Serena and Safina: The Heavyweight Bout

Serena Williams called out Dinara Safina this week and that sent us looking for a few theories to explain what makes Serena a champion.

People were entranced by the Manny PacquiaoRicky Hatton heavyweight prizefight in Las Vegas last weekend, but tennis had its own version of a heavyweight bout when recent number one player Serena Williams called out current number one player Dinara Safina at the WTA event in Rome this week.

WTA Sony Ericsson Tour - Rome: Day Two

This is not new behavior from Serena because she’s well known for being dismissive of her competition, but this was an aggressive move with the clear message: if you haven’t won a slam, you’re not qualified to be number one.

What Serena said was this: “We all know who the real number one is. Quite frankly, I’m the best in the world.” Ouch! Safina had no trouble getting the message because this was her response: “She can say this because she won like many more Grand Slams than me.”

Yes, Serena does have slams, 10 of them, and I doubt it bothered Serena one bit that she ended up in the same position as Ricky Hatton – on her butt in the first round. She was taken out in Rome with a left from Swiss player Patty Schnyder.

That’s very disappointing because I’d loved to have seen Serena and Safina go at it, but it did get me to thinking: What makes Serena the champion she is? I don’t exactly know but I do have two theories on the matter courtesy of this week’s New Yorker magazine.

The first one has to do with mirror neurons and it comes courtesy of Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, a neurologist who is profiled by John Colapinto in the magazine. It turns out that if you open and close your hand, certain neurons in your brain will fire. That’s not surprising but this is: if you happen to be sitting next to a person and you see them open and closes their hand, those same neurons will fire in your brain even though it’s the other person doing the action.

You can see whey they might be called mirror neurons and Ramachandran theorizes that autistic people might be lacking in mirror neurons because they have trouble imitating others and empathizing. I’m not suggesting that Serena is autistic, far from it, she’s a very highly functioning and social person. But I was wondering if someone like Serena, who doesn’t seems as concerned about what her fellow competitors think of her as much as most of us are, might have fewer of those somewhat empathetic neurons.

The next theory comes to us from Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers. In another article in the magazine titled How David Beats Goliath, Gladwell shows what happens to people who win ugly.

Gladwell describes a girl’s basketball team coached by someone who didn’t know much about basketball with players who didn’t have much in the way of basketball skills. The coach decided that the best way for the girls to win was to use a full court press for the entire game. In other words, harass and frustrate their opponents by closely guarding them every inch of the court instead of waiting until they’d thrown the ball in and advanced to the offensive basket.

The team won its games by large scores and reached the national playoffs but they pissed off a lot of opposing teams because they beat them badly. And since teams didn’t like getting beaten badly, they complained that this wasn’t how the game should be played, especially because, they said, girls should be learning basketball skills instead of running around like their hair is on fire.

When you defeat a traditional approach to the game with an unexpected strategy, you can expect backlash. The little team that could played the third round of the playoffs against a team that was playing on its home court and had supplied the referees for the game. These referees decided to negate the full court press by calling a ridiculously high number of touch fouls, thus forcing the team to abandon the full court press.

The point here is that outsiders sometimes win by taking a different, controversial approach and Serena has always been an outsider. Her father Richard Williams trained Serena and her sister Venus outside of the traditional junior tennis channels and he kept them out of junior tournaments. The sisters are also outsiders because they’re black and there were few black players on tour when they started. They were racially harassed in Indian Wells in 2001 after Venus pulled out of a Venus vs. Serena semifinal at the last minute.

That’s what you call backlash and though it was racially motivated, it was also a response to the Williams’ way of doing as they pleased regardless of what anyone else thinks. Venus isn’t far behind Serena with seven slams, but Serena has that extra bit of toughness and it goes back to something these two theories share: being a social outsider.

Venus doesn’t call out her opponents; she’s more sympathetic to her opponents’ feelings. Serena doesn’t care.

It’s hard to know whether Serena can return to number one and stay there because she has trouble playing week in and week out due to recurring injury problems. The WTA has has added more required events and heavy penalties for missing them. That will also make it harder on Serena.

Safina is starting to take on the leadership that comes with the number one ranking. She lambasted the Rome tournament organizers for threatening players’ careers by making them run around on wet clay (you can see why in the image above), and I expect she’ll get her slam. But right now, I have to say that I don’t disagree with Serena.