Serena Williams marches on.
In discussing women’s tennis with my wife, having tuned in to some matches at this year’s U.S. Open, it seemed to me that the missing thing in that dynamic was pressure. There wasn’t anyone to say, “If that’s the best you got, just hitting balls back and waiting for me to miss, you better just pack your things right now. I’m coming.”
Enter Serena Williams.
She took part in the ceremonial ringing of the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, and what you realized at that moment is that Williams isn’t just big. She’s larger than life, exuding that blinding aura that all great athletes have. She dispatched the No. 2 seed at the U.S. Open not just because of tennis, but because of everything. Every last little thing.
She hits the ball harder, takes more chances, has a bigger first serve and is fearless in a way that elevates any match in which she shows up to play. She tries shots that other players don’t dare. You could see the pressure just getting to be too much for Ms. Kontaveit, the latest victim in the Serena Williams Farewell parade. “You want me, you got me.” It’s the full load — hair, diamond-encrusted custom Nike shoes, rhinestones braided into her hair, all atop a right arm that is like Thor’s hammer. Serena Williams is a damn Valkyrie.
The thing about that is, as it is with all legit GOATS, playing her lays on pressure. So, so much pressure. It was the same with Messi. You would win a duel or two, but over time, the quality was just so much, the pressure of every last time, knowing he was coming for you and that all he needed was once. One time. Playing GOATS is brutal and inexorable in a way that must impart something like a physical weight.
“Oh, crap. Here he/she comes. Again.” And it just gets to be too much. Defenders do their best, make an amazing tackle. Kontaveit, against Williams, hit a drop shot that is a winner for her 99 percent of the time. This time, Williams sprinted to the ball and smoked it up the line for a winner. “Here she comes. Again.”
When Messi got run out of town on a fiscal rail, what Barça lost was more than his goals, more than his passes, more than his play. What Barça lost was that pressure. You have to deal with everybody else, and then there is Him. Sitting, running at you, waiting for you to be human. He isn’t. Michael Jordan had the same quality. Even on off nights, you never knew when it was going to happen, whether the switch was going to flick. So playing against him was constant pressure. He’s tired, he’s missing shots. You blow him a little smoke and his eyes change. And that’s it.
When Joan Laporta decided to “overpay” for a 34-year-old forward named Robert Lewandowski, it was because he knew what he was buying. That pressure. Like that other 34-year-old forward who just recently hoisted both Liga and Champions League trophies, Lewandowski is inevitable. He’s fit, strong and exceptional, even at what is an advanced age for top-flight football. He’s pressure.
More crucially, he’s weight. Dembele feeding Luuk De Jong or Memphis Depay is manageable. It’s just a player. Lewandowski is heavy. He has Been There in a way that is impossible to explain. Sure that goal against Valladolid was a partial deflection, wasn’t a pure backheel goal. But to even try that shot, to get his body into a position to get set up to try that shot?
“Oh, crap. Here he comes again.”
Late in the first set, Williams double-faulted on a break point. It was a sloppy service game. In the next game, on Kontaveit’s serve, Williams took a first serve to her backhand side and stroked a winner so pure, the opponent didn’t even move. GOAT stuff.
It’s an extraordinary thing to watch great players work. And they don’t just apply pressure to opponents. Jordan was brutal, unrelenting in practice. If you weren’t careful, he would break you like he did opponents, because you had to be able to withstand his fire so that you would be able to withstand the flames of mere mortals.
Lewandowski has a standard. When he talked to Balde during the Valladolid match, to explain what was expected of him, it was an amazing moment because of what it represented. “I need more from you. I am at this level, and you need to catch up.”
Some players can’t. And they break. The club, the talent, the expectation, the load. It isn’t that they aren’t talented. They just can’t manage the load, the pressure. We snarled and snarked about the price Barça paid for Lewandowski, until we watched him work. It’s GOAT stuff. Keep up or get left behind.
It happened during the Guardiola years. Standards were applied, and players got left behind by a coterie of GOATs. Get good or get gone. And you can see it happening now, again. The team isn’t at the same level, but the competition is fierce. It flows downhill from a manager who is considered by many who understand the game to be the greatest midfielder to ever play. Alejandro Balde has elevated, and Jordi Alba is refusing loan moves to Inter. That’s how fast it happens. Keep up. Jules Kounde comes, Andreas Christensen comes and suddenly Xavi is talking of “other roles” for Gerard Pique.
Pressure is savage, but also beautiful and a bit cruel. It was nothing personal when Messi stroked an unstoppable free kick past a diving keeper, nothing personal when Jordan dropped threes on defense after defense, nothing personal when Williams smote an ace to close out the first set in a tiebreaker. It’s just what GOATs do. Put things in your head, make you think, demand and assert.
At its highest level, sport is truly beautiful. The blessing of being a GOAT is that you don’t always need to be at your highest level. Sometimes, you just need to show up to have your opponent think, “Uh, oh … here we go.” It’s that head start granted by greatness that is always wonderful to watch. It was wonderful to watch it in New York last night, and it’s wonderful to have it back at FC Barcelona.