News & Politics

Haber Down Under: Why Serena Williams Lost That Loving Feeling

The tennis star’s admission that she dislikes her profession is driven by ego, disconnection—and honesty.

“I’ve never liked sports,” said Serena Williams in Brisbane recently. Photograph by Flickr user James Boyes.

Serena Williams doesn’t like her job. Well, take a number. The line forms over there.

The former number-one player in the world made her frank declaration two weeks ago at the season-opening tournament in Brisbane. “I don’t love tennis today, but I’m here,” she said. “I’ve never liked sports and could never understand how I became an athlete.”

Her statement smacks of resentment—resentment toward a sport that has simultaneously consumed her life and provided her untold riches and comfort. She has a gift, but according to this recent proclamation, it’s a gift that has been foisted upon her without her consent. Hard to imagine Yo-Yo Ma resents the cello, but Williams resents tennis.

Williams arrived here in Melbourne last week in pursuit of her 14th Grand Slam title and her sixth crown at the Australian Open. She played her fourth-round match Monday against lightly regarded Ekaterina Makarova of Russia, and looked precisely like someone who would have rather been somewhere else. Williams committed 37 unforced errors and seven double faults, and lost the match 6–2, 6–3. Not much to love about those 79 minutes of tennis.

In a way, I admire the candor of Williams’s statements. As a reporter, I have spent countless nights at the bar commiserating with my colleagues about the rote, uninteresting answers athletes too often give during interviews. Williams gets points for actually saying something interesting. She gets added points for speaking the truth. But she loses all those points for the astounding lack of self-awareness she demonstrates in not understanding how her statements are perceived.

Tennis is hard. The travel is grueling, the training is a grind, and the players’ lifestyles are not always as glamorous as they sometimes appear. That said, it’s not exactly tarring roofs at Shawshank. Regardless of how hard her working life may seem to her, it doesn’t seem very hard to the average sports fan, and it doesn’t strike them that she has very much to dislike. Williams has made more than $34 million in prize money during her career, and lord knows how many multiples of that through endorsements and appearance fees—all of it paid, either directly or indirectly, by fans who buy tickets or sneakers or otherwise support the enrichment of her personal exchequer. Her proclamation that she doesn’t like the sport strikes me as a de facto dismissal of all the fans who do like it. As in: How can you enjoy watching me do this if I don’t enjoy doing it myself?

Chris Chase of Yahoo! Sports puts it an interesting way. He calls Williams’s admission a “self-congratulatory declaration.” Chase says her implied message to the world is: “Just imagine what I could do if I cared.” I think he’s on to something.

Williams has never been shy about expressing the diversity of her interests. From fashion to music to higher education, she is nothing if not well-rounded. Where tennis fits into that collection of interests is hard to say at this point. There is no doubt, however, that tennis is the engine that powers everything else in her life. Without tennis, her other pursuits would be less accessible. And she seems to know this. “I can’t live without it,” she confesses. “There’s a difference between not loving something and not being able to live without it.”

If Williams is going through an introspective period, I suppose it’s hard to fault her. The pulmonary embolism she suffered last year was said to be life-threatening. Her medical issues took her off the tour for nearly a full season and perhaps made her reevaluate her priorities. The thing is, brushes with mortality usually make people more appreciative of what they have, not less.

Williams is not the first athlete to have a complex relationship with the sport at which they excel. This very dilemma was one of the main themes of the autobiography Andre Agassi released a few years back. One could surmise that both players’ resentment of tennis stems from the manner in which they were earmarked for the sport since they were small children. In that respect, the public park in Compton where Richard Williams ran his daughters through their paces was very similar to the backyard cement court where Mike Agassi’s ball machine fired endless fuzzy yellow missiles at his son—even though in reality, the two places are light-years apart.

For all the prodigious gifts Williams possesses, she has shown signs that one of the things she lacks is a refined ability to see herself as the world sees her. How else can we explain her recalcitrance in the wake of the outbursts she let loose at her two most recent US Open appearances? In each case, she unleashed an unseemly tirade toward an official (the first of the two included a death threat) and refused after the fact to admit she had done wrong, let alone offer an apology. That reflects someone who is one (or more) of five things: proud, stubborn, defiant, imperceptive, or uncaring about what the public thinks of her. Some of those descriptors are benign; others are more sinister.

One thing Williams said is surely untrue: the part about not being able to live without tennis despite her dislike of it. She can live without it. And she will—sooner rather than later. With age comes the immutable ticking clock—and like with all alarm clocks, when the buzzer sounds, the dream ends. If Serena is so disenchanted with tennis, she could walk away from the game right now. Her financial future is secure, and her legacy as one of the greatest players in the game’s history is indisputable. She chooses to stay because of the glorious things tennis facilitates in her life. Fair enough. But our sympathy is not part of that bargain.