Every athlete in every sport wishes that they had "It." But not many do. You can't teach "It" or inherit "It." One sibling may have it and another not quite manage the indefinable trick. So few champions, gifted and dedicated as they may be, have that innate joyous magnetism that draws strangers to them and, in a thrilling splash, brings their entire sport to life.
Serena Williams, with her beaming smile, carefree insouciance, competitive grit and enormous athletic power, is now in the "It" club. She's not just the 1999 U.S. Open women's tennis champion after a thrilling 6-3, 7-6 (7-4) win over Martina Hingis, the top-ranked player in the world.
Almost instantly, the 17-year-old Williams--heretofore overshadowed by her older sister Venus--is on the verge of being one of the people in sports who matters, who is instantly recognized, who draws fans to her inexorably.
In the split second of their victory, athletes often reveal themselves. Too often, they seem to have scripted the moment in their minds a few too many times. Or, maybe, that instant just shows how thoroughly full of themselves they are--a necessary failing, perhaps, but not terribly appealing.
After an excruciating match, which seemed to be slipping away from her with terrifying suddenness in the final 20 minutes, Serena Williams seemed stunned with disbelief when Hingis's final mistake landed long. She grabbed her heart, grabbed her head, screamed, "Oh, my God," then hopped on a chair to kiss her mother in the stands.
Most of all, a dozen emotions--including perhaps a bit of guilt that she'd beaten Venus to a Grand Slam prize--raced across her face, one after the other, the expressions flickering like a home movie of the human heart. It's called charisma.
"I didn't know what to do, laugh or cry or scream," Williams said. "So I did it all."
Oh, she can do it all. On paper, Williams can seem indiscreet or immature when she says, "I touch everyone. Everyone wants to see me and I don't blame them. Got to get a look at Serena." She loves to walk past mirrors because, "I've got to get my daily dose of me."
This week, when Hingis said that Serena's father Richard had "a big mouth," Serena shot back that Hingis's comment probably resulted from her not have much "formal education." In fact, in her remarks to the crowd after her win, Serena managed to plug a bank, a shoe company and "my God, Jehovah."
Yet often in sports it's not exactly what you say, it's more how you say it and--underneath everything--what you really seem to mean. People can parse it out. Serena seems to mean no harm and simply be bursting with youth, enthusiasm and Williams-filled dreams.
For example, this was a moment when Williams could have shown a harsher side, if she had one. After all, she'd just become the first black woman since Althea Gibson in 1958 to win the U.S. Open and she'd done it in a stadium named after Arthur Ashe, the last black American player to win a Grand Slam (Wimbledon in 1975). Since both she and Venus had been trained from the crib to be tennis champions, she was bringing a total family fantasy to fruition.
In other words, what a great time to take a shot at your foes--for example, the occasionally imperious Hingis. On Friday, after beating Venus, Hingis came very close to gloating about preventing "a Williams-Williams" final.
Instead, Serena took a generous high road that would have pleased the dignified Ashe. "Martina really was making me fight. She just would not give up," Williams said. "Then, after it was over and we were standing [beside the court], she said, 'Isn't this exciting.'
"She's so nice and positive. It was good that she was my opponent, not somebody who would have been bitter."
Maybe there will be darts in the future. But when you've got "It," you're largely above pettiness. Great competition inspires you while making you respect your opponents more.
Perhaps Hingis, herself only 18 and owner of five Grand Slam titles, was lifted up by the rivalry, too. Offered the excuse that she looked flat and tired, as though her semifinal match with Venus on Friday had put her at a disadvantage, Hingis brushed the alibi aside. "Oh, that was the same for both of us. She played more than I did in this tournament--played doubles, had harder matches. We both played three-setters yesterday.
"I had a hard time falling asleep last night. But that's no excuse. You just have to go out there and play."
Lots of people, for lots of years, are going to have plenty of trouble sleeping before playing the Williams sisters--particularly, it now seems, Serena.
"Between me and Serena, the comments have gone back and forth, but it was just terrific tennis out there," Hingis said. "She's a great competitor and fighter. . . . She just kills the ball. . . . Sometimes we were so tired it seemed like we were on our knees. . . . We were almost too tired to come to the net. We just couldn't get there. It was like a will-power [test].
"There are going to be many more endings like this."
We should be so lucky.
Perhaps the most telling part of this match was Serena's response to squandering two match points in the second set, then falling behind 6-5. Even her mother in the stands "looked more down than I've ever seen her before." That's because it looked like Williams was in the midst of a hideous "Oh-no-I-blew-it" choke. So many Open titles are decided that way.
But not this one. "There comes a point where you just have to stop caving," Williams said. "I told myself, 'Whether you win or lose, you're going to have to perform.' "
Which, she did, stunning Hingis, renowned for her resilience, with a veteran champion's resolve in the second-set tiebreaker.
"I thought for sure my day couldn't get any better," said Williams afterward, "then somebody said, 'The President of the United States is calling for you.' "
Plenty of athletes have gotten calls from the White House. But this came from Auckland, New Zealand. "The President said that he and Chelsea had watched my last three matches! Wow."
When you've got it, everybody can feel it from New York to New Zealand.