As I write this, we’re days away from Christmas, and for those of you who observe, remember when this holiday was your obsession? Now, it’s probably grown up stuff like Star Wars and football and your cell phone. Anyway, for the holidays, I’m heading up and down the Atlantic, starting with a train ride from Boston to Maine. Pray for snow! (What’s that, Giants got Cueto?)
In his “Sportsperson of the Year” cover story, S. L. Price offers a bevy of stats on why Serena Williams deserves the honor.
Williams, 34, won three major titles, went 53–3 and provided at least one new measure of her tyrannical three-year reign at No. 1. For six weeks this summer—and for the first time in the 40-year history of the WTA rankings—Williams amassed twice as many ranking points as the world No. 2; at one point that gap grew larger than the one between No. 2 and No. 1,000. Williams’s 21 career Grand Slam singles titles are just one short of Steffi Graf’s Open-era record.
But Price declines to wax on Serena’s supremacy over her fellow WTA tour members. He devotes little space analyzing her iconic serve, though marvels at her ability to advance in the French Open while fighting a 100-degree fever. The essay’s not driven by Serena’s invincibility, a foregone conclusion of 2015 until the first week of September. It’s not obsessed with her “physical strength” or “mental toughness.”
This is Serena, and she has suffered. This is Serena, and she has loved.
In 2001, a 19-year-old Serena beats Kim Clijsters in the Indian Wells semi-finals against a cacophony of racial slurs and boos. Her father and coach says he heard the n-word. Neither she nor her tennis-star sister, Venus, return to the Tennis Garden. Until this year.
“As a family we were all hurt,” Serena’s older sister, Isha Williams tells Sports Illustrated. “It stayed with us a long time. Our parents have always been very clear about who we are in terms of the country, but to have evidence of that? It was a disillusionment, the end of any innocence that we had about the world we lived in.”
The collective pain of the Williams family lingers for more than a decade. Price suggests that some family members still avoid going there. Why risk the shame? Why risk the ostracism? So when Serena decides that she wants reconciliation, when she cannot ignore the tenants of her Jehovah Witness’ faith any longer, she must first negotiate her decision with her loved ones.
(Earlier this year, I wrote about a woman whose pregnant sister and brother-in-law were shot to death for the hell of it by a suburban teenager. Years after she told the world she had forgiven the killer, she decided to contact him and reconcile. Their ensuing relationship includes 15 jail visits in less than three years. In considering the Williams family, I remember the woman's pause when I asked how her decision to forgive her sister’s murderer had impacted her relationship with her other sister and mother. She asked that we change the subject.)
So when Price tells us that Serena initially approaches her parents and her sisters about her decision to play at Indian Wells, I imagine her desire to honor their grievance against her conviction to forgive. How do you reconcile with the outside party without catalyzing unintended familial consequences? How do you share your resolution without shaming someone for not sharing yours?
“I wouldn’t have gone back,” Serena’s mother, Oracene Price, tells SI. “Not because I didn’t forgive them—because of my own integrity. If they didn’t think I deserve to be there? Then I don’t need to be there.”
But in February, Serena writes that her mother taught her to “love and forgive freely.”
“I play for the love of the game,” she says, in the final draft of an essay that caused her to break down crying when she tries to read it to her father. “And it is with that love in mind, and a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness, that I will proudly return to Indian Wells in 2015.”
At age 22, Serena loses her older sister Yetunde. Yetunde is a mother of three children, a registered nurse, the owner of a beauty salon, a personal assistant to the tennis prodigies, and now, suddenly, slumped in a car seat next to her boyfriend. There were five sisters and now there are four.
Twelve years later, Serena’s friend, Sheryl Sandberg, loses her husband in a freak exercising accident.
“Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not,” writes Sheryl on Facebook on the thirtieth day after her husband Dave’s death. “When people say to me, ‘You and your children will find happiness again,’ my heart tells me, ‘Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again.’ Those who have said, ‘You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good’ comfort me more because they know and speak the truth.”
