Serena Williams, Barça and how the best can be kinda annoying

Sport is a magnificent thing for so many reasons, but mostly because it is an escape. We succumb to beauty and illusion, allowing ourselves to be seduced by the greater things that sport embodies.

This week at Wimbledon, a sport that is, like football, played on grass, a number of remarkable things happened with parallels to Barça. Roger Federer played some of the best tennis of his life in dispatching Andy Murray, prancing around in a way that couldn’t help but bring to mind Xavi, a player said to be past it many years ago, who proved to be essential to a team that made history yet again.

Then, in the women’s final, Serena Williams dispatched yet another opponent, notching another Grand Slam title on her way to becoming what many think she already is, the best women’s player of all time. It is this last one that I found fascinating as I discussed reasons people don’t like her with Isaiah. The one that stuck in my mind is that she messes up tennis.

Tennis is more aesthete than athlete. It’s a game where the smaller, weaker player can have a chance, where athleticism, being the biggest and strongest isn’t everything if you have a topspin backhand up the line. Rafa Nadal can huff and grunt his way past the sweatless Federer or the gifted Djokovic. Caroline Wozniacki can scramble, hit back one ball more than her bigger, stronger opponent, and win. The sport has had specimens, of course, athletes from John Newcombe and Rod Laver of the calf-sized forearms, to Sampras and Navratilova … and Williams.

But the sport has also had Justine Henins, Tracy Austins, Michael Changs and Hingises, Goolagongs and Borgs, aesthetes who nibbled at opponents, lopping little chunks from them until they fell over rather than destroying them with haymakers. Tennis has always loved these players, even as it has viewed the athletes with a bit of distrust, these people who mess up the game. Serena Williams messes up tennis because she destroys the illusion that the most gifted won’t always best the rest, yet again.

The world needs an underdog. Tennis embraced Williams during a frail period as she wrestled with injuries and self-doubt, becoming a fragile, tottering giant who gained charm as she slid down the rankings. Crowds cheered for her because for a time, a brief, fleeting time, she was an underdog.

Simple reality is that she was always the best, always the most gifted even if she didn’t always show it. Now that she is showing it, the illusion is stripped away and we see her for what she is: dominant. People will say that they don’t like her looks, think she has an attitude, etc, etc. But the reality is that in part, she’s a pain in the butt because reality sucks. Fantasy needs a chance.

Barça came to mind because as with Williams, some culers have a notion that they are cheering for a flawed Colossus, an underdog. Positioning this, and triangles that, and it isn’t exactly right, not winning in the right way, etc. We go nuts when the team wins, It’s wonderful. Reality is that Barça winning is like death and taxes, an inevitability that is supplanted these days only by something rather flukish.

The end of the Ronaldinho era was an anarchic train wreck in which an excellent team found ways to lose because it was a mess. There were, in subsequent years, referee errors, even a volcano. A freakin’ volcano!

It’s the reason that “crises” such as dropping points at a cursed ground become seismic. There is nothing better to do. Sitting back and saying that the only thing that happened is that Barça was denied a chance to take over the league lead that week is messing up the illusion. We need to believe that our team is frail and fragile, rather than an assemblage of talent that is the best in the world. It’s churlish to say that Barça is going to win because it is the best team with the most talent.

When Serena Williams strode onto the court against Maria Sharapova, a player who arrived, ascended and descended, all while Williams was dropping forehand bombs, that Sharapova was getting a beatdown was assumed. Sport wants to believe in its underdogs, wants to believe that there will be a contest.

In the final, when Williams was a bit shaky, people wanted to believe that her opponent, who was 5 years old when Williams won her first Grand Slam tournament, had a shot. The illusion needed to believe something other than Williams will play well enough to dispatch her just like she does almost everyone else that she plays, because that is what the best do. She messes up tennis because the same person, the most gifted person, isn’t supposed to always win. That’s just churlish, and unfair. You can’t flout winning the genetic and talent lottery by then kicking the crap out of everybody. Every now and again, even when there is hope, sport snatches it away.

The cruelest thing I have ever seen in tennis came in 1993 when Jana Novotna was beating Steffi Graf in the Wimbledon final. Novotna lost a tight first set, won the second and was up 4-1 in the third, serving, a point away from 5-1. And she blinked. And Graf got that face. It’s like Messi’s murderface. Back then, Graf was the same pain the ass Serena Williams is now. Death, taxes and Graf. People were going nuts. Then the universe set things right. Graf rolled off 5 straight games, winning the set and the title. So much for the underdog.

