To hear Chris Evert diagnose the situation, “Emotionally and mentally, she’s still a great champion.” So said Evert about Serena Williams after the 23-time female, grand-slam singles champion lost to China’s Wang Qiang in a third-round match in Melbourne. I beg to differ. Maybe Williams can push her physical conditioning some more, as Evert suggests. But at age 38, there might not be a whole lot more that Williams can do in that category. What I noticed instead was how an aura of anguish and, ultimately, self-pity seemed to envelope Williams as the match progressed, kind of like one of those particle rings that encircle the planet Saturn.
Occasionally, a professional athlete can elevate her or his game despite the influence of sadness. The NBA player Chris Bosh comes to mind, as sadness-filled a person as anybody I can think of since the Native American leader Chief Rain-in-the-Face. In Williams’ prime, disgust and anger were this tennis great’s signature emotions on-court during a match. No longer, for sadness now shares top billing. As a rule of thumb, sadness can slow you down both mentally and physically. (Williams had 56 unforced errors versus 20 for her Chinese opponent). To succumb to sadness increases the odds against winning, I believe. If sadness helped Bosh, it was due to the ability of sadness to also make us more empathetic – a benefit to Bosh as he settled for being a NBA all-star who became the third option on a Miami Heat team that likewise featured LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
In this case, there was Williams all alone with her grief on-court. Her empathy was for herself and the tremendous stress she feels trying to tie—and ultimately surpass—Margaret Court and her record of 24 grand slams (many in an era when key players would skip the long flight down to play in Court’s native Australia). “It’s all on my shoulders,” Williams said after her loss. Well, she played like it, too. More joy felt or at least more disgust and anger, combined with less sadness: that’s the only way back for Williams at this point in her career. Forget what Evert said. That earlier American star relied on low-grade anger to keep her focused. Williams is fiercer. For Williams, disgust means never settling for mediocrity, including the mediocrity that self-pity can induce.