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Saturday, January 22, 2022

Smith: Queens of the court

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When I was much younger, it was common to hear the following question when it came to sports stars: “Is he going to be the hero or the goat?” At the time, this distinction signaled the difference between athletes (nearly always male) who lifted their team to great heights — or succumbed to the pressure of the moment. (We use the very descriptive phrase “choking” to describe the latter.)

How times have changed. Today, every professional athlete wants to be considered the GOAT (greatest of all time). Understandably, that moniker is applied to the fewest of the few, the best of the best — or any number of other superlatives that sports enthusiasts employ. Is it LeBron or Michael? Is it Joe Louis or Muhammad Ali? Is it Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? (As a Colts fan, I have great disdain for Brady, but he’s the best quarterback ever.)

Serena is the GOAT. Indeed, she might be the GOAT of GOATS. (Of course, it isn’t necessary to add her last name; everyone knows the “Serena” to whom I am referring). She is, quite simply, the greatest female tennis player of all time. Indeed, in my view, Serena is the greatest tennis player ever, male or female. The fact that Serena — by her own admission — could not compete successfully against the best male players is irrelevant. Further, I would argue that, at her peak, the only person who legitimately defeated Serena Williams is … Serena Williams. (I think that, at times, she has gotten into her own head too much.)

Having recently watched “King Richard,” the Will Smith biopic that offers insight into Venus and Serena Williams’ childhood, I was freshly reminded that these two giants don’t get the respect that they deserve, all their incredible accolades notwithstanding. For example, Venus played — and nearly defeated — arguably the best women’s tennis player in the world when she was just 14 years old. Michael Jordan, who was famously cut from his high school basketball team, could never make a comparable boast. Similarly, Usain Bolt could not have competed against the fastest track athletes when he was 14. Were it not for her own sister, Venus Williams would legitimately be, as they say, “in the conversation” regarding the best female tennis player in history.

Further, if Serena Williams were a man, she would be the most beloved athlete of all time among African Americans. This is not merely due to the otherworldly nature of her athletic accomplishments; it is also due to the very worldly (and artificially erected) barriers that she has overcome. If she were a young man from Compton, California, who overcame poverty, who landed as many (or more) aces in the classroom as she has on the court, and who completely dominated a “white” sport, her likeness would be in every home, barbershop and graffiti-covered wall in Black America. (She would also likely be the wealthiest American athlete ever.)

In decades past, African Americans would frequently use the phrase, “When and where I enter, the race enters with me.” It was a nod to the fact that we were never really seen as individuals, especially when one of us did something that was worthy of scorn. Even as we have attained an increasing level of economic, social and political success, that notion remains only marginally less true in 2021 than it was in 1921. Serena and Venus Williams have set a standard of excellence — on and off the court — that has inspired millions of young women around the world. And at least one older dude in America.

Thank you, Williams sisters.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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