The toughest twist yet in the saga of Serena

With a career record and longevity to rival that of Roger Federer and her formidable form both on and off the court, it is sometimes easy to forget that Serena Williams is only human.  And it’s sad that it can take a sudden, near-fatal event to put that into perspective.

Earlier this week, it was revealed that the younger Williams sister received emergency surgical treatment for a haematoma (a swelling containing blood) that resulted from a pulmonary embolism (essentially a blood clot in the lung).  It was reported that she was diagnosed and hospitalised following ongoing treatment on her foot, which she cut on glass shortly after winning Wimbledon last year, causing an injury that has kept her out of the game since.

As shocking as all of this is, perhaps the most surprising thing of all was when the 29-year-old subsequently announced that, while she “can’t make any promises… I hope to be back by early summer.”  It is highly unlikely that Serena will be able to come back from such a critical health condition in time for the French Open at the end of May, or even to defend her Wimbledon crown at the end of June.  But then, she has always set herself higher standards than other mere mortals.

Much ado has been made of the extraordinary rise of Serena and her older sister, Venus, to the top.  Raised in the notorious Compton neighbourhood of Los Angeles, coached on public courts and home-schooled by their unconventional father, Richard, and persevering to reach the top of the rankings – it truly is the best tennis story not (yet) made into a movie.

More still has been written about the prevailing cloud of controversy that follows Serena around the globe.  She is routinely criticised for her seeming devotion to other off-court pursuits: the fashion, the music videos, the guest appearances in US TV shows.  Not that it detracts from the serious nature of her tennis, which can often ignite her temper.  Her most recent major outburst came in her semi-final match with Kim Clijsters at the 2009 US Open.  After being called for a foot fault when serving to stay in the match, she infamously erupted at the line judge, allegedly threatening to kill her.  The incident put her out of the tournament but became a YouTube highlight the following day.

All of this makes Serena prime fodder for the press pack.  But what it also means – along with the mainstream sports media’s persistent apathy towards women’s tennis in general – is that her impeccable record can be overlooked.  With 13 Grand Slam titles under her belt, she is just three short of Federer (and, arguably, has a better chance of winning more).  She claimed the “Serena Slam” (holding all four Grand Slam titles at once) in 2003, before Federer or Nadal had even won one.  Add to that her 24 other singles titles as well as her impressive doubles record with Venus and it’s unfortunate that she is more frequently considered a celebrity controversy magnet than one of the greatest living players of all time.

After winning both the Australian Open and Wimbledon last year, it looked like Serena was set to dominate the women’s game all over again, so it is understandable that, after the frustration of her foot injury, she is keen to get back to the top as quickly as she can.  But a life threatening illness is different to an injury and it is crucial that she allows enough time to build up her stamina if she wants to see her name on another Slam trophy.  Back by early summer?  Sometimes, it seems, even Serena forgets she is only human.

Martin McGale

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