"The Things We Forget" is a chronicle of 2008 in sports. It is presented in 11 parts. This is Part 6, on Venus and Serena Williams. At the bottom of this piece, you can navigate to the other 10 parts.
Of all the great stories of this year, the resurgence of Venus and Serena Williams was the most overlooked. After their domination at the All England Club—the first time they had met in a Grand Slam final since 2003 and the fifth time Venus had won Wimbledon—they snagged doubles gold together in Beijing. Serena then went to New York and won the U.S. Open without losing a set. (Her toughest opponent was Venus in the quarters.) After being ranked as low as 140 two years ago, Serena was once again the best women's player on the planet. In almost any other year, the Williams sisters might have basked in a long glow. Instead, even for them, 2008 was a flash that was doused too soon.
"You know, it's funny," Serena said in September, lazing on a Florida beach. "A few minutes after I won the U.S. Open, I was like, Okay, I did that. I won. It's mine. But that was that. When I finally got home that night, it was so late, I just went to sleep. The next morning, I woke up, and it was already over."
Venus, waiting for a flight to take her to Qatar for the season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships, remembered the Olympics the same way. "You really feel like you're in a moment in time that will be over so fast, so I tried to take in as much as I could. We loved Beijing—just being able to be there and to compete, then standing on the podium. We didn't want to leave. We didn't want it to be over. But when that moment's gone, it's gone."
Worse, like Annika Sorenstam, neither sister seemed satisfied with what she had accomplished—not in 2008, not in her career. "I'm a little disappointed, to be honest," Venus said of winning her fifth Wimbledon title. "I was hoping to have more by now. I was thinking more like 10." Serena understood the sentiment. "I was so disappointed not to win Wimbledon," she said, maybe forgetting it was her sister who beat her. "And I felt even worse after I lost in Paris. Going to New York, I felt like I really needed to win or else."
So why even bother to play? Why work so hard and give so much if the reward in the end is neither happiness nor history? For Venus and Serena, the answer was so obvious that the question had never crossed their minds. Tennis is what they do and what they have done since they were toddlers. It's what made them rich and famous, what allows them to travel the world, what earns them places on podiums and magazine covers. Why bother playing? That was like asking why they bothered to breathe.
"I love what I do," Venus said. "When I win, it's pure joy. It might only last a moment, but it's a great moment. And I could never hang up my racket knowing I had more in me. I'd never be able to forget that I had more left. I couldn't forgive myself."
Serena was more blunt. "They'll have to drag me out back and shoot me," she said. Which reminds me of a story about a horse. Earlier this year, my favorite writer died. His name was W.C. Heinz. He wrote for newspapers and magazines mostly, about sports that people don't care much about anymore—boxing, the ponies. There was a memorial service one rainy night in New York City, at an old bar called Elaine's. In attendance were lots of old writers and a few young ones; what united us was our admiration of Heinz. We talked about how we wished we could write like him on his worst day. Then his daughter played a video of the man talking about his work and how much he hated everything he wrote, how it was never as perfect as he hoped it might be.
With one exception. He wrote a piece called "Death of a Racehorse" for the New York Sun in 1949. It was about a horse named Air Lift who broke down in his first race. In the rain beside the stables, with lightning streaking across the sky, they shot the animal, and Heinz watched. Then he wrote the most heartbreaking story about that afternoon. Heinz captured the moment with such beauty that Air Lift has lived forever.
And the writer knew what he had done. He knew it that afternoon at the track, and he knew it on the day he died. He knew how it felt to spend an entire life in pursuit of a feeling he got just that once. But it was a feeling so good, once was enough for him to never stop trying to find it again.
Venus and Serena Williams know the feeling too.
Other Parts of "The Things We Forget"
Part 1: The Closing of Yankee Stadium
Part 2: Michael Phelps
Part 3: Lance Armstrong and David Tyree
Part 4: Annika Sorenstam
Part 5: Josh Hamilton
Part 7: The Boston Celtics
Part 8: Rocco Mediate and Tiger Woods
Part 9: Sidney Crosby
Part 10: Thurman Munson's old locker at Yankee Stadium
Part 11: The 2008 World Series
Bonus: See the author's receipts from putting together this story.