The celebration of the United States’ victory in the Women’s World Cup is right and understandable. The triumph exploded like fireworks, perfectly timed to light up the long Fourth of July weekend and leave us partying like it’s 1999 over the Americans’ first ultimate soccer championship in 16 years.
Small-town Jersey girl Carli Lloyd grand marshals the joy after her three goals propelled Team USA convincingly past Japan on Sunday evening.
Then, on Monday, as the accolades continued to pour in for Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and the rest of those newly minted champions, the real standard-bearer for the best in American women’s sports quietly went back to work.
Her name is Serena Williams.
She was becoming a phenomenon just before the time we were celebrating that previous World Cup win in ’99, and she has never stopped. In fact, Serena —we’ll proudly claim her as ours since she lives in Palm Beach Gardens and calls Key Biscayne her home tournament — is better and more dominant than ever, right now. At age 33, with Wimbledon her current stage, she continues to dominate tennis and power inexorably closer to being considered its greatest practitioner ever.
Consider the current athletes who are the greatest at what they do, any sport, worldwide (LeBron James, Lionel Messi …), and you had better include Serena on that short, most elite list.
Tiger Woods was there, once. He burst into our national consciousness in the late ’90s, too. But he couldn’t sustain it. Tiger last won a golf major in 2008. Serena has won 11 tennis majors just since then, and is working on the 12th at the All-England Club, where she dispatched older sister Venus on Monday to reach the quarterfinals.
Think about it. We rightly celebrate U.S. women’s soccer for reaching the top, but that’s a sport, like the Olympics, in which our heroes flare across the sky for two weeks once every four years and then largely disappear.
The top has been Serena’s address, consistently, throughout her career. We have watched her grow, from teen to woman, and from precocious potential to greatness fulfilled. Few still with us have served longer or better on our nation’s sports timeline. Serena won her first professional match in 1997, the same year the Spurs drafted Tim Duncan.
We’re great at saving our thanks for later, with retrospectives upon an athlete’s retirement, with applause at the Hall of Fame induction. With eulogies.
Appeciate an athlete like Serena now, because she is living history. We may never see another like her.
She is world No. 1-ranked, seemingly without peer, and we assume her in the finals of every tournament she plays, especially the biggest ones. We naturally take for granted her greatness, as if she’ll always be here, much as we are aware that sunrises and sunsets are beautiful things but rarely stop to actually see and appreciate them.
Serena has won 20 Grand Slam tournaments overall now, with only Margaret Court’s 24 and Steffi Graf’s 22 still ahead of her.
Serena has won the most majors in the 2000s and in the 2010s, the first time one woman has led in consecutive decades since Helen Wills Moody in the 1920s and ’30s.
Serena has won the past three majors in a row, and the last time anyone won four straight (which she could accomplish this week) was Serena herself in 2002-03.
She is three more match wins from her third major this season and favored to win all four Grand Slams in ’15, something no women has done in a calendar year since Graf in 1988.
We wait (and wait, and wait) for someone to take the torch from Serena and lead American tennis, men or women, but the burden continues to fall on one woman, and continues to be borne by her with such power and grace.
Jennifer Capriati in 2002 was the last American female not a Williams sister to win a major. No American man has won a Grand Slam tourney since ’03.
Scan across all U.S. women’s sports — golf, the WNBA, colleges, the Olympics — and find no current female athlete has been as good for as long as Serena Williams.
This takes nothing from what the Americans just did in soccer. That was uplifting. The Wheaties box and the champions’ White House visit with President Obama surely are coming and will be exceptionally deserved.
The very top of U.S. women’s sports hasn’t changed, though.
There is only one Miss America.
Her name is still Serena.