So Serena speaks to Sheryl from her own wound.
“I just kept getting these messages from Serena, every couple of days—for months,” Sheryl says. “Texts, messages, voice mails. She would write, ‘You have all my strength’ or ‘You are the strongest woman I know. You will get through this.’”
When it’s not on a screen, Serena is lying on the bed with two little children who do not have their father anymore. She is telling them, in Sheryl’s words, “incredible stories about her life and about trying and the times it was hard—and what she wants for them.”
Later, 56,000 people favorite an Instagram post about Jackie Baila Pete Williams, Serena’s late dog.
“Today really is hard for me,” Serena writes from her Instagram. “My special friend in which I got at 17 (2 weeks before I won my very first Grand Slam) left me today…I got out of the shower this afternoon and she was not there to lick my leg as she always did every day to remind me how much she loved me. I feel so lucky to have such a special friend.”
In the most accomplished year of her career, Serena renegotiates her relationship with weakness and vulnerability. It is only six months after her “Serena Slam,” but she talks about Indian Wells.
“Everyone always asked, ‘What was your greatest moment in tennis?’ and I always said it hasn’t happened. But I think it has happened now.”
Stick to sports.
Uproxx Trumpified all 30 NFL logos. Here is one idea for Washington's football team.
Delay of game.
Foxboro bros. Here’s a Patriot ready to Make America Great Again. Tom Brady is loyal to his poll-leading homeboy, Donald Trump. (We’ve known this for some time.) Wondering how Brady responded when asked to elaborate on how far his “support” for his friends in “everything they do” goes? He deflated—um, ended—the press conference, walking out before getting to defla—ugh, sorry, I mean *clear* the air about their friendship. Brady sure knows how to #StickToSports when he needs to.
Since the only people more hostile to brown people than Donald Trump are Trump fans leaving a Red Sox game, we're not terribly surprised.
No, seriously, stick to sports. Rick Brattin, a Republican lawmaker in Missouri’s state legislature, has a solution for those pesky athletes speaking their minds about racial injustice on campus. Brattin’s idea: revoke the scholarships of any athlete that misses a game for non-injury reasons. It’s not clear if Brattin’s proposal is legally viable, but he’s entirely clear about the identity he’s targeting. See former Mizzou safety Ian Simon: “They want to call us student athletes. But they keep us out of the student part of it. I’m more than just a football player.”
Hopefully he’ll back off the free expression of student athletes and move to more noble pursuits. Or, maybe he'll try banning seafood from food stamp purchases.
Opening the baseball borders. Decades after the advent of baseball free agency, Mexican ballplayers can finally determine the terms of their playing career. Under the old system, teams blacklisted Mexican ballplayers who signed to play in the US before signing with the Liga Mexicana de Beisbol (LMB). Another catch: Mexican ballplayers weren’t even playing for the teams they signed with. Instead, most got contracts with the LMB as teenagers before their clubs sold them to MLB, taking a cut of the money in the process. As of last month, this system is over. “Teams make more selling players than they do from ticket sales,” reports Vice. According to attorney Alejandro Aguerrebere, "It's like baseball slavery in Mexico.”
In the hate of the moment. Yup, Sacramento Kings point guard Rajon Rondo definitely outed a gay referee during a December 3 game against Boston. He’s also not really sorry about the slur that led to led to a one-game suspension from the NBA. Rondo’s initial response:
We’re not joking. Check out the tweets his PR rep didn't tell him to delete:
Preventing Pistorius. After walking 12 months after entering prison on a manslaughter conviction, South African double-amputee Oscar Pistorius was found guilty of murder earlier this month. In The New York Times, Yale World Fellow Sisonke Msimang discusses the initiatives South African activists are taking to educate children and communities about domestic violence. Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius's shocking murder of his girlfriend, Msimang maintains, should remind us that domestic violence is not a pathology intrinsic to the poor and black. (You can also see past F&F issues for help on that one.)