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Serena Williams and the measure of greatness

  Serena Williams during her successful bid for a fifth US Open title. It was not meant to be this year.

Serena Williams during her successful bid for a fifth US Open title. It was not meant to be this year.

Though I consider myself a bonafide feminist, I must admit that I rarely follow women’s sports. I just find men more powerful and thrilling. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want women to have the same opportunities and compensation for equal work.

Which brings me to Serena Williams. No doubt there are those who are secretly and openly gleeful at her loss in the US Open semifinals to the appropriately named Roberta Vinci. Some of these gloaters are racists. But many others either don’t like her or are sick of the media overkill that trailed her quest to become the first woman since Steffi Graf to achieve a calendar-year Grand Slam – a quest that also died with Vinci’s victory.

I am neither a Williams’ fan nor critic, and I take no pleasure in her loss. Rather I see it as daring to achieve greatly, which carries with it the risk of failing greatly, too, but also the probability of accomplishing more than you otherwise would’ve. Aim for perfection so that you can achieve excellence.

At such moments, it helps to turn to history and literature. You think of President Theodore Roosevelt’s words in a 1910 speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, which resonate in our age of the snarky blogosphere:

‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I feel much the same way about myself as a writer – even though that’s on a vastly different scale than being a world-class athlete. I could’ve kept the manuscripts for my novel series “The Games Men Play” in a drawer, with all the others. But I decided to test the limits not only of my marketability as a writer but of my talents as well. I may never become an award-winning, best-selling novelist but at least I have the satisfaction of making myself into a novelist, of becoming my dream.

Fame is a tricky pursuit. Some are hailed for their accomplishments after they’re gone, like Vincent van Gogh. Others are regarded during their lifetimes only to be eclipsed later on. The painter Andrea del Sarto was acclaimed for the technical perfection of his canvases. But who today knows him in light of his contemporaries – that holy artistic trinity of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael?

In his poem “Andrea del Sarto,” Robert Browning uses the artist as a metaphor for those confined to life’s second tier. The poem is irrelevant here, save for a few lines:

“I do what many dream of, all their lives, 
—Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do, 
And fail in doing… 

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, 
Or what’s a heaven for? “