We’re going to take a bit of a ride today. Just be forewarned.
1. The GOAT
Serena Williams played her final match this weekend, capping a career that’s so accomplished it’s hard to fully take its measure. This piece in the Athletic makes an attempt. Here’s the short version: At her best, she was the most dominant player ever. And her career longevity—23 majors over 23 years—is also the best ever.1
Ten years ago I thought there was an argument for Court or Graf being Greatest of All Time contenders. But not anymore. The case for Serena as the GOAT is open and shut.
And yet, my feelings about Serena have always been . . . complicated.
Sport is not just about winning. It’s about life and the human condition. You can be the GOAT and not be an especially appealing human being. You can be the GOAT and also be a cautionary tale, actually. Just get a load of this guy.
Jordan is the best ever. No debate. But also: Not a great human being?
People appreciate Jordan’s on-court accomplishments. But he isn’t revered the way Bill Russell was. Russell’s character taught us a lot about being our best selves. You would be exceptionally proud if your kid grew up to be Bill Russell. No one actually wants their kid to be like Mike.
Now Serena isn’t a monster like Jordan. But she also isn’t Russell. Two of the worst displays of character you’ll ever see in tennis came from Serena. And there were other, more pedestrian, incidents, too.
You can’t just flip past these moments.2 Half of tennis is about winning. The other half is how you handle losing. How you treat the other players. How you respect the game.
When we talk about this part of sports, we generally roll it all up into euphemisms about “grace” and “composure.” But what we’re really talking about is humanity: A life well-lived means managing both success and failure.
I mention all of this not to bag on Serena as she rides into the sunset, but to make a bigger case.
Should we judge Serena by her worst moments?