Elite athletes are blessed with an extra gear that sets them apart from others.
It’s how come Warren Spahn returned from World War II, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, to win 363 games, more than any left-hander in history. It’s how come Bill Russell overcame ugly racism to win 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons. It’s how come Tom Brady got to embrace the Super Bowl Trophy for the seventh time last month.
And it’s why it would be wrong to dismiss Serena Williams quite yet.
Williams is the greatest female athlete of her generation, owner of 23 Grand Slam tennis titles, one short of Margaret Court’s record. But she hasn’t won one since the 2017 Australian Open and after a difficult pregnancy, she has struggled in the sport’s biggest events. She has played in 11 Slams since giving birth, reaching the semifinals or finals in six of them but has not won any of them.
When she lost to Naomi Osaka at last month’s Aussie, beaten convincingly in the semifinals, there were observers who decided that at age 39 she was done.
Not so fast.
It’s true that Williams has dealt with a troubling string of injuries over the last three years. And yet, she came to Melbourne looking fit and she played strong, inspired tennis against younger opponents. Let others speculate about a pectoral injury, knee injuries and an Achilles injury. She played on through all the speed bumps.
The problem is that more and more, Williams is running into young women who grew up admiring her, emulating her, and beating her. That was the case with Osaka, who is now 4-0 in Grand Slam finals.
Even at her advanced tennis age, Williams has a drive that sets her apart. She does not surrender easily. In 77 career Grand Slam appearances, she has withdrawn mid-match only twice, both after the pregnancy was her toughest opponent.
So Serena soldiers on, somehow able to dig into a reservoir of talent and energy to compete with younger players who are determined to climb to the top of the tennis ladder that she occupied for so long. Her legs have logged a lot of mileage all over the tennis world but she is still able to hit rocket serves and then volley at an amazing level for someone her age.
Her calendar has May 23 circled. It is the start of the next Slam, the French Open. Paris is lovely at that time of year.