Legend has it that Barça is defined by wee technicians, players who supporters like to think aren’t good enough for other teams, who would have been weeded out by the demands of pace and physicality that other, misguided teams worship at the altar of. That illusion needs to ignore that there is a team that wouldn’t sell its mother to have Iniesta running its midfield, who wouldn’t find a place in its XI for Busquets. The illusion needs to believe that Barça isn’t as inevitable as Serena Williams, the best, most talented and brightest assuming the place that its abilities has dusted off and polished.

Barça is the best team in the world. It also has the most talent, buttressed by players who are perfect for its system. Dropped points are such an implosion among a fan base because of that reality. The wonder is that Barça EVER drops points, when you really think about it. You’d have to struggle to find a player in world football whom you would rather have than any of the Barça XI in terms of how they play, and how they meet the needs of the team. Your best bet might be at CB, where names such as Thiago Silva make people look askance at Mascherano.

Then you think about how Guardiola wanted Mascherano, played him every chance he got, as did Vilanova, Martino and now Enrique, and you wonder. From top to bottom.

It’s unseemly for a fan base to admit that its team is the best, that it is supposed to win every time it takes to the pitch. Logic would have made Barça the favorite against Bayern Munich even had all of its players been in place, but that’s a tough thing to admit because you don’t want to damage that illusion of uncertainty, the notion that your team could lose.

American football has a saying, that “on any given Sunday,” an underdog could pull off an upset. And history has shown us that this is the case. But as that 1-6 team beats, on that given Sunday, the 6-1 New England Patriots, it’s illustrative to look at the playoffs and championship seedings, black-and-white arbiters of the inevitability of excellence. Winning battles doesn’t mean a war is done. The best army almost always wins.

Serena Williams is 5-foot-10, runs like a gazelle and hits a tennis ball with the speed and authority that would be the envy of many a player. She has agility, improvisational abilities that turn lost points into won ones. She has mental strength, as well. She has, in effect, everything. Every last damn little thing. She is, at her core, unfair.

Lots of people don’t like her, just as lots of people don’t like Barça. It’s hard to see from the outside, but it’s for the same reason, really: it’s unfair. You can’t have everything. You can’t have Messi, Suarez, Neymar AND Iniesta, with Xavi coming off the bench. You can’t have the best player in the world at almost every position on your team, then act surprised when that team wins.

You can see how this would be unlikable if you are a neutral, or a supporter of another club.

If Messi had the skills of Messi but looked like Ronaldo, would he be as lovable? That squat dude who looks like the guy who, in high school, would have been the one doing Ronaldo’s homework for him is the best player in the game. Now THAT is an underdog we can get behind. Sport needs an underdog.

Back when I was younger and racing nationally, I was built like an NFL running back. I rode races in a way that didn’t even suggest I had an opponent. I just did what I did, because I had the skill and talent to ride in such a way that made an opponent immaterial. I was accused of doping, and other fun stuff. I was called asshole and the like, and I didn’t care. Who would? Talent and physical skills mean that it doesn’t matter what people call you.

Every now and again I would screw up, and a rider would beat me. And people would cheer like crazy. “See? It doesn’t always have to be like that. That fast guy doesn’t always win.” Messi’s appearance is part of his appeal. He’s short. He runs in choppy little steps on stubby little legs. He needed hormone treatments just to reach his less-than-normal-adult size. His haircuts are funny and even when fit, he has a little bit of extra flesh under his chin that you just know in that Legends game, many years hence, is going to be a full-fledged wattle.

Just look at him.

When that player is the best, when that player does things that make people slam laptops because human vocabulary doesn’t have words to describe what just happened, leaving writers to draw pictures of popping flashbulbs, exclamation points and butterflies, and he looks like Messi, it’s AWESOME! “See, son, you don’t have to look like Ronaldo to outrun everybody and score a jaw-dropping goal.” Messi is so easy to love for neutrals and culers, who struggle to understand why anyone might dislike him.

But as an opponent, all you can think is “That sonofabitch again,” because Messi is, as is Williams and Barça, inevitable. They might not get you right now, but over the course of time, they will get you. The fluke will be when they don’t get you.

Williams had competitors who have come and gone: Clijsters, Henin, Sharapova, Hingis, just as Barça has had RM, Chelsea, Inter, Bayern. Eventually, the universe puts things right. The best doesn’t always win, but it wins often enough that inferences can be drawn.

When this season comes, people will fret and worry. Dropped points will become crises, just as when Williams doesn’t win the Outer Mongolia Open, pundits wonder if she is losing her ability to dominate. But simple reality is that the best almost always win. The challenge for a supporter is getting our heads around that in a way that doesn’t make us assholes. Barça might not win everything again this year. Stuff happens. That doesn’t mean the collection of talent that Enrique can call upon isn’t jaw-dropping.

