Brunt: You’ve come a long way—maybe

Serena Williams. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

There’s only one appropriate reaction.

“Really? Now?”

It seems that a couple of Saturdays ago, conservative pundit David Frum flipped on his television and stumbled upon a tennis match. There he saw Serena Williams, who long ago established herself on a very short list (Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf are the only others in the conversation) of the greatest female players of all time, making short work of Garbine Muguruza while taking her sixth Wimbledon singles championship, her 21st Grand Slam title.

If Williams wins the U.S. Open in September—barring injury she will enter that tournament as the overwhelming favourite—she will hold all four major championships in a calendar year at the ripe old age of 33.

That Wimbledon victory should have been an opportunity to marvel at Williams’s remarkable career, at how she (and, to a lesser degree, her sister Venus) redefined women’s tennis. Not in her own image—there is still no one else on tour who can do what Williams does—but in terms of its horizons. She is big and strong and powerful and skilled, she can win with her serve, win from the baseline, and, if pressed, can win at the net.

Aside from injuries that have occasionally derailed her, Williams’s only real flaws have been lapses of intensity and concentration, and that’s been a good thing for everyone else. No exaggeration: If Williams had played at 100 percent for every point of every game, she might have gone years without losing a match.

There are elements of the tennis world and the larger world that have never grown comfortable with the Williams sisters, for reasons that have to do with their physical dominance, for reasons that in the past have had to do with hairstyles and attire and a non-deferential attitude, and yes, for reasons of race, sometimes masquerading as one or all of the above. But what a strange thing it was to see that tired old theme resurface in 2015.

On July 10, the New York Times published a story about the challenge of “body issue” among female tennis players—debating whether they could still look feminine while building Serena-esque muscle, which in itself seemed like a sad throwback to another time.

Frum, referencing that story, went a step further. Williams, he suggested in a Twitter conversation, must surely be using performance-enhancing drugs.

It’s tough to know where to start, but for the moment, let’s leave the issues of female athletes and body image and the culture’s preference for petite tennis princesses for another day and concentrate on the PED slur.

The use of performance-enhancing substances is as old as sport, and the use of the kinds of drugs that are now a regular part of our vocabulary goes back more than 50 years. (In 1969, Sports Illustrated ran an extensive piece about doping. It’s worth a look if just to see what was going on 20 years before folks began fawning over the “Bash Brothers.”)

Since the great baseball home-run derby and the subsequent moral panic around Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the attitude among fans and the sports press has morphed from one of blissful ignorance—or in some cases, “Don’t ask, don’t tell”—to a perpetual rush to judgment. See something amazing, see an athlete raise the bar dramatically and rewrite the record book? That’s great, that’s historic, that’s something you were happy to be alive to witness, but then again, maybe they were on the juice.

Sometimes they are. But you can’t tell whether that’s the case simply by measuring their biceps or observing their back acne, and any attempt to do so is both folly and grossly unfair.

When accused, an athlete can’t prove they’re not using, they can’t prove they’re clean. Shifting the test from guilt to innocence is a tactic the likes of Joe McCarthy understood all too well.

Which brings us back to Frum, who is certainly not alone in saying the kind of thing that would be said by the smart aleck in your crowd while watching a game on television, except that he did it in the global barroom conversation that is Twitter. Then, after first maintaining that it was meant to be a private comment, he doubled down by suggesting that there had been a short period in Williams’s career when she wasn’t being tested outside of competitions, as though that proved something.

Williams has been tested. Plenty. In and out of competition. For years. She has never failed a test. That is the only evidence there is.

She is both an extraordinary physical specimen and a historically great, highly skilled athlete. She is also different in a whole bunch of ways from anyone who has come before her in her sport.

Some people don’t like that last part. Still.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.