Serena Williams is one of, if not the, greatest female tennis players of all time. In 2013, she further proved herself by racking up 11 titles total — 3 of them majors — and finishing the year at #1 in the world with a 95 percent winning percentage. That's why I was disappointed that Sports Illustrated didn't see fit to honor Williams with its Sportsman of the Year Award, which the magazine has bestowed on an outstanding athlete (or group of athletes) each year since 1964. For 2013, the magazine opted to honor Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, highlighting his "imprint" on his team and community and overall life achievements as the reason.
Make no mistake—Manning is one of the greatest QBs to ever play. I certainly don't begrudge him many accolades as he has performed exceedingly well since his decision to return to football after serious neck surgery. But Williams has been utterly dominant in 2013 and at 32 years old in a sport like tennis, there are few chances left to honor her with this award before she retires. And if we're talking lifetime impacts? Williams easily knocks Manning out of the ballpark.
Williams' career has been a study in beating the odds. We all know her story of growing up in Compton and being coached by her father Richard Williams alongside her sister Venus. But what is often overlooked is how awful the backlash often was from tennis fans and the tennis community early on in her career. Racist fans often booed Williams and tennis analysts, including former tennis darlings, criticized her for not playing enough matches and seeming to not take the game seriously enough. But despite it all Williams powered on barreling over the competition and ignoring tennis establishment's constant heckling to become a bonafide superstar.
She's also happened to rack up 17 majors in her career, an honor that puts her one major behind tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. Evert, who was honored with the sportsmen of the year award in 1976 and an early critic of Williams, penned a piece for SI proclaiming that Williams deserved this year's honor. In it, she writes of Williams:
But her most impressive performance — and what sealed her as my Sportswoman — came at the year-end WTA Championships in Istanbul. The tennis season is grueling. There are almost 10 months' worth of matches, in different countries, in different climates, on different surfaces. By the end, you are depleted, mentally, emotionally and physically. By the end of 2013, Serena, also, was exhausted. In those last matches, she wasn't playing for much — she was already going to finish with the top ranking. But, for her, pride is enough of a motivation. And she persevered, playing through pain and fatigue, simply not willing to accept losing.
Evert goes on to talk about how Williams continues to improve weaknesses in her game and hasn't rested on her laurels even as age and injuries have crept up. But Evert's point about Williams' competitive spirit is her strongest one. Williams' competitive spirit has brought her back from injury several times. She's returned to dominance so often one could almost be forgiven if they forget that she spent most of 2013 plagued with back spams that affected her serve and caused her to call time outs on more than one occasion.
She started the year saddled by a pretty grotesque ankle injury that resulted in a loss to up-and-comer Sloane Stephens and set off an array of false alarms regarding how much gas Williams had left in the tank. This was all after coming almost immediately back from a pulmonary embolism she suffered in 2011 and wasting no time reclaiming her status as tennis' undisputed Queen.
Williams has also made an indelible mark off the court. Over the years, Williams has made guest appearances on television shows like "The Game" and "My Wife and Kids," posed for ESPN's Body Issue, designed clothes for Nike, and became a minority investor in the NFL's Miami Dolphins. All things considered, Williams is more than an athlete, she is a force of nature. She's a human wrecking ball and a study in competitive drive, mental toughness, and general resilience.
SI's Sportsman of the year award may have less relevance now that the internet is saturated with sports magazines and sports content. But I feel passionate about the need for Williams' accomplishments to be properly recognized by the sports industry. By not choosing Williams as its Sportsman of the year, the magazine missed an opportunity to mark a very important moment in history and honor an athlete who became the greatest while traveling down an unbeaten path.
Jessica Danielle covers sports with wit and ardor at Playerperspective.com.