Serena Williams raised both arms in victory and screamed a delighted war cry. Fresh off a dominant victory in the 2016 Wimbledon final, she’d won her 22nd Grand Slam, tied for most in Open history and cementing her place as one of the greatest athletes of all-time — no gender qualifiers needed.
One day later Cristiano Ronaldo watched from the sidelines as Portugal battled for the European Championship. In the biggest game of his life, Ronaldo picked up an early injury and was subbed off in tears. They soon became tears of joy as Portugal lifted the cup with a late winner, a crowning moment for Ronaldo in a career already marked with top achievements.
Ronaldo is the leading scorer in history for Portugal, Real Madrid, and the entire Champions League. Along with the 2016 Euros, he’s won five domestic titles and five Champions League cups and is Forbes’s highest-paid athlete. Serena has now won 23 singles and 14 doubles titles. She trails only Margaret Court for most women’s Grand Slams ever. She is a four-time Olympic gold medalist and a six-time number one player in the world.
So why do so many fans almost instinctively root against Serena and Ronaldo?
As Serena stormed toward another Wimbledon title in 2016, she was not even the biggest story in her own family. Big sis Venus made her own charge all the way to the semifinals before falling short. And Ronaldo was not the only superstar in soccer to make a big finals run — just a few weeks prior, Messi came up short at Copa America. It was Messi’s third straight summer losing in the finals of a major competition, and he was largely applauded for his efforts.
Venus and Messi are almost universally celebrated. Fans love the finesse of their games. We love the underdog story. Messi is tiny and unassuming, someone you’d never expect to be a world-class athlete if you met him on the street. Venus is soft-spoken and inspiring, fighting a constant battle with Sjögren’s syndrome that causes chronic fatigue and pain. Each plays quietly and humbly, and each has overcome so many expectations.
Messi and Venus fit our chosen sports narratives. They’re the ones we make movies about.
They are one of us.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Serena Williams are superhuman. Real people aren’t supposed to be able to do the things they do.
Serena and Ronaldo are the players you create on video games when you want to set the difficulty to rookie and slaughter the computer opponent. They are their sport’s real-life version of Space Jam’s Monstars.
Ronaldo and Serena are raw power and uncaged athletic ability. They win not by overcoming but by being the one opponents cannot overcome. They harness sheer athleticism and talent in a way no one else in the world can.
Serena and Ronaldo are not fair.
And maybe that’s the problem — Ronaldo and Serena do not appeal to our sense of sports justice. We desire parity in sports and in life. Every team should have a fair shot, dealt from the same deck. Each player should start on the same ground, so cliches like grit and heart and effort make the difference.
We don’t resonate with Serena or Ronaldo because they were given the complete package and we weren’t. Something ridiculous inside of us believes that maybe, if we’d just trained hard enough, we too could’ve become Messi or Venus. But we never could have become Ronaldo or Serena. Raw athleticism and power is given at birth — an unfair, unearned advantage.
An uncomfortable narrative.
To root for Serena and Ronaldo is to root for The Power.
We used to group LeBron James in with the Serenas and Ronaldos of the world. LeBron was given the full package and we resented him for it, held him to a higher standard. We rooted for the underdog Stephen Curry, the little everyman that could. It took us 13 years and a 3–1 deficit in the Finals to finally embrace LeBron, underdog at last, and appreciate his greatness.
Like LeBron, Serena and Ronaldo are not everyman. They are freaks, cyborgs created in a lab to do exactly what they are doing, to dominate exactly how they are dominating. They are special. They are The One.
Ronaldo, Serena, and LeBron make underdog stories possible. They are the very thing that every other athlete is not. They are one-in-seven-billion, uniquely dominant in a world filled with imperfect facsimiles.
Serena and Ronaldo are magnificent, the embodiment of sports perfection. They’re what the creators of tennis and soccer envisioned a human might someday be… only better.
Maybe we’ll never universally root for superhuman athletes like Serena, Ronaldo, and LeBron. But perhaps we can stop rooting against them and learn to appreciate athletic greatness unique from anything else in human history.