Perfectly imperfect – Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and the US Open on the weekend

Perfectly imperfect

I maintain the view that there’s nothing in sport quite as engrossing as a great tennis singles match, although the recent Naomi Osaka/ Serena Williams US Open final sadly won’t be remembered as such, but more for the unravelling psychodrama that it was.

As we all know, Serena received a code violation on court coaching, which she denied and then, after becoming frustrated with her declining performance broke a racquet and was penalised a point. She then verbally attacked the umpire, and was ultimately penalised a whole game. The morality, as well as the technical rights and wrongs, of Serena’s unedifying display in New York have been picked apart by just about every observer of tennis and many who are not.

What should have been central to the story, but was largely overlooked in favour of Serena’s behaviour, was the emergence of an exciting and new talent, if not an outright star, of the game.  Naomi Osaka’s new-found presence at the pinnacle of tennis is a refreshing one.

New York City can do funny things to people, and there was no shortage of unusual goings on at this year’s US Open – I’m thinking of Nick Kyrgios being counselled by the umpire during a break and  Alize Cornet being penalised for changing her shirt on court for starters. Was it the late summer heat in the big apple that had frayed everyone’s emotions and judgement? The sight of the 20-year-old Osaka in tears at the presentation of the maiden Grand Slam title she had won in her own way and on her own terms was a humbling and, for me, a troubling one.

With its precise margins and unrelenting emotional demands, tennis asks more of its performers than any other game I can think of. Occasionally a player’s response to the pressures of the court can revert to the baselines of sporting behaviour.

I observed Serena Williams up close and in action back in 2007 when she played the WTA Tournament in Hobart, which serves as a vital and popular lead-up event to the Australian Open each January. An account of this forms part of the chapter on tennis in Around the Grounds.

That week Serena seemed a little disoriented by her surroundings, like a major stadium star playing a smaller venue (or like Mick Jagger finding himself on the stage of the Rooty Hill RSL). She did her best to appease local sensibilities by describing the (at the time) dilapidated centre court as ‘romantic’.

In the quarter finals of that tournament Serena played Sybil Bammer, an industrious and focussed tour player from Austria, who later that year achieved a career best ranking of 19. In other words, no slouch. Despite her enormous persona and reputation Serena Williams couldn’t break down her determined opponent that day and was defeated fair and square. Things then went a bit wrong for the visiting superstar. Her post-match response revealed the scale of self-belief that the owner of 23 Grand Slam titles possesses and it went something like ‘How come people like her [Bammer] only play that well against me?’ There was a small degree of logic in her comment but it’s fair to say her point wasn’t well received. Ironically given the content of some of Serena’s comments in New York, in 2007 Sybil Bammer later became the first mum to win a WTA event in 18 years, probably with a lot of dignity.

No matter how formidable the talent there has to come a time when the career trajectory of a top sports person starts to decline. When a great show business performer passes his or her prime there’s always the back catalogue of  hits to keep the fans happy. Sports stars don’t have the luxury of such a fallback. If the quality of the performance dips even by a small degree then the results will bear that out. Serena Williams turns 37 next week. Saturday’s loss to Osaka suggests her peak, as formidable as it was, might be behind her.

There is a French-made documentary currently screening about John McEnroe called In the Realm of Perfection. Now McEnroe was a player who combined sublime physical skill and talent with an unusually wired temperament. I also saw him described as ‘perfectly imperfect’ recently.

When things didn’t go the way he wanted or expected, McEnroe’s on-court antics were often astonishing and somehow seemed uglier as the years passed and his prowess waned. Despite his spectacular on-court misdemeanours or perhaps even because of them McEnroe is now a thoughtful, engaged and greatly admired observer of the game that he loves. It’ll be interesting to see how the passage of time will judge Serena Williams and what sort of ongoing presence she casts over the game and, indeed, the wider world of women’s sport.  Given her life and career so far, that presence is unlikely to be a minor one…

Photo:(AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

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