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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Why I can’t watch Serena Williams play

I must confess I don’t actually enjoy watching Serena Williams play. All those whom I want badly to win (the Indian cricket team being the obvious other) and who often wobble on the cusp of victory I cannot bear to watch. I would rather be distracted while they finish proceedings in my absence so I can participate in the more pleasant business of the victory speeches.

During the last bits of battle, my tack is usually to switch stations and watch something else: a soothing cookery show or something about cars and bikes, till judgement is delivered on court. If it is a particularly tense (for me) time, meaning the heroine is going off script for an extended period, I switch off the set and leave the room altogether to go for a little stroll. Because I cannot resist going back to the action and if I do, I run the risk of chewing off my nails and my television set runs the risk of having things thrown at it.

Looking down the years, and I have watched (and “unwatched") Serena since the Williams sisters broke out in that magical Wimbledon of 2000, it becomes obvious to me that Serena is not quite the Indian cricket team. She delivers. When she makes it to a major final, her opponent has only a 20% chance of winning. This is remarkable in an era where the physical conditioning of athletes in rich sports is almost the same.

So I have denied myself the joy of watching my heroine conquer, but to me that is fine and I am warmed by her feats. To me she is one of the two greatest tennis players I have seen, the other being Steffi Graf, since tennis began to be shown in India 30 years ago. No male player comes close, and about that more later.

Let us turn to this thing about Serena’s Grand Slam. What does it mean? It is an informal title, there being no money or prize involved, “given" to someone who holds all four major tennis titles together. That is to say, the Australian Open, Wimbledon, French Open and US Open. Serena has already held all four titles at the same time (winning the latter three in 2002 and the Australia Open in January 2003), but this Grand Slam is about something else. It is about holding all four in the same calendar year.

It is akin to a hat-trick in cricket, not really a recognized feat. And yet a Grand Slam is a very big deal because it responds to something we humans so desperately crave in others: perfection.

Part of this has to do with the fact that each of these four tournaments must be played differently.

Of these, the most difficult to win is the French Open. The clay court is slow and the advantage of serves and returns is nullified in great measure. One must be dogged, fit and play well through the longer rallies. Some of the best players of our times have done poorly on clay. Pete Sampras, whom I loved watching, never won the French Open, nor did Boris Becker, and nor did John McEnroe (he also failed to win the Australian Open). Roger Federer, often spoken of, wrongly, as the game’s greatest player, has won the French Open only once and that also in a year when the great Rafael Nadal was knocked out by someone else.

Serena has won the French Open three times.

On Wimbledon’s grass, she has won six times and on the hard courts in Australia and the US, another six times each.

Her record shows (and my episodic watching of her validates this at the anecdotal level) that she has actually gotten better in her 30s: looking fit, sharp and focused on playing.

Her achievements show that as a player she is superior to Federer, but this is not acknowledged by many. Some Mint Lounge readers will be old enough to remember when women champions were paid less than men in tennis. Some very obviously sexist justifications were made (the last one being—“oh, they only have to play three sets so it’s less work") till it became so embarrassing to defend that things changed. What has not changed is the idea that the female athlete, even one with a superior record, is inferior to the male. Not so in my book.

I get no particular joy in watching Federer metronomically collect his Wimbledons (seven so far), and I do not have the orgasms his elegance seems to produce in sports writers. I find him boring.

I like the underdogs and, for very obvious reasons, the Williams sisters have my sympathy and my fierce support. They are not underdogs in the sense that they are weaker or lesser than the opponent, but they have always had to fight something more than their opponent. You will know what I mean and I don’t want to get into all that.

I cannot switch my support and this means it is difficult to watch Serena. I accept, as I have earlier, that the record shows this is paranoia and not based on fact or her quality.

I mistake her high displays of passion for a lack of control. I read much into a double fault here or a hands-on-hips there. I can see this clearly as I write, but when I watch, such logic is nowhere to be found and I begin to panic.

And so, as always, while I shall drop in to see how she is doing every so often, I am sorry, Serena, but if you are in the US Open finals today, I will not be watching. You will make me happy, as you have done so, so often over the years, if you win. But even if you don’t, to me you are already one of the greatest, and no longer in need of baubles to justify your greatness to others.

Aakar Patel is executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal.

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