SPORTSPERSON OF THE YEAR 2012 – SORRY, IT’S NOT LEBRON

Sports Illustrated recently picked LeBron James as their “Sportsman of the Year” for 2012.  While there is no disuputing that James did great things on and off the court this past year, I think there may be someone else in the sports world more deserving of this title. It was someone who rose up to greatness fresh from ten months of physical and mental setbacks and came back to totally dominate her competitors with determination and strength.  That person is Serena Williams.

In its December 10, 2012 article, SI highlights the fact that LeBron “reached new heights” in his sport this past year, becoming an NBA champion & MVP, Finals MVP, and Olympic gold medalist.  This feat has apparently only been accomplished by a few others in pro basketball history.

But, what about Serena?  She only won 7 Singles titles including two Grand Slams (Wimbledon & US Open) and the Olympic Gold.  She also played doubles and won 2 titles, including one Grand Slam (Wimbledon) and the Olympic Gold with her sister Venus.  She was named WTA Player of the Year for the fourth time (2002, 2008 and 2009) and ITF Women’s  World Champion for the third time in her career (2002, 2009).  Her record was 58-4 in singles and 13-1 in doubles.

Moreover, how Serena has dominated the rest of the field with her wins is absolutely astonishing.  Take the Olympics, for example.  She pummeled six of the best players in the world by only dropping 17 games total during the entire tournament (winning 81%) and did not lose a single set:

Def Jankovic 6-3, 6-1;

Radwanska 6-2, 6-3;

Zvonareva [13] 6-1, 6-0;

Wozniacki [8] 6-0, 6-3;

Azarenka [1] 6-1, 6-2; and

Sharapova [3] 6-0, 6-1.

And, with her Olympic Gold in singles, Serena completed the career “Golden Slam,” joining Steffi Graf as the only players to win all four majors and an Olympic singles title. Serena also has the Golden Slam in doubles!

Among active tennis players, male or female, Serena also now holds the most Major titles in tennis (15 singles, 13 doubles, and 2 mixed doubles) and currently, she is tied for eighth on the all-time list, and still counting.  And, there are only 10 women to have ever won the “career grand slam” and Serena is one of them.

In the wake of this tremendous year for Serena, her peers have included her on the list of greatest ever.  After seeing Serena win her fifth Wimbledon title this year, John McEnroe said: “I’ve seen them all, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert was a machine, Monica Seles, Steffi Graf, but I believe we’re watching the greatest female player that’s ever played this game”.

Justin Gimelstob also said of Serena’s play this year: “At her very best, the way she’s playing, it’s the highest level that’s ever been played by a woman”.

And think about this: when Serena plays singles, it is an individual sport, as opposed to LeBron who plays a team sport.  He doesn’t win any games alone and without the assistance from several others on the court.  In contrast, Serena stands alone on her court during singles matches.  She must face her opponents by looking them each in the eye and taking them down on her own, without others helping her during the actual matches.  The pressure falls squarely on her shoulders.  She serves alone, volleys alone, and makes decisions alone in the heat of the moment.

Further, Serena rises above LeBron because of all she has had to overcome to get back to greatness: Life-threatening illness for one.

In July 2010, after winning Wimbledon, Serena would suffer an injury that would take her away from tennis for almost a year.  She cut her foot at a restaurant in Germany requiring 18 stitches.  Later that year, she had surgery to repair it, but suffered from life-threatening blood clots in her leg as a result.  One clot travelled to her lung, creating a pulmonary embolism.  More blood gathered on her stomach and created a hematoma the size of a “grapefruit”.  She would recover, but had clots in both her lungs that required dissolving over time. She called it the “scariest moment in my life“.  Her father and coach Richard Williams said, “I really thought Serena was going to die.”

By June 2011, Serena had managed to rally and recover and return to the tour.  But, during the 11 months while she was away, her ranking fell to #175.  She managed to play on the tour, but only participated in six tournaments throughout the season and was plagued by other injuries as she attempted her comeback.  Still, she managed to finish the year ranked #12.

Serena’s climb back up into the top ten of the tennis ladder in 2012 was slow to start. She exited the Australian Open in the fourth round and was defeated in the first round at the French Open. Immediately after her French Open exit, she began working with French tennis coach Patrick Mouratoglou.   And, then just months later, Serena returned to Wimbledon where her ascent really started.

At Wimbledon in singles, Serena scored 23 aces in the third round (then a Wimbledon record), and then reset the record in Wimbledon again with 24 aces in her semi-final match vs. Azarenka, the number one player in the world. She went on to win Wimbledon and amaze the tennis world and her peers.  Her game returned to greatness, as Chris Everett said: “It’s a different Serena we see now… We haven’t seen Serena play as well as she has… since before she hurt her foot. She has great power and movement, and the confidence she needs to go with that.”  Her father said, “Serena didn’t think she’d ever play tennis again. She told me so.”

And, with her wins, came Serena’s mental confidence and her love for the game changed.  She said after Wimbledon: “I have so much appreciation for every moment on the court… I really take pride in playing, especially playing such big, amazing tournaments like this. I just want to do the absolute best that I can at all moments.”

In the meantime, Serena had to also overcome the realization of her sister Venus’ illness.  Early this year, Venus revealed she had been diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome — an incurable condition which affects energy levels and causes pain in the joints.  Together, the sisters had won 12 Grand Slam doubles titles together over time.  And, they did it again in 2012 at Wimbledon and the Olympics.  Serena was humbled by her sister, “Venus has been going through so much and she’s so strong and so she’s so amazing”.

Months later, Serena also won the US Open in September.  She said about her win, “Champions are defined not by their wins, but hope they can recover when they fall. I have fallen several times, but each time I get up, dust myself off and pray that I am to do better and get back to the level I want to be on. It feels awesome that I have been able to do that.”

As for LeBron James, what kind of obstacles has he recovered from to reach greatness?  It doesn’t seem comparable to look at his PR debacle when he left Cleveland for Miami.

So, how come LeBron is seen as more deserving by SI of “Sportsman of the Year” rather than Serena?   Only the execs at SI know for sure.  But, the record speaks for itself.  To me, Serena Williams is my pick for Sportsperson of the Year in 2012, hands down.

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