Friday, January 26, 2007

Forget sexy, she's bringing tennis back

If you didn't catch tonight's Australian Open final between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, I can't blame you. After all, Williams disposed of the world's No. 1 player in barely over an hour.

During her victory speech at Rod Laver Arena, Williams said what most American tennis fans had to be feeling:

"I'm really enjoying this."

And how could she not. How could we all not? It seemed tennis in this country would continue to slip away, especially after Roger Federer destroyed the highest ranked American man, Andy Roddick, in the semifinals.

Williams and her championship came from out of nowhere. She entered the 2007 Australian Open ranked 81 in the world, considered a shadow of her former self.

Williams went two years without a title since she won the 2005 Australiam Open, and in that time tennis in the United States felt like it had disintigrated. No American won a Grand Slam singles title for two years. Fixtures of American tennis during the past decade faded. Her sister Venus Williams continued to struggle. The once-dominant Lindsay Davenport called it a career.

It wasn't just women's tennis. On the men's side of things, Federer has steamrolled everyone in his path. Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick won the 2003 Australian Open and U.S. Open, respectively; no American man has won a Grand Slam singles title since. And with how Federer plays in non-clay surface finals, no one has truly come close.

Sharapova may generate ratings for tennis because she is a championship version of Anna Kournikova. The one thing she isn't is American. As attractive as she might be, she won't bring tennis back to the U.S. Maybe to her native Russia, but not the U.S.

By beating Sharapova, Williams reasserted herself in the conversation of top women's singles players in the world. More importantly, she put American tennis back on the map. Back on top. Back where it should be.

This country loves its champions, no matter what the sport. Once again there is a favorite for Americans to back. She's now an eight-time Grand Slam champion who, as we saw tonight, always has a chance. Unseeded. Unheralded. Unappreciated. Not anymore. American tennis is back.

With Williams's victory down under, she - and all of us in the United States - are champions once again.

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