Sports Person of the Year: Serena Williams

Lance Armstrong is racking up awards like this, which is preposterous. Salon sets the record straight.

Published January 3, 2003 9:36PM (EST)

In an emergency development, Salon hereby announces the bestowal of its inaugural Sports Person of the Year award.

In most cases these awards exist as an excuse to get a little free publicity ("Table Tennis Illustrated named Timo Boll its Sportsman of the Year today"), but Salon's award is being introduced because someone has to acknowledge poor Serena Williams with an award that's not segregated by sex. She's our first winner.

Williams was named the Female Athlete of the Year by both the Associated Press and Reuters. But the most prestigious Sportsman of the Year-type award, or at least the best known in this country, is Sports Illustrated's. That one went, outrageously, to Lance Armstrong, the four-time Tour de France winner. The Sporting News chose Notre Dame football coach Ty Willingham, which gets a nod of approval from this corner just because it's such an oddball pick. He took over a 5-6 team and led it to a 10-2 record, not counting the New Year's Day bowl loss. That's nice, but hardly Sportsman of the Year stuff. But it's Notre Dame, so it, you know, matters. Funny.

But Lance Armstrong! He's by most accounts a great guy, and he's a great story, having beaten cancer and all, but he won one race in a sport so obscure that most Americans can't even name another of its events, and so limited that its skill set can be described thusly: pedaling fast and not falling over. I understand: Armstrong, also AP's Male Athlete of the Year, is really, really good at pedaling fast. To say he's good at pedaling fast is like saying that Ronaldo, the Brazilian soccer star who was Reuters' Male Athlete of the Year, is good at kicking a ball.

But then again: No, it isn't. You can watch Ronaldo play match after match and he'll surprise you time and again with his creativity and skill. Keep watching, and you'll keep seeing things you've never seen before. Once you've seen Armstrong pedaling for a few seconds -- Zip! There he goes! Unf! He's going uphill! -- you've seen the show. Forever.

For reasons almost entirely lost on most Americans, including your humble servant, bicycle racing is popular in Europe. Good for Europe, which also has a taste for cheesy techno music, men who don't wear socks, and starting world wars -- not to imply that all of those things are bad.

But in this country we rarely think of bike racing. We pay attention at most once a year, during the Tour de France, but only to the extent that an American is in the lead. In a dog's age of sitting around bars and living rooms and talking sports, I have never once been in the presence of a conversation about bike racing that was not a conversation about the movie "Breaking Away." And I once had a roommate who was a bicycle racer! Even he never brought up the Tour de France.

Armstrong is the second bike racer to be named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in the last 15 years. (Greg LeMond was the other.) In the same period, there have been two winners -- Joe Montana and Don Shula -- from football, the sport that dominates the American landscape. I think I speak for the American people when I say: Enough with the bike guys. Sports Illustrated's "Stories of the Year" issue ranked Armstrong's Tour de France 12th, eight places behind Williams' emergence, which is about right.

If he weren't astride a bicycle or wearing his racing gear, would you even recognize Lance Armstrong? And even when you do recognize him, it's probably only because he's the only bicycle racer you know: "There's a guy in one of those bike suits. Must be Lance Armstrong." Can you name any of his rivals?

Serena Williams, meanwhile, is a cultural phenomenon who in 2002 came to dominate a sport that Americans actually pay attention to. The Williams sisters' breathtaking combination of speed and power is unprecedented in women's tennis, and while Venus, 22, was the first to emerge as a consistent winner, it's Serena, 21, who has long been thought the superior athlete. In 2002, she finally -- finally! At 21! -- put it all together, winning eight of the 13 tournaments she entered, including three straight Grand Slam titles, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. She beat Venus, the former No. 1 and now No. 2 player in the world, in the finals of all three. An ankle injury kept her out of the other Grand Slam, the Australian Open.

But she didn't just dominate her sport, she also transcended it. She had a guest shot on a sitcom. She did Oprah. She wore eye-popping outfits and creative hairdos. When was the last time you heard sports talk radio bozos debating women's tennis outfits? "The green one? The black one? Carl from Springfield, you're on." "Yeah, what's up with the knee socks?"

"I'm really exciting," Williams has said. "I smile a lot, I win a lot, and I'm really sexy." Not that the latter plays any part in choosing the Salon Sports Person of the Year, but: Damn straight. The insipid and talentless Anna Kournikova has dominated the tennis sex symbol business for the last few years, but the striking, charismatic Williams is relegating her to that corner of our cultural memory where Charlene Tilton and Heather Thomas mill around, waiting for VH1 to call.

I don't know why Williams doesn't get the respect she deserves. I'd hate to think there's a racial element at play in Sports Illustrated's choice of Armstrong over her, but this is America, and if we're honest we dismiss the issue of race at our peril. Fashion magazines reportedly don't sell as well when they have black women on the cover as when they have whites. Could S.I. have been thinking along those lines? I hope not, and I seriously doubt it -- neither Williams sister is a stranger to the magazine's cover -- but I can't imagine what criteria there might be under which Williams wouldn't win. (Willingham, the Sporting News' winner, is black.)

Around here we look for someone who dominates his or her sport, and sports that Americans watch carry more weight than those we ignore. Table tennis juggernaut Timo Boll has little chance of ever winning. If that dominant performer also separates from the pack, becomes a hot topic around the water cooler, so much the better.

Shaquille O'Neal made a solid candidate in 2002, single-handedly winning the Lakers a third straight NBA title. (No offense to Kobe Bryant, but trade him and all the other Lakers except Shaq to the Nets for all of their players except any center they want to keep, and the Lakers still sweep the Finals.) Barry Bonds also deserved consideration, with another astounding season, this time leading the Giants to the World Series. If golf were a sport, Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam would merit a look too.

They're all better candidates than Armstrong, but 2002 was Serena's year. If you don't believe that, wait a decade or so, then notice how every teenage tennis phenom will talk about how she was inspired to pick up a racquet when she saw Serena Williams on TV.

That was back when Serena was Salon's first Sports Person of the Year.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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