In summer 2009, Serena Williams was playing a mandatory tournament in Cincinnati against a woman most people have never heard of, Sybille Bammer. By “playing,” what I mean is that Williams was there, on the court, holding a racket. Bammer won that day, as Williams, the best player in the world, committed two unforced errors per game.
A bad day? No. Williams wasn’t trying, or at least she wasn’t fighting. In tennis, it’s called tanking a match. So ticket-buyers and tournament officials were angry. Williams was in a stretch of 17 straight months where she wouldn’t win any tournament unless it was a major. In every nowhere she went to, she lost to nobodies, often in the first round. Or she faked an injury and didn’t go at all.
She went to one tournament saying she was going only to avoid being fined an amount that would equal her remodeling budget. She went. She left in the middle of a match.
On Monday, Williams regained the No. 1 ranking in the world. She’s 31 now, the oldest woman to hold the top spot. It’s a big deal, a huge accomplishment.