December 28, 2010
When she decides to devote herself to a tournament, Serena Williams has been perhaps the most daunting women's player of the Open Era. With extraordinary physical gifts and a keen mind for the sport matched - actually surpassed - by an utterly relentless competitive streak, she is a nearly unstoppable force at Grand Slam events. She and her sister Venus have been both the sole carriers of the United States tennis torch for the last ten years and the main attractions on the women's tour. Their value to the sport has been immeasurable.
Speaking of competitive grit and determination, no one athlete has personified those characteristics in modern sports more than Michael Jordan. In his career with the Chicago Bulls what separated him from his tormented rivals was an ability to raise his game at the most important moments, literally imposing his will on his opponents rendering them frustrated, heartbroken and breathless in his wake on most occasions. No need to go into a verbal highlight reel here - even those without any interest in sports are aware of the permanent, theatrical and electric images that Jordan has left behind as his legacy.
But unfortunately this weekend, in over a little more than a 24 hour period, both of these legends left permanent stains on their characters with bizarre and disrespectful conduct - one blatant, the other subtle - leaving a sobering and unpleasant aftertaste to what should have been enjoyable events.
Hall of Fame speeches are usually boring but amusing occasions. While not always exercises in moving prose, they often do carry plenty of emotional weight and are imbued with a significant degree of humility, passion and respect. So when Jordan took to the podium at the alternate site for the speeches (too many fans were expected so the Hall of Fame moved the ceremonies to a theater that could accompany the thousands of fans who showed up) most expected that the man considered to be the greatest of all time in his sport would follow protocol and thank his coaches, teammates - even adversaries - while stating how much he loves the sport.
To be fair, Jordan did offer up the usual niceties to friends, family and select coaches and teammates. But after the cursory politeness, Jordan launched into a vicious rant against all those who have slighted the sacred cow of athletes - from Jeff Van Gundy to former teammate Charles Oakley to his high school coach and teammates.
But was it really out of character for Jordan? I don't think so. After all, he's the first one I can recall to speak of "my supporting cast" when referring to his teammates ; he's the one who refused to aid Harvey Gant in his Senate race against the race baiting Jesse Helms in his native North Carolina; and most of all he's the one who had more influence on the increasing corporatization and commercialization - or should I say Nikeization - of sports, raising the cult of personality to new and dangerous heights. It's always been just about Mike.
So the disappointment for me lies in the fact that it was all too familiar. It's that he was just himself, that this moment that should have been a humbling one turned into another forum to lord his dominance over his rivals. Instead of being surprised by a show of tearful warmth, we got the utterances of a brilliant but bitter and angry athlete who left the impression that he has no enjoyment away from a competitive arena.
By now everyone has seen the embarrassing and downright ugly tirade that Serena Williams unleashed late Saturday night in her semifinal match against Kim Clijsters. After an admittedly ridiculous foot-fault call on a second serve as she was serving to remain in the match, Serena erupted and spewed more violent epithets that I've never before witnessed - by man or woman - in a match (Connors, McEnroe, Nastase included). It was obvious at the end of the first set that Serena was becoming unhinged when she smashed her racquet and was given a warning then.
Thankfully, the match was probably ending up with an inspiring Kim Clijsters win regardless. The mother of a two-year-old daughter's accomplishment of returning to championship form in her first few months after an extended departure from the sport is a marvel. Serena's tantrum should not be given more play if only out of respect to Clijsters.
If Serena plays it correctly - and she is quite intelligent and shrewd - she should deliver a sincere and complete apology on Monday before or after her doubles final. Serena is too important a player for her career to be defined by this repugnant moment. She can redeem herself.
Lest one be too crestfallen, it was not all that bad a weekend for icons though - Derek Jeter's obvious but restrained joy and acknowledgment of the magnitude of the moment upon surpassing Lou Gehrig's Yankee hit record served as a reminder that there are still special athletes out there whom one can believe in or at least root for.