For a few years now I’ve resisted the impulse to declare Serena Williams the greatest female tennis player of all time.
While admitting my generational bias in favor of Martina Navratilova, I’ve also wanted to refrain from the in-the-moment rush to make such a pronouncement, if only to myself.
The emotional sweep of watching history as it happens overtakes almost all sports fans, and just about every sports journalist. We root for greatness, for a lifetime body of work that stands above the competition.
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also In This Issue: Brent Musburger Retires; Super Bowl Retools; As Stan Mikita Fades Away; A Historical Reprieve for the Astrodome
Since the Open era of professional tennis began in the late 1960s, there’s been a GOAT debate, and lately it’s attached to numbers as much, if not more, than impact.
When Williams won her record 23rd Grand Slam title and 7th Australian Open championship Saturday over her sister and chief rival, Venus Williams, those who’ve long proclaimed Serena the queen had reason to amplify their assertions.
Initially I wanted to trot out my usual “not so fast” default response, but this time I couldn’t. It wasn’t really the record number of Slams, as impressive as they are, or the fact that Serena once again had to topple her sister in what’s always an emotional battle.
And it hasn’t been Serena’s deeply complex and fascinating life and struggles away from tennis, as she recounted in her 2009 memoir, “My Life: Queen of the Court” (with Daniel Paisner).
What’s making me change my mind is the ambition, burning desire and sheer longevity of Serena Williams, who at 35 is as strong as ever. In a time when so many tennis pros, males and females, fade out in their early 20s, the Williams sisters, along with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, this year’s Aussie Open men’s finalists, have maintained a Golden Era for the sport that’s as good any any other epoch.
It’s also come as my interest in tennis has been flagging. I realize that my long-held preference for Navratilova’s legacy has been usurped by younger fans who pledge their allegiance to Steffi Graf, winner of 22 Slams.
For me, the Navratilova-Evert rivalry is one of the best in all of sports history, and it kindled a passion in the burgeoning field of women’s sports that gave me opportunities as a writer.
Navratilova changed the way women played the game at a very critical time.
Just a few years after the Open era began, and as Billie Jean King’s wildcat Women’s Tennis Association was beginning to bear financial fruit, Navratilova introduced power, serve-and-volley aggressiveness and fitness to the women’s game in ways it hadn’t been previously seen.
The Williams sisters have transformed the game in their own way, and in even more astonishing fashion, and have reeled in a global generation of young fans across the cultural divide.
Their physical prowess is unmistakeable, and yes, the equipment is far superior to the days of wooden rackets and baseline play. But their many years of enduring and thriving on the tour, fueled by a fierce intelligence, and in an age when the money they make could have tempted them to leave far sooner, is exemplary.
So is their outspokenness on social and racial issues and in advocating for equal pay for female athletes, even when at times I thought they were histrionic and off the mark.
As Jon Wertheim noted about Serena, her majors have come across 18 years and six presidential terms. I wonder what her first meeting with the new incumbent might be like.
A Few Good Reads
- The National Hockey League on Friday unveiled its its “100 best” all-time greats as part of its 100th anniversary celebration during All-Star weekend in Los Angeles. Some of them offered their ideas for changing the game;
- One of those included on the Top 100 wasn’t able to participate. Chicago Blackhawks great Stan Mikita, who helped pave the way for European players in the NHL, is now 76 and suffering from dementia. While family members are happy to talk about his iconic career and legacy, they’re also fiercely protecting his privacy;
- Meet Alex Mack, the Atlanta Falcons’ All-Pro center, and how his addition from the downtrodden Browns has helped steady the offensive line protecting Matt Ryan. Mack’s one of several banged-up Falcons, including standout wide receiver Julio Jones, who was held out of practice this week as they prepare for Super Bowl LI;
- How cool is this? Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank is paying for every team employee—nearly 500— to attend the Super Bowl in person;
- The Patriots’ defense the high-flying Falcons will face in Houston will be the best they’ve faced all season, and it’s a revamped unit emblematic of how Bill Belichick has kept New England at the top of the NFL for years. The key matchup may well be how cornerback Malcolm Butler fares against Jones, whom Butler has long wanted to face. My rooting interests are strongly with the Falcons, so I hope Butler gets the Julio Jones who torched the Green Bay secondary last week;
- Here’s a workable lineup of players you may not have realized won Super Bowls—from QB Bernie Kosar to Matt Millen to Priest Holmes;
- The 1912 Low Countries derby between Belgium and Holland helped spawn European soccer journalism, especially in sports dailies that were popular reads during World War I and continue today on the continent;
- At the World Rugby Museum blog, here’s the latest in a series of posts about the sport’s greatest upsets, this time Wales v. New Zealand in 1905;
- The Houston Astrodome has been sitting empty for more than a decade, and this week the Texas Historical Commission designated the “Eighth Wonder in the World” a state antiquities landmark. That means the state will have a major say in its future, instead of local Harris County officials, who have wanted to approve a $105 million commercial redevelopment for the site;
- Bob Klapisch gives a big yawn, as many American sportswriters do every couple years, to the World Baseball Classic;
- From the Aussie Rules site The Arc, an advanced stats look at the best and worst teams in the AFL era, and the “winner” surprised those doing the compiling. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I believe I hear some Magpies fans crowing.
Sports Book News
- It’s been 50 years since the Boston Red Sox revived baseball hopes in New England by reaching the World Series. “The Impossible Dream 1967 Red Sox: The Birth of Red Sox Nation,” has just been published by Summer Games Books. The author is Herb Crehan, proprietor of Boston Baseball History, with a foreword by Jim Lonborg, the Red Sox’ Cy Young winner from that season, which ignited the modern-day mania over a team that finally ended its 86-year curse in 2004;
- Michael Leahy’s “The Last Innocents,” about the Los Angeles Dodgers and the cultural clashes of the 1960s, has been named recipient of the 2017 CASEY Award for best baseball book by Spitball: The Literary Magazine.
Sports Media News
- Brent Musburger will call his final sporting event for ESPN on Tuesday, a college basketball game between Kentucky and Georgia, after announcing his retirement this week at the age of 77. After a half-century in sports television, he’s starting a sports betting venture in Las Vegas. Bill Bender wonders who the sport’s next generation of prime announcers will be, and if they can ever live up to his Holy Trinity of Musburger, the recently retired Verne Lundquist and Keith Jackson, who made an ESPN booth appearance at the Rose Bowl;
- After a 30-year run on Sunday mornings, ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters” is being cancelled. As ESPN shifts toward programming for younger viewers, the journalists’ roundtable show still featured aging Baby Boomers—Mike Lupica, Mitch Albom, Bob Ryan, etc. As much as anything, however, the hosts made “The Sports Reporters” what it became, notably Dick Schaap and John Saunders, who died unexpectedly last year. The last show is May 7, and here’s the official spin from the Worldwide Leader;
- Jeff Gluck, a veteran NASCAR reporter, is giving up a full-time gig at USA Today for family reasons, and is asking readers to help fund his new independent site devoted to stock-car racing.
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 71, published Jan. 29, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website, which is updated every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Please Note: There will not be a newsletter for the next two weeks, as I will be away tending to family matters. The Digest will return on Sunday, Feb. 19.
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