Serena Williams has become so synonymous with dominance that it can be hard not to take her for granted, her power so obvious that it can be strangely hard to see.
She is called a force of nature, or considered superhuman, or accorded the divine right of queens. I have done this myself; I have talked about her as if she were a Greek goddess.
On Saturday, when she faced Angelique Kerber in the womena��s final at Wimbledon, I was tempted to do it again. It was a riveting match, a contest of contrasting styles. Kerber has become one of the few players who can take Williamsa��s shots and turn on them. In the Australian Open final, in January, Kerber had beaten Williams by using her speed to reach balls that would have been winners against other players, and her superior strength to redirect Williamsa��s pace and angles. In the Wimbledon final, Kerber played another brilliant match, bending backhands around the net post, hitting flat, reactive shots that skimmed the tape of the net, and minimizing her errors. (She finished with only nine for the match.) She challenged Williams throughout a�� but only once did she test her. At 3a��3 in the second set, Kerber earned her first break point of the match. With a relaxed motion and gentle toss, Williams struck an ace out wide.
On the next point, Williams began with an identical movement and hit the toss in an identical spot a�� but this time her serve sped down the T, another ace. Kerber swung her arms in an exaggerated shrug of frustration. Up the advantage, Williams controlled the next point, pulling the lefty Kerber out wide to her forehand, repeatedly putting the ball behind her, and then changing directions with a backhand down the line. Kerber couldna��t dig it out. From there, the match was more or less over a�� and the result had never really been in doubt.
Williamsa��s 7a��5, 6a��3 victory earned her her twenty-second major title, tying her with Steffi Graf for most in the Open era. It is her ninth Grand Slam since she turned thirty, nearly five years ago. Lately, though, I have been thinking of her losses, and how we shortchange her in forgetting them.
There is nothing routine about winning a major, after all a�� nothing automatic about an ace. As Carl Bialik wrote on FiveThirtyEight, a�?She earned it, and it was never guaranteed.a�? As Williams herself put it, she is not just lucky. What is most incredible about that incredible serve of hers is not its flawless technique, or its weight or speed or spin. Ita��s that shea��s more likely to hit an ace on significant points. It gets better when shea��s down.
What she has done has not come easy. And it is all the harder, and more extraordinary, because she is required to bear the weight of so much hope and hate, the weight of so much history.
On the morning of Andy Murraya��s final against Milos Raonic, the cover of the Observer read, a�?Weather Terrible, Sterling Tumbling, Politics Dismal, Euro Flops (Not Wales), Brexit Coming, Recession Loominga�? a�� and then, in giant letters, a�?ANDY PLEASE CHEER US UP.a�?
Murray is a curious kind of cheerleader for the Englisha��irascible and anti-A�litist, scruffy and Scottish. Off the court, he has at times resisted the position that winning thrust him into, wary of a ravenous media and aware that he and his family would never quite be accepted in tennisa��s lingering culture of snobbery (nor did they want to be). On the court, he has at times gone to pieces.
But he is a marvellous tennis player, unquestionably the second best in the world right now and arguably one of the best in history. Without the overshadowing presence of Novak Djokovic a�� or Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal in the final a�� it was all the more apparent. His play throughout the tournament was steady and often spectacular; against Raonic, a twenty-five-year-old Canadian, on Sunday, it was nearly flawless.
Only three weeks ago, Raonic had raced to a set and a break lead over Murray in the final at the Queena��s Club before crumbling, and, after his five-set win over Federer in the semifinals, it seemed as if the next generation might have finally arrived. (No player born in the nineties has yet to win a major.) But Murray, who turned twenty-nine in May, showed how far the distance still is.
He used his quickness to turn first-strike drives into rallies, sending up deep, high defensive lobs to prolong points.
He exploited Raonica��s weaker backhand with his own wicked one. And, when Raonic came to the net, Murray hit vicious, dipping passing shots. Most significantly, he had little trouble with Raonica��s powerful, unreadable serve, which had, until then, carried the Canadian through the tournament. On one point, Raonic hit a one-hundred-and-forty-seven-mile-per-hour serve into Murraya��s bodya��and lost the point. Murray not only managed to block the ball back but, with a compact swing, hit through it for a solid return. When Raonic charged the net, Murray hit a sharply angled cross-court passing shot to win the point.
After his 6a��4, 7a��6 (3), 7a��6 (2) win, Murray broke down in tears, and for several minutes the sobbing wouldna��t stop. It was, he would say, a far happier moment than his original Wimbledon win, in 2013, when he felt first the relief of so much pressure. No British man had won Wimbledon for seventy-seven years. But he knows that he will never be able to escape the position that the public has put him in, the stage on which he must live. Cheer us up.
Yesterday, he did. Murray will be remembered first for his tennis. But his greater legacy may be what he has done with his platform, his willingness to speak out on social issues, especially womena��s rightsa��working with a female coach, supporting equal pay, calling himself a feminist. Sports may be an escape from politics, but there is an inescapable political dimension to sports, too.
It was impossible to avoid thinking of politics at times during Wimbledon. Not during a tournament taking place outside London, just weeks after the U.K.a��s vote to leave the European Union. Not when Murray acknowledged the presence of the departing Prime Minister, David Cameron, during his on-court interview after the matcha��a mention that elicited the crowda��s boos. Not when Williams tweeted about the shooting of Philando Castile and was asked about the shootings in Dallas, nor when she spoke up about respect for women in sport and society. And not when the finalists included a Canadian born in Yugoslavia whose parents had fled during the Balkan conflicts.
After the womena��s final, the BBC played a montage of Williams reading Maya Angeloua��s poem a�?Still I Risea�?: a�?Out of the huts of historya��s shame / I rise / Up from a past thata��s rooted in pain / I rise . . .a�? She never asked for this, not for the pain or hate or chance to redeem history. But, at this Wimbledon, she has owned not only her greatness but her role as a transcendent figure in society. Still, she rises. She generates her own context. I thought of that at the end of her match, as she and Kerber lingered at the net in a long, tight hug.
The picturea��an African-American and a blond German of Polish descent, their arms intertwineda��stayed with me. There was nothing political meant by that embrace, of course. It was a gesture of admiration, affection, and respect.
It was no more a political act than an ace. And yet there was something powerful to it. We sometimes project our problems onto sports. But sports can also be, in some small but real ways, where we start to work them out.