for a rough ride in 2012 with Serena Williams when, in her first post-match press conference of the New Year, she declares: "I don't love tennis today" and then adds, ". . . I've never actually liked sports."
It kind of makes you want to ask, Like, Wow.. . . Maybe you shoulda thought of that a little sooner—like 20 years ago?"
But seriously -- the more appropriate response would be to open the dictionary to the letter "P," find the word, "professional," and point it out.
Then tell Serena that the unwritten part of the definition is the mandate to continue doing whatever it is you're good at, and to do it at an extremely high level, even though it can no longer be called "fun" and it's no longer something you "love" in the most romantic, infatuated sense of the word. In that regard, being a professional is a lot like being happily married; love is no longer a feeling, it's an action.
And a professional's great reward is not the thrill you may feel when you're, say, in love. It's that glow of satisfaction you get from having done something well, and right, despite the hazards, starting with the temptation to just mail it in.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not calling Serena out on this. I don't see her as being ungrateful, haughty, or even contemptuous of tennis. What I see her as, mostly, is . . .unaware. That was the great lesson Andre Agassi learned in 1999, and it laid the foundation for the man he became after he retired in 2006. Agassi's was a mid-career transformation, or Epiphany. And it enabled him to re-write his auto-biography long before he took pen to paper to write it down between the covers of "Open."
Serena no longer has that kind of time, and -- truth be told -- she doesn't have quite the same demons to rassle with, nor the personality to cover up for her transgressions. She has 13 Grand Slam titles, which is five more than Agassi. But it's also nine fewer than her Open-era rival Steffi Graf and five fewer than the collection of Martina Navratilova.
Serena fans, fully cognizant of her "no woman is safe, any time, anywhere" reputation, are confident that she can add to her take. But the things she's saying, and her seeming disinterest in basically sucking it up and winning majors simply for the sake of making the most of the single conspicuous talent God gave her, is discouraging.
This is bad news for tennis fans, especially in the talent-starved USA.
I also think it's bad news for Serena, in the sense that letting any opportunity slip by is always a mistake. Does anyone seriously doubt that these are the best days of Serena's life, not least because she still has the greatest gift of all—her youth? Sometimes, I wish somebody would just grab and shake her and say, Serena. . .This is your life, make the most of it while you can because there is no "there" over there on the far side. . .
It would be a shame if Serena spent the waning days of that youth, and her strength, and her ability to make the most of that thing called a specific talent, wishing or wondering if she might have done something different with her life. Asserting that, after all, pro tennis isn't all it's cracked up to be. You know what? Nobody wants to hear that. That's fact No. 1.
We don't always have all the information we could use when we have to make our choices, or our choices are made for us. But backtracking is almost never an option. Most tennis players, even the more rebellious or deluded ones, figure that out.
The WTA is choc-a-bloc with hungry young professionals who still love what they do, and a number who have figured out that it isn't just about "love," at least not beyond a certain point. Serena was beaten by one of them at the last U.S. Open. She well find many more of them in her path in the months to come.
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