A culer would never say, publicly, “Of COURSE Barça is going to win. Why wouldn’t it?” That isn’t what sport is. But the team that we support has won the talent lottery just as an American woman tennis player has. It has had, for season after season for really the past decade, a collection of players who are the best or among the best in the game, functioning at extraordinarily high levels. The real wonder, when you think about it, is that Barça has won ONLY two trebles.

The roots of this piece stem from a conversation that happened on social media, as some of us wrestled with why people don’t like Serena Williams. But if you really think about it, those reasons are pretty clear. She messes up tennis just like Barça messes up football. The rich kid is also smarter than you, has a prettier mate and can throw a football 60 yards in the air and hit a 1’x1′ target.

It just ain’t fair. And as we struggle to escape life and all of the attendant unfairness and crap that we deal with on a daily basis, fantasy is important. It would rock if reality would just stop messing up our … alternate reality.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. Levon my comment in the previous post was deleted,because you say that the comments here must be about football and our club.I have 2 questions:Why we have a post about a tennis player in the blog that have nothing to do with football?And a second question:Mes que un club is a politic slogan.Do we agree?

    1. Common sense, mostly, but I’ll give you the same answer as I gave deerwithwings in the previous comment thread.

      We try to keep this space as “rule-light” possible and certain political discussion is indeed possible, especially when linked to an article such as the one we had up not too long ago about the ramifications of Xavi’s decision to go to Qatar. There was also a spontaneous discussion about the Scottish Yes / No vote, which for rather obvious reasons showed similarities to the situation in Catalunya, a region / nation that is represented by the club.

      However, political discussions can easily unravel into intense and unpleasant arguments. If a topic comes up (in this case, the crisis in Greece) that has not only nothing to do with the article, but is also written in an inflammatory tone and/or risks receiving inflammatory responses, I will delete it to prevent people to start arguing over a subject that has nothing to do with a blog about Barcelona and football.

      In your specific case, when you placed a similar comment a week ago I left a note in your comment that I would let it stand but that I would delete all replies to it to avoid the risk of getting bogged down in a political discussion. If it wasn’t clear enough then, I hope it is now.

      I thank you for your understanding.

  2. And i must answer to Jim so please dont delete this.The snake is not Laporta.1914 1939 2015.

    1. I feel sad, that your comment was deleted before I could read it. Am deeply concerned about what happens in your beautiful country and what a native like you would say was very important. Guardian published about 100 comments from native Greeks.

      I can only hope, your people win finally, rather than some banks and associations.

  3. Great article.

    I posted in a previous thread some time ago that so far we have had it both ways, i.e. being perceived as the underdog while being the best, and doing it the “right way”. But there is a danger that this will change. Bartomeu was talking the other day about how we plan to be the first team with a billion dollar yearly revenue by 2020-something. If we keep winning trophies like we have so far, that may well happen — winning usually attracts fans. That’s how RM became the most popular club. It has been very convenient for us to be able to point the finger at the EE and say “See, all that money can’t buy what we can produce at La Masia”, but what happens if we become the richest club in the world and start using that financial muscle accordingly? In a way we already did that as the second richest club these last two summers buying Neymar and Suarez, and that’s what brought the treble this time. We don’t want to become the EE ourselves…

  4. Thanks for the article Kxevin. Its difficult to compare different sports and in this case tennis to club football. What you can look at, however, is period of dominance and how long you can maintain that. For us, it depends mostly on Messi’s fitness and whether we can continue to field a team strong enough to complement his talents.

    So the question now becomes whether Barca will continue its dominance for the next three or four years while Messi is still in his prime.

  5. Great read, Kxevin, and a thoughtful one. I’ve never taken to Serena, just as I’ve never taken to Nadal and I think what you say about our midgets is maybe part of it. We are, as you say, so fortunate to be following a team where almost every player is world class in their position.

    I support Murray as a Scot and because I love the effort and emotion he puts in but I’d rather watch a Gasquet backhand, basically anything Federer does or, going back a way, the guile of a Rosewall or Nastase. Sport for me is never just about the winning. As can be seen from my posts I have a pretty high bar of entertainment and genuine class for my heroes. I suppose it’s why I, maybe unfairly, find it hard to rate players like Rakitic too highly.

    Anyway, thanks for the thought provoking article – and come on Roger ! He can’t come back and do the same two days later, can he? The same friends I mentioned in the last article are just dying to be proved right about him but Novak saw that performance, he’s coming off the back of losing in Paris when he really shouldn’t have, so I don’t know . What I don’t want to see is the old trick of calling the trainer if he goes a set down. Looking forward to it.

    1. I can’t see Federer winning. He doesn’t enough in his tank to go all the way. I hope I can eat my words as I really want him to win at least another Wimbeldon major. He has the highest chance of winning at Wimbeldon. Too bad he’s coming up against Djokovic.

