Horsing Around

Serena Williams

Yu Tsai for Sports Illustrated via AP

On Monday, Sports Illustrated announced that Serena Williams was the recipient of its annual Sportsperson of the Year Award, a marvelous gesture for a certainly deserving and wholly underappreciated athlete. That gig comes with a stirring S.L. Price cover profile and recognition for a year well done. Unfortunately, what should be an innocuous distinction seems also to be accompanied by the anger of fans whose preferred choice in the matter, a non-human, finished second.

In the wake of Serena’s selection as Sportsperson of the Year, horse Twitter revealed itself.

Before we go any further, it bears mentioning that the Sportsperson of the Year award, not unlike sports themselves but even more so, does not matter whatsoever. It is the concoction of a magazine – an important magazine, but a magazine nevertheless – which neither adds nor subtracts anything from an athlete’s playing résumé. The kinds of triumphs one must claim in order to even be a candidate for this award absolutely dwarf the award itself, but I imagine it’s a nice bit of superfluous punctuation thrown into an already well-constructed sentence as an athlete, nothing more.

Nevertheless, upon the announcement that Serena had won, a new sub-genre of the enigmatic Problem Internet™ came storming out of the basement, wagging a finger at Sports Illustrated for, I guess, lack of anything better to do. Nevermind poverty, the climate crisis or the seemingly constant threat of a lunatic in the midst of a bad day procuring firepower the likes of which some countries abstain from possessing; a horse didn’t win an award that it couldn’t even consciously enjoy, so man the hashtags and start firing.

To be fair, American Pharoah – that’s who we’re talking about here – is literally a once-in-a-generation horse. Winning the first Thoroughbred Triple Crown in the United States since 1978 is no small task, nor is becoming the first horse ever to win that as well as the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Despite his problematic spelling, Pharoah rose up to the occasion time and again, capturing the hearts of Americans and horse racing enthusiasts alike.

The thing about being a horse, though, is that, except for the other horses in a given race, you don’t really have any enemies. Everyone supported Pharoah, which is a byproduct of both the eternally waning horse racing subculture in this country and the exhausting wait in between Triple Crown victors. It’s really difficult not to root for a horse in a vacuum.

Except, in this case, that horse was facing America’s greatest current athlete, someone who may very well be the greatest women’s tennis player ever and who is working on removing that women’s qualifier as well. Serena’s CV is immaculate: 21 Grand Slam singles titles, the career Grand Slam thrice over, 36 total major titles, an all-time sibling rivalry and the oldest woman ever to hold the No. 1 world ranking, which she has as of this writing, at 34 years of age.

Even from a calendar year standpoint, Williams has been nuclear. In 2015, she won the first three majors with seeming ease. Out of 56 matches played this year, Serena was victorious in 53. Each of her matches at this year’s U.S. Open became appointment viewing, from her early Sherman’s March-like steamrolling to the incredible quarterfinal showdown against her sister Venus to her heart-shattering upset loss in the semifinal at the hands of Roberta Vinci. She attracted the eyes of dignitaries, fellow athletes and everyone’s favorite front-runner, Aubrey Graham.

In any other year, Serena is a shoo-in. Hell, in 2015, she’s nearly a shoo-in anyway, depending on your preferred definition of the word “athlete.” That American Pharoah won a straw poll conducted by SI merely reinforces a few notions we already had; namely, that a horse can be really popular without any detractors, and that, for all of our gains as a society, we still have a problematic relationship with minorities and women, and minority women, in this country.

A few frighteningly short years ago, people would have been up in arms that a woman could be named Sportsman of the Year, the traditional title of the award. Now, those same people (a rough approximation) are finding fault with SI for not giving credit to an animal, albeit a fascinating and powerful animal that allowed a nation to exhale after 37 years.

It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to suggest that this particular angry mob is blissfully unaware of the hobbling state of American tennis, which, as Venus gets older and Isner stays Isner, Serena is managing to single-handedly keep afloat. A vote for Pharoah is a vote for America, sure. He’s got America right in his name, after all. But Serena has it in her blood, and her story is as American as the Kentucky Derby.


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