Monday, August 19, 2013

How Could I Root for Serena?

My wife Kerry and I came back from swimming with whale sharks this afternoon,* and as we rested I scanned the Filipino stations for any televised sports. We're exactly 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, so I've found myself stumbling across watchable games and matches at all hours of the day. For example, I have watched much of the Yankees' recent hot streak before breakfast each morning.

As it happened, today we caught the terrific last set of the final of the WTA Western & Southern Open, one of the warm-up tournaments for the U.S. Open. When we tuned in, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka -- the top two players in the world rankings, respectively -- were tied at one set apiece. I gave Kerry a brief overview of this not-too-important tournament, as well as explaining "which Williams sister" we were watching.

Williams and Azarenka had a number of mesmerizing volleys as they battled to a 6-6 draw in the third and final set. At the start of the tiebreaker, Kerry declared, "I'm rooting for Azarenka because she seems like the underdog." I normally would have completely agreed with her. I have never really liked Serena. Her apparent arrogance, her annoying parents, and her feuds with opponents always rubbed me the wrong way.

Except this time a funny thing happened. I found myself rooting for Serena. She hit a bunch of amazing shots in that last set, and I began to recall the hundreds of times I had watched her muster similar wonderful shots. Even though she is nearing the end of her career, Serena -- who turns 32 in September -- is still swinging her racket like the best player ever. She eventually lost to Azarenka, but I was still grateful to watch her unique, ferocious style of tennis. The defeat ended Serena's 14-match winning streak and dropped her 2013 record to a mere 60-4.

My dad used to talk about how he disliked Michael Jordan for the first half of MJ's career, because Jordan always destroyed our hometown Knicks. After a while, though, my dad -- and most other hoops fans -- couldn't help but cheer for His Airness. Today, I experienced the same thing with the transcendent Serena Williams.

In addition to Serena, there are several other legendary athletes currently performing at high levels in the twighlights of their careers. I have discussed the Great Mariano Rivera in this space before, and I don't need to recount my glowing feelings about him now. But Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Paul Pierce, and Martin Brodeur also are among the best ever at their crafts. Coincidentally, I disliked them for most of their careers. And I have learned to appreciate and root for each of them to some extent during the past few years. They're just too good to completely cheer against.

Who knows? Maybe I'll even root for the now-underdog Lakers next season...

Actually, scratch that; I could never cheer for Kobe.

*Fear not. A post on the whale sharks is forthcoming.

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