    2. About Rakitić
      Agree with you. He was superb in few matches and as a barca player I like him alot.
      But ATM I don’t see any of his extraordinary moment.
      And I cannot rate him high enough.
      I wish he prove me wrong in days to come.
      I know there are still people who rate him highly but everyone has their own opinion and I respect that too.

  6. Thanks for the article! It this not only surprising, but also disappointing that Barce did not win even more during the peak years of this generation. As has been discussed extensively, mismanagement of the club played its part (lack of transfers or the wrong ones), perhaps fatigue and definitely bad luck (oh, the cycles). I am delighted at this treble not the least because it will provide further glory to these wonderful players and the praise that they deserve in the face of history, regardless if Xavi was more of a sub at this point (he has won enough on NT-level…). From the point of view you are presenting, Kxevin, anything less would have been a waste of talent and potential.

    Now we can only hope the second coming of Messi can muster another CL to really affirm the uniqueness of this group. This coming year right offer the best balance of the attacking trio in terms of age and potential/development – Neymar 24, Messi 28, Suarez 29 (and Iniesta might have a final super season).

    So, indeed, how can you NOT win?

  7. Levon i understant you and i will not make again a politic comment here.But i want to make things clear.I am a Greek but i dont care only for my country.My heart is with the people of Spain and Portugal where police throw them out of their houses with violence.My heart is with the black people in U.S.A who are shooted dead by police.My heart is with every person who suffers in the world.Because we are all the same.And we deserve justice real democracy.We Greeks made a lot of mistakes the last 40 years.Maybe we deserve that.But we are not lazy.We work very hard.But our politics and oligarchs families destroyed us.

    1. I feel you. But just an advice, the correct way to say it is African-American. Our leader is one himself. Hopefully he’s not offended.

    2. Don’t know much about the history of Greece but I’ve learnt something from your frequent comments @luis. My thoughts are with you always.

    3. What you said is fine. You don’t have to say “African American” just because Western people think that is the “correct” way to say it. Keep doing what you’re doing and ignore the ignorant!

  8. Thanks for the article Kevin. This and a more-political daily beast article really helps me to start appreciating Serena.

    With Barça, as my father would say “cuando el Barça quiere jugar..” – when Barça want to play (they’ll win). He knows. Maybe this phenomenon you describe disappears with age.

    Outer Mongolian Open – haha

  9. Every time I watch Federer play I get so frustrated. Maybe the old timers can remember me always ranting about him. I don’t like his he’s playing style. He plays it safe by hitting the ball in the middle section. He’s giving the opponent an opportunity to dictate the play. I play badminton and table tennis, I always hit in the in corner/baseline to have a winner or force a bad return and or mistake. If they return it I’ll go to the same side or the other side. I always make my opponent run. I never hit it in the middle.

    Maybe i don’t understand because I don’t play tennis but badminton and table tennis are similar (the court/table).

    1. If you mean why hit it down the middle of the court, Barca, the reason is to avoid giving your opponent an angle to hit a winner. If you go to the wings you’d better put it away. Fed’s problem is twofold, imo. Djokovic’s court coverage is amazing and his length in rallies has been pretty awesome. He’s also reading Fed’s serve better than a fed is reading his. I’ve often thought Murray should be more aggressive but heard him saying once that you can only hit as big as your confidence will let you, otherwise you miss.

  10. Iker probably deserved the same send-off as Xavi. Unfortunately for him it was todo lo contrario. Good luck Iker and may your replacement make Madrid fans regret your departure. 🙂

  11. very interesting article and I agree with your point. it always amazed me to see how many haters Barça amassed in the last 10 years by being the best team in the world 😀

  12. Not that I dont love seeing your name under the posts here Kxev, but arent you meant to be in a retirement/hibernation?
    Great to see you still active though mate, great post as usual.
    YNWA buddy

  13. It is only when watching Serena, I understand why there are so many Barca haters. Sometimes, even when we lose, we have looked dominant and the better team, especially during this Messi era. Natural for many to dislike.

    Otherwise, it is incredible that India has got two grand slams. In mixed doubles and womens doubles. Quite evident that, we can never go top of the world, when it comes to a singles match. May I also take this opportunity to say that Tennis is the sport for the upper class in India. If only, Tennis could reach the mass, may be we could have unearthed a singles champion too.

    1. I am not sure that Barca is really hated that much by neutrals though it would be interesting to see who the most hated clubs in the world are. My guess is that RM and Chelsea would top the list. For me, the best route to start to become he most envied is to repeat as CL champions, which for some reason has now become the most difficult thing to do in professional sports. This would also be a good way for the current Enrique Barca team to do something that Guardiola’s team feel short of as well.

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