RIO de JANEIRO – Time after time through the years, we ask Serena Williams “What do the Olympics mean to you?” It has always seemed a pretty silly question, but never more than this year. What do the Olympics mean? She is here. What more could the Olympics possibly mean?
“Of course,” she answers. “Of course,” her sister Venus answers. They say stuff about playing for country, stuff about being a part of something special, stuff about the awe of walking in the Opening Ceremonies and having a medal draped over you and hearing the national anthem. But the truth, the emotion, the passion for Serena Williams runs so much deeper than these clichés. She is here. What more could the Olympics possibly mean?
Everyone knows about the Rio troubles. Everyone knows about the Zika virus and the crime numbers and the political unrest and the various logistical challenges that are evident more or less everywhere you go. And then there are problems of every Olympics, the drug problem, the money problems, the various quarrels between this ancient ideal of sport and the modern world.
Each of these made it easy enough for anyone to pull out of these Games. The Bryan Brothers, probably the greatest doubles team ever, pulled out over Zika concerns. So did several of the top players in the world including Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic. America’s top-ranked men’s player John Isner pulled out because of a scheduling conflict – he’s defending champion of the tournament in Atlanta and would lose quite a few ranking points if he played at the Olympics instead.
It’s well known that the top men’s golfers in the world pulled out of Rio, each of them using Zika as the sort of all-encompassing justification.
But Serena Williams is here. She has already won four Olympic gold medals – three in doubles with Venus and one singles. She is almost 35, and she has won 22 grand slam titles, and she is pretty widely viewed as the greatest women’s tennis player who ever lived. To say there is nothing left to prove is to wildly undersell her story – there is nothing left to dream.
Ah, but Serena is here anyway. And we ask her: “What do you the Olympics mean to you?”
What more could the Olympics possibly mean?
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Serena Williams is not the athletic whirlwind that she was even a few years ago. You see highlights of the young Serena playing and you see that so much of her game then was movement and defense, mixing her own power with the dazzling counterpunch.
That’s not her game now. But she dominates the sport just the same, dominates it with her overwhelming serve and powerful groundstrokes and, perhaps most of all, her untethered intensity. She has at various times over the last two or so years (during which she has won five grand slams and finished runner up at two more) looked utterly beatable for long stretches of time. She has looked disinterested, exhausted, frustrated, even injured. “It looks like Serena has gone walkabout,” the announcers will say.
And then, inevitably, she hits some dazzling return winner, and she clenches her fists and her face and her whole body and she screams – more than screams, it’s almost as if she erupts volcano-like – “COME ON!” And then she brings it home one more time; it’s all but impossible for even the best players in the world to counter that ferocity.
So you wonder: How long can it matter that much to Serena Williams?
“Right now,” she says, “I just don’t see a time where I don’t want to do it anymore.”
This is surprising in a way. If there is one thing that has marked both Williams’ sister careers it is their wide scope of interests – fashion, writing, modeling and so on. No one would have been surprised if they walked away from the sport at the top and, say, run for political office or started a social media business.
But neither did. Venus has endured through illness and injury and this year, at age 36, made her first grand slam semifinal in almost six years. She is back for her fourth Olympics and to win her fifth gold. And Serena keeps finding that fervor. How?
“Everything I do, I want to do my best,” she says, words that make sense but don’t really explain anything. Why does she keep working so hard and keep reaching so deep inside herself to win trophies she has won so many times before? How does she continuously match the hunger and fury of younger players who have dreamed, ever since they were children, of beating her?
Serena is not especially interested in explaining that to the rest of us. You can see it is private. When she comes to the pre-Olympic tennis press conference here in Rio, she has a look on her face that suggests she would rather be, more or less, anywhere else.
When she is asked a question (and most press conference questions are, of course, pointed at her), she offers the same sort of sigh that parents offer when asked, “Mom, Dad can I get Snapchat?” She very slowly and reluctantly leans forward and clicks on the microphone. She takes a deep breath, the way weightlifters do before they lift. She then does the performance art she and most top athletes have perfected – talking without saying very much.
“I’m just looking forward to competing for Team USA,” she says.
“I don’t involve myself in politics,” she says.
“I don’t reflect so much,” she says.
But … what does she need to say? She’s here. Think of all that says. No athlete here, not one, had an easier escape route than she did. She’s a young woman, the most at risk for Zika (Serena talked about weighing the health concerns carefully and still deciding to come). She has already been to three Olympics, and she has already won as many gold medals as Jesse Owens. She could have skipped this and no one would have thought anything of it.
But she is here, Venus is here, they will both play singles, they will play doubles together, they will even play mixed doubles if called to do it. This is love – love for the sport, love for competition, love for each other, love for the Olympics.
As the questions keep coming at Serena – about Black Lives Matter, about Donald Trump, about her feelings of triumph after winning Wimbledon, about her feelings of other athletes who chose not to come to Rio – she keeps deflecting and sighing and rolling her eyes and deflecting more. Why does she need to say anything? She came to Rio to play. What more does she really need to say?
Joe Posnanski is the NBC Sports national columnist. He is a No. 1 New York Times best-selling author, winner of the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame’s National Sportswriter of the year and two-time winner of the Associated Press Sports Editors National Columnist of the Year. His fourth book, “The Secret of Golf: The Story of Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus,” was released in June 2015. Read Joe's work year-round on NBC SportsWorld and NBCSports.com.