In Praise of Danica Patrick

February 17, 2009

Its still almost two months before the season starts for one of my favorite sports – Indy Car racing. Like a lot of sports these days Indy Car faces a major challenge because of the economy. Despite the likely tough times ahead, its biggest star – Danica Patrick – seems to be shining brighter than ever.

Thanks to a nearly naked appearance in a Super Bowl commercial for her sponsor Go Daddy, and another barely dressed spread in Sports Illustrated’s just issued top-selling swimsuit edition, Danica Patrick’s 15 minutes of fame have now extended to four years. Clearly the fascination is not over with a cute little woman who will shamelessly flaunt her assets and then duke it out with the guys at 230 miles per hour. I’m not hating, and neither is Indy Car.

Ever since almost winning the Indianapolis 500 in 2005, Danica has had people talking about her and looking at her. And even though she has only won one race since then, she’s led in a number of others and is a threat to win week in and week out.

I’m an Indy Car purist who still remembers the good old days when Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt were the dominant drivers. Collectively those two men won nearly 120 Indy Car races – more than anyone in history. They were big-time winners who between them also won a lot of other renowned races, including the Daytona 500, the 24 hours of Le Mans, the Grand Prix of Monoco and I could go on and on.

But now I find myself appreciating Danica Patrick for reasons other than winning. I like that she isn’t trying to fool anyone. She obviously knows that until she wins more races her biggest assets remain her tight body and cute face. And she is marketing those assets all the way to the bank. That’s honesty. That’s America. And what’s wrong with that?

As a result, Danica is one of the few sports stars who can be identified by just one name, just like her predecessors, AJ and Mario. And even though she’s driven just a single victory lap, Danica is a legitimate challenger in the only major sport in America where women compete as equals against men. And that’s quite an accomplishment. Even if she has to take off most of her clothes to make the point.


Serena Williams Champion – Welcome Back!

January 27, 2007

When this years Australian Open started Serena Williams’ mother said she was rusty. Well, two weeks and a championship later the rust appears to have fallen off. Let’s just hope it stays off. Judging by her celebration and the look on her face after she hit the championship point Serena Williams was ecstatic and relieved about her 6-1, 6-2 straight-set destruction of Maria Sharapova the world’s number one player. The demolition confirmed once again that Serena Williams at her best simply cannot be beaten by any of today’s top females. But we also know that a Serena out of shape and unfocused can be beaten by most of those same players.

Injuries and apparent disinterest nearly robbed Serena and her fans of this sweet comeback. The last time she won a tournament of any kind was two full years ago, ironically at the Australian Open. Two years between wins is way too long for a player of Serena’s ability and potential greatness. The former number one ranked player came into the Open ranked 81st and unseeded. She started the tournament a little shaky and not quite in game shape but she fought through it and wound up finishing off Sharapova with power, precision and a steely eyed determination that left no doubt she was going to win.

My hope is that Serena does not take this victory – her eighth overall Grand Slam title – for granted and squander it on some frivolous endeavor like acting and the many other non-tennis related activities that have zapped her focus in recent years. I’d like to think that her effort these last two weeks were a way of saying first to herself and then to others that at 25 years of age she is not done and that the best is yet to come. But for that to happen she will have to re-commit to playing tennis on a regular basis because there is no guarantee that she will be able to play dominant tennis again if she fails to train and doesn’t take her game seriously.

Serena Williams leaves Australia now ranked 14th in the world. Oh what a difference a Grand Slam victory makes. I’m hoping that the real Serena Williams a potential legend – and champion of the 2007 Australian Open – is back to stay.

The Williams Sisters: Past Champions

January 11, 2007

Whatever happened to…., I started thinking about the Williams sisters the other day when it was reported that Venus Williams was pulling out of next week’s Australian Open, the first leg of tennis’ grand slam. It seems that Venus and her sister Serena have been off my radar screen for a long time now. There was a time that whenever one of them was playing it was appointment viewing for me. Well, its been a year and a half since Venus last won a tournament, and two years since Serena’s last victory. Venus is ranked number 48 in the world, Serena has dropped all the way to 94th.

I don’t know how to feel about their fall. On one hand I feel sad that two of the best players to ever play women’s tennis who just happen to be sisters are on the downhill side of their careers. On the other hand I’m angry that both through the need to do everything but play tennis have allowed their great talents to atrophy. I once felt that they owed it to the historic paths carved out by Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to dominate tennis and continue to knockout sterotypes.

They arrived on the tennis scene just over 10 years ago as teenagers to all appearances perfectly created for the game by their misunderstood Svengali-like father Richard Williams. They were big, cute and intimidating. For the first few years it was Venus threatening to redefine the game. Then it was Serena who finally upended her sister to run roughshod over all the girls in her path. Then as brightly as they’d shown in those peak formative years their tennis stars slowly started to fade. Serena turning to Hollywood to become an occasional actress and Venus distracted by her business goals as a fashion designer.

It seemed the Williams sisters were involved in everything but tennis. Eventually their distracted attention spans seemed to cause them to lose focus on the tennis court. Both were getting beaten by no names. And both had a laundry list of excuses why they were losing.

For the record, Venus will turn 27 years old in June. The five-time grand slam champion and winner of 33 tour titles is at an advanced age for today’s tennis stars. Serena will turn 26 later this year. The seven-time grand slam champion will play in the Australian Open, but reports are that as has been the case in recent years, her weight remains a problem and her will to win is still questionable. Serena’s last victory came two years ago at the Open down under.

Let me be clear the Williams sisters owe me nothing. But I must admit I really wanted them to be great. Tiger Woods great. Focused on destruction and titles. Boring all of us with finals between only each other with the rest of the tennis world forced to watch enviously. And us fans at home and in the stands saying – ‘that damn crazy-ass Richard Williams sure knew what he was talking about!’

Unfortunately, it appears that my tennis dream for the Williams sisters will not happen and that’s a shame.