The truth behind Serena’s 22nd title: legends are built on consistency
Last Saturday, Serena Williams confirmed her dominance in women’s tennis by claiming her 7th Wimbledon singles title after beating Angelique Kerber. Williams is now tied with Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Open-era Grand Slam titles and is just 2 titles behind Margaret Court for the all-time mark of 24.
As I watched the match, I couldn’t help but be blown away by her dominance. With powerful serves and timely groundstrokes, she coolly claimed the title in straight sets (7-5, 6-3).
She hadn’t been this dominant in a while. After winning the Serena Slam (four consecutive Grand Slam titles) in the summer of 2015, Serena was on the verge of her first true Grand Slam (all four Grand Slam titles in one year) and a tie with Graf for most Open-era titles. As she walked onto the court at the US Open semi-final her victory seemed inevitable. Yet in a stunning upset she lost to Flavia Pennetta.
Her struggles continued at the Australian Open as she lost to Angelique Kerber and then at the French Open where she was beat by Garbiñe. All three of them were first time title winners. Questions about her ability to return to dominance began surface.
After her victory at Wimbledon, Serena admitted that she was inspired by LeBron James’ comeback in the NBA Finals saying, “I felt like a lot of people wrote him (LeBron James) off like, ‘Oh, it’s all about the other player.’ And he was like, ‘No. I’m still great. I am a great player.’ I was really inspired by LeBron and what that whole team did.”
When we talk about sports legends, we’re not talking about players that capitalized on their opportunity to make one great play or have one great game. It’s not luck or coincidence. We’re talking about an individual who worked hard to win day in and day out, through the good, of course, but especially through the bad. In Serena’s words, “luck has nothing to do with it, because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours on the court, working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come.”
For example, the NFL’s New England Patriots—love them or hate them—have been one of most successful teams in sports over the past 15 years, playing in six Super Bowls since 2001, winning four. Players have come and gone, and they’ve lost key players to injuries at times, but the outcome hasn’t changed: the Patriots have always put a competitive team on the field. In fact, they’ve only missed the playoffs twice over that span.
When I played for the Chargers, nobody was ever playing at 100% by the middle of the season. Everybody is beat up, playing through something, overcoming. That’s just the way it is. What sets legends apart from good players is their ability to provide results even when they’re not at their best. In the midst of injury, frustration, and negativity, legends still find a way to deliver.
When Serena takes the court we expect her to win. When she serves we expect an ace. But we didn’t begin to expect those two things overnight! In both cases, we had to see the same result over and over again before we began to expect it.
Legends are characterized by their prolonged success, and that never happens by chance. It’s never a fluke. You can only arrive at long-term success after walking the road of consistency for a long time.
This is true in and out of sports. It’s easy to be great when things are good, but the true content of our character shines through adversity. In fact, it’s through adversity that we define who we truly are and what we can become.
As a fan, I hope that Serena continues her recent success, and continues to establish herself as the greatest legend of tennis. As a pastor, I hope that you receive this truth from sports as a metaphor for your own life. As you navigate through the drama that life brings, remember that you can only achieve legend-status by being consistent: on the mountaintop when you’re at your best, but especially in the valley where you face adversity.