In Awe of Rick Reilly*

*Awe isn’t always good.

Devoted readers of NPI,

I tried. I tried not to resort to basic article-bashing and name-calling. I tried to take the high ground and ignore glaring flaws in logic and basic ignorance of how sports work.

I tried, and I failed.

I didn’t want to have to go all Fire Joe Morgan on Rick Reilly’s “In awe of the Williams sisters” backpage column in the latest ESPN The Magazine. But that’s the thing in this business: Sometimes you’ve got to get dirty.

I hope you understand.

Your pal,

Tim

(Subhead) “It’s U.S. Open time, and the choice is obvious: Venus or Serena?”

Honestly, I’m not trying to be a dick, and it’s possible that Reilly didn’t write his article’s subhead. But I think this sentence forgets what the word “choice” means. Saying the “choice is obvious” and then posing a question is somewhat hypocritical. “It’s Election Day, and the choice is obvious: Obama or McCain?” As Reilly goes to lengths to show, the “choice” is really hard. The “choices” meanwhile are obvious.

I don’t think the rest of the article requires this level of grammatical attention.

What if I told you about two white brothers from a trailer park on the tattooed side of the tracks? Their father decides—against all logic—to teach them a rich man’s sport, golf, even though he’s a complete chop himself. They become great on the weedy public courses, turn pro and dominate the sport. Just wipe the Tour up. Golf harrumphs in disbelief.

“Harrumphs”? Does tennis “harrumph” at the Williams sisters?

Then the two brothers grow disinterested with golf and get into motorcycle building. They nearly stop playing altogether. Then they grow disinterested with being disinterested and decide, What the hell, let’s go thump again. So they crush all new saps, until it’s obvious nearly every major is going to be won by one or the other.

Preposterous?

I lied again. I was willing to let one improper use of “disinterested” instead of “uninterested” slide. Not three.

Well, change their color to black, their sex to female and their sport to tennis, and you have the Williams sisters, who now have 18 majors between them—11 for Serena and seven for Venus.

I mean, those last two changes are pretty significant. Female sports are FAR less popular than male sports. There’s a reason nobody has extolled Paul Westhead’s offense because it worked for the Phoenix Mercury.

And tennis and golf are not the same.

Eighteen! If this were golf, Serena would be tied with Walter Hagen for third, and Venus would be tied with Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead and others for seventh. From one family, one coach, one house in Compton.

Repeat: Tennis is not golf. If this were bowling, Serena would be David Ozio, and Venus would be Robert Smith.

I would expect Reilly, of all people, to be aware of differences between golf and other sports. Even though they are both individual sports, what it takes to win a major championship in golf and what it takes to win one in tennis—especially in women’s tennis—is completely different. That’s why Jack Nicklaus and his 18 majors are the gold standard in golf, and why Steffi Graf’s 24—that’s 33% more—leads women’s tennis. And even then, Graf’s record is far less revered, probably because, you know, tennis is not golf.

It’s the single most underplayed story in American sports in the past 25 years. Where’s their postage stamp?

Really? No, really? I mean, really? Really?

The Williams sisters are the ONLY story in any women’s tennis event. Come on, Rick, name me 10 other women’s tennis players. The main story heading into the U.S. Open was that the Williams sisters would meet in the semifinals instead of the finals. Absent were stories about the return of former No. 1 Kim Clijsters or young American Melanie Oudin or the attempted comebacks from injury by Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova or you know, the current No. 1, Dinara Safina.

The Williams sisters are not underplayed period. To call them the “single most underplayed story in American sports in the past 25 years” reveals an embarrassing ignorance of where American sports were 25 years ago. A lot of things have happened since 1984, and many of them are both more interesting and more underplayed than the emergence of the Williams sisters.

They’re not the most underplayed story in women’s tennis in the past five years: That would be the fact that Serbia, where tennis is recreationally played in empty indoor swimming pools, has boasted three top-three players in Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, and Novak Djokovic. (Other underplayed stories in women’s tennis of the last 25 years include that time when a fan of one player decided to stab that player’s chief rival on the court. But really, that’s not as big as sisters who are good.)

They’re not even the most underplayed story in American sports by people with the last name of Williams in the past 25 years. That’d be Doug.

And on the postage stamp, the U.S. Postal Service apologizes for not aligning Venus and Serena Williams with Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens, and Wilma Rudolph. That was really a scumbag move on their part.

Do you realize a Williams has six of the past 11 women’s majors? That they’ve outlasted not one generation of rivals but two? Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati. All gone.

This is actually a good point! Women’s tennis is defined by its transience: It is rare that players maintain dominance for as long a stretch as the Williams sisters have. BUT, a lot of this can be attributed to that break they took in the middle of the decade—something Reilly will broach himself. (Of course, “six of the past 11” doesn’t quite fit Reilly’s earlier “nearly every major” now, does it?)

There has never been a sibling combo like this in American sports history. Baseball’s DiMaggios, Waners, Alous? Not even close. Skiing’s Mahres? No way. Football’s Mannings? Please. One championship each?

Sorry, I have to point out that tennis is also not football, and that there is not a 1:1 correspondence between tennis grand slams and Super Bowl titles. Plus, two of the three Alou brothers led the National League in hits. It might not be equal, but it’s kinda close. And oh yeah, the Bryan brothers might be the best sibling duo going in tennis right now, considering the whole “Best Doubles Team” ever talk around them. But Rick wouldn’t want to compare the Williams sisters to other tennis players now, would he?

The Williams sisters are bigger than sports. Their achievements rank with any set of sisters in American history, along with the Stillwells—Revolutionary War heroines—and the Andrews sisters, the biggest American singing act in the 1940s. The only difference is the Williamses are in their second decade of greatness, going on a third.

The Grimké sisters await their apology.

And come on, Rick: Serena Williams cracked the top ten in 1999. If she’s about to enter her third decade of greatness, there’s a lot of 20-year-olds about to enter their fourth decade of life.

The problem is deciding which one you want to have win the next major. It’s no good just throwing your hands up and saying, “It’s going to be a Williams.” You have to pick one….

Reilly now goes on for seven paragraphs describing how the sisters are different, which seems to counter his whole “They’re historically significant because they’re sisters” argument from last paragraph.

Oh, and he never does pick one.

Go ahead. Take your time picking your Williams. Thanks to their dad’s brilliant long-term coaching strategy—and their desire to step back from tennis to study fashion and acting—their minds and legs are fresh. They’re not burned-out (Capriati, Hingis, Henin), and they’re not worn-out (Rafael Nadal). They plan on kicking booty through the 2012 Olympics and maybe, say they, clear through the 2016 Games.

Riiiiiight. We should really celebrate the fact that Venus and Serena decided tennis wasn’t for them for a few years. It’s so much more than a semantic difference between “disinterest” and “burned-out” (after all, it’s not like Capriati returned after her burnout or anything). Nadal’s a total jerk for continuing to play harder than anyone else on tour and being part of the sport’s best rivalry in at least three decades. That’s so irresponsible of him.

I’m sorry: It’s hard for me to glorify athletes who retire prematurely from their sports to become fashion designers and pose for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. But hey, Rick’s all about sabbaticals!

But if somebody doesn’t throw them a ticker-tape parade pretty soon, I’m running for Congress.

I’ll leave this to Abe Simpson: “This is the greatest country in the world. We’ve got a whole system set up to prevent people like you from ever becoming [Congressman].”

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