Less (Tennis) Can Be More: Why Serena Williams Is A Better Athletic Role Model Than Tiger Woods
Serena Williams has been criticized for a lack of dedication, but enters Wimbledon dominating her sport as few 30-somethings ever have. Meanwhile, ultra-focused Tiger Woods is a wreck. Who's the better model for obsessed sports parents?
Photo by Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports
Serena Williams made a silly, charming, wholly unnecessary tribute video recently, dancing to Beyonce's "7/11." She took the time to do a photo shoot for a Vogue cover. Just a few days ago, she was on stage with Taylor Swift at a concert in London. And it was hard to tell if Williams was just having fun, because on one hand she kept giggling, but on the other she admitted to being on a competitive dance team, too.
"Our dream is to perform on Ellen,'' she said.
Add it up, and life sometimes seems to be one distraction after another for Williams. And that's a problem. After all, this is the biggest time of the year for professional tennis players. Wimbledon starts today, followed by the summer hard court season and the U.S. Open. So here's some free advice for Williams: if you have any interest in making it in tennis, ixnay on the videos and photo shoots. Buckle down and commit.
Oh, and yes, that just might be the dumbest thing anyone has ever written.
A decade ago, however, it didn't seem that way. Not when Chris Evert wrote Williams a public letter in Tennis magazine in 2006, all but pleading with the world's top player: "I wonder whether 20 years from now, you may reflect on your career and regret not putting 100 percent of yourself into tennis.''
At the time, that was not an outrageous sentiment. Tennis fans knew Williams was great. They wanted her to be great all the time. Meanwhile, Williams didn't always appear to want the same. Only now, years later, that debate has been settled. And some of Evert's words merit a closer look.
Putting 100 percent of yourself into your tennis.
The 33-year-old Williams has won the past three majors, is ranked No. 1 and is arguably the greatest player of all time. (To me, she's No. 2 behind Steffi Graf, but closing fast). Williams has meant so many things over the years about strong women in sports, about diversity in tennis, about female body-image issues. But there is one other angle that goes overlooked, where the message of Williams' historic career doesn't seem to click with others, no matter how strongly—and repeatedly—she proves the point.
Williams always pushed for variety in her life, for activities and hobbies and an identity beyond the court, explaining to critics when she was younger that if she focused 100 percent on tennis all the time, she would burn out. Well, she is now in her mid-30s and still dominating: 32-1 this year, 4,421 points ahead of No. 2 Petra Kvitova in the WTA rankings, a winner of seven Grand Slam titles since turning 30—two more majors than Graf, Evert and Martina Navratilova won after age 30 combined.
Contrast that to Tiger Woods, who also has done plenty for sports, and meant many things to many people. Among those things? Woods changed sports parenting. All of us saw Earl Woods groom his son, essentially from birth, to be the world's best golfer. It worked. Woods won his first Masters in 1997, and on that day, too many would-be Earls took the wrong lesson. Freaky sports parenting became more common. Pushed by their Tiger Dads and Moms, our children became underage athletic specialists, little professionals. In the old days, little kids used to climb trees. Now, they work on their curveball or their sand wedge.
One sport, one skill, one motion, one thought.
I'm not sure any Tiger Parents have noticed this, or if they even realize anymore whose model they're still following, but the Tiger Woods model has failed. Woods has failed. His life is a mess. He seems sullen. Unhappy. His entire tabloid unraveling read like a classic case of rebellious acting out. At 39, he can't even play golf anymore, not with his overtaxed body constantly breaking down.
Meanwhile, Williams owns a sport typically owned by younger people, and is on stage with Taylor Swift, giggling and seemingly having the time of her life.
But no matter. Sports parents seem weirdly, perfectly content following the Tiger method. So physical therapy is a growth industry, thanks to kids coming down with repetitive motion injuries. And somehow, there's a belief that if you haven't committed your kid to one sport by the time he's six or have her on a travel team by age 8, then their athletic career is over.
At the North Carolina-Michigan State national championship basketball game in Detroit in 2009, I got on an elevator with a guy and his two young sons, one in a Michigan State jersey and one in a North Carolina jersey. The elevator stopped and Michael Jordan got on.
Really. He told the kid in the Michigan State jersey that he was rooting for the wrong team. Then he asked the kid in the North Carolina jersey if plays basketball. The kid said he did, but that he wasn't very good. He hadn't played long. Jordan asked how old he was and he said—I'm going on memory here—he was 10.
Jordan said that was fine, that he didn't start playing until he was 12.
The greatest player of all time didn't start playing until he was nearly a teenager, but if kids today aren't professionals before they lose their first baby tooth, then their future careers are already cooked?
Obsessed parents, take note: kids' bodies aren't built for one sport 12 months a year. They need balance. They need rest, too. Other things in their lives. And not just for their physical health. For mental and emotional well-being.
Look, I'm a dad, too, and when you see all these Tiger Dads and Moms pushing so hard, you have to decide whether to be an insane parent as well, just to keep up. Alternately, you can choose a fall back and let your kid try to find a healthy path. If you're competitive, that's tough.
Some Tiger Parents will go so far as to clear all "distractions" for their kids—who then don't learn how to problem-solve or deal with real-life issues on their own, who don't grow from taking in new experiences and tackling unexpected adversity, let alone grow up from the same.
Now, maybe Woods is just one case, and maybe he's extreme. Special. Thing is, Serena and her sister Venus are special cases, too. Their dad, Richard, certainly pushed them hard as juniors, but he didn't let them play on the pressure-cooker tournament circuit as little kids because he didn't think it was healthy for them.
Given the athletic results—and given her seemingly well-adjusted adult life—isn't Serena's path at least worth considering?
Honestly, I'm making a 180-degree turn on this from years ago. In some ways, I used to be one of Williams' critics. And I still think she a made a mistake in the past by appearing to intentionally lose so many early-round matches in non-major tournaments. Yes, that got her out of playing too many matches, but it wasn't professional or fair to paying fans.
Last year, up-and-comer Eugenie Bouchard lost in the Wimbledon final. Her game has fallen since, while her celebrity has grown. A London magazine recently labeled her the most marketable athlete in the world. Some people feel she has fallen in love with her own celebrity and forgotten about the hard work of tennis.
That sounds familiar.
Evert, now an ESPN analyst, said on a media teleconference the other day that Bouchard's problems are mental, but she also said this:
"Yeah, when I wrote that letter to Serena about distractions ... it's a sensitive area,'' Evert said. "Again, I think if she (Bouchard) has a desire to get her game back, she has to prioritize and set aside the covers of magazines right now. It think she's got to prioritize and really hunker down and just work on her game with no distractions, just to get her game back.''
Evert could be right. At least when it comes to Bouchard's current slump. But over the long haul, maybe Bouchard needs some distractions to keep her mind fresh.
You can argue that Williams who has won 20 majors, probably would have won more if she had "put 100 percent" of herself into tennis, and not busied herself with fashion, nail design, partying and everything else. I wonder that myself.
Had Williams gone that route, she may have retired by now, or ended up looking like Tiger.
Jack Nicklaus said the other day that he can't relate to what's going on with Woods and that he really doesn't even want to. At roughly the same time, Nicklaus had had the Williams sisters over to his house to practice on the grass tennis courts in his yard. We keep modeling our kids after Woods, all while Serena goes into Wimbledon as the prohibitive favorite, giggling and dancing and angling for an Ellen appearance.
Time to rethink 100 percent. Sometimes, less can be more.