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Serena’s Only Option: Surrender To Queen Naomi

With Osaka firmly established as tennis’ reigning one-name icon, it’s important Williams not overstay her welcome at 39 in pursuit of a daunting 24th Grand Slam title.

Jay Mariotti

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Let’s not misinterpret why Serena Williams was crying. It wasn’t because reporters were pushing her toward retirement with cold questions as she sat glumly, four years since her last Grand Slam title, wearing a diamond necklace that recognized her as “QUEEN.”

No, she was breaking down and abruptly leaving the news conference in Melbourne because she no longer can be QUEEN.

Image result for queen serena williams tears

It’s only a winnable game, this business of going out on one’s own terms, if obstacles aren’t clogging the legacy train. Tom Brady still hasn’t encountered an impediment to winning Super Bowls, but Williams, nearing 40, is trapped in an unfulfilling end game dominated by a younger and, somehow, potentially better version of herself. The new badass of women’s tennis, Naomi Osaka, already is 4-for-4 in major finals at just 23 after winning the Australian Open — which happens to be the number of Slam titles that Williams has been stuck on forever, one shy of the sport’s all-time record. Eerily, 23 also was the uniform number of Michael Jordan, another legend who didn’t realize it was time to go before it was too late.

“If I ever say farewell,” she said, “I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

She won’t have to say a word. It’s already clear how this story ends, the succession to her throne already established.

We needn’t prosecute Williams if she wants to march on in her one-legged catsuit, in awkward pursuit of one or two more trophies. It’s her life, not ours. But the tears provide evidence of her pain, a burden that is harder to watch as Osaka assumes control with an impenetrable perspective for one so young. Have you listened to her speak? She exudes traces of Zen, having overcome her own tears when she crumbled emotionally two years ago at Wimbledon, no longer having fun after ascending to No. 1 in the world. Tennis is known for breaking phenoms, and Osaka could have cracked following the moment that changed the sport forever, when she won her first U.S. Open amid boos as Williams infamously melted down in warfare with a chair ump doing his job. Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, Osaka grew up on Long Island and in Florida, yet she was treated like an outsider that day by boorish New Yorkers. Who was she to disrupt Queen Serena?

“Honestly, for me, when everything happened in New York, I got really scared, because I felt like it put me into this light that I’ve never been in before,” she said.

Instead of fading away, Osaka found peace — and, after two coaching changes and 12 subsequent losses, a keeper in Wim Fissette, who devised a plan that refined her pulverizing serve and groundstrokes. She also matured into womanhood and embraced the lessons of 2020, the horrors of COVID-19 mixed with racial unrest, wearing seven different masks with names of Black police brutality victims during her U.S. Open matches. When she arrived in Australia and had to quarantine in a hotel with other contestants, she didn’t complain like the planet’s top male player, the insufferable Novak Djokovic. She simply stayed in her room and tried not to binge-eat while plotting how to use the pandemic to her advantage.

The greats have done precisely that.

Brady. LeBron. Naomi.

“I think the thing that I’m most proud of is now how mentally strong I’ve become,” Osaka said. “I used to be really up and down. For me, I had a lot of doubts in myself. But I think the quarantine process and seeing everything that’s going on in the world — for me, it put a lot into perspective. I used to weigh my entire existence on if I won or lost a tennis match. That’s just not how I feel anymore.”

She sounds like she’s on a couch with a therapist. Except, Osaka is winning the inner conflict with her soul. “What I’ve learned on and off the court is it’s OK to not be sure about yourself,” she said. “For me, I feel like I’ve always forced myself to, like, be `strong’ or whatever. I think if you’re not feeling OK, it’s OK to not feel OK. You have to sort of go within yourself and figure things out in a way.”

But as long as she’s out there on a court — whipping forehands and making endorsement fortunes like no one since, well, Serena — Osaka sees no point in wasting time. “I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners-up,” she said. “You might, but the winner’s name is the one that’s engraved.” If that approach sounds familiar, she reminded us of her muse by wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey to a news conference, as she does in other defining moments. “I truly think it gives me strength,” she said.

Image result for osaka kobe jersey

So how is Williams supposed to overcome this hurricane? She can’t. Despite claims of being lighter on her feet after an offseason of training, she simply couldn’t move at times as Osaka’s strokemaking ran her from side to side. With her unforced errors climbing toward 24, she lost focus and faith, screaming after a missed forehand, “Make a shot!” We forget, in witnessing her machine-like grip on her craft for two decades, that Williams experienced what she called life-threatening complications during her 2017 pregnancy, and that she left the tour to gather herself. When she returned, there was Osaka, who had idolized Serena and aspired to become the same force.

Now, it’s a matter of when Williams realizes she can’t get to 24 as Osaka is collecting all the Slams. She is a human being who has suffered injuries for three years — knees, a left Achilles, a pectoral muscle, circulation issues in her legs and feet — and while Osaka has slipped up on the Wimbledon grass and Roland Garros clay, there’s a sense Serena no longer can seize a flaw. Having achieved so much, she understandably prefers not to end her career just shy of a goal. Djokovic, who now has 18 Slam titles and is chasing his own history (the 20 of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal), put it best when he said of himself and Williams, “When you’re chasing big things that are related to the history of the sport, obviously it has a lot of weight, a lot of pressure. And regardless of the amount of years you have played on the tour and the experience that you have, you still feel it on your shoulders.”

Yet isn’t 24 just a number when Williams long has been validated as the greatest ever in her sport? The holder of the record, Margaret Court, won the Australian Open 11 times in her native country back when elite players didn’t venture Down Under for the event. Her place atop the leaderboard is diluted, further muddled by her public anti-LGBTQ opinions — “the work of the devil,” Court has said — that have made her a detestable figure in some tennis circles. Is it possible Williams, as an advocate of gender equality, is driven to topple Court for social reasons?

Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, says Williams doesn’t think she needs 24 as career validation. Just the other day, Serena herself said, “My life is way more than a trophy.” But another recent glimpse shows her in Miami, giving a video tour of her new home to Architectural Digest. When she reaches the trophy room, she spots a piece of runner-up hardware and says, “We’ll put that one in the trash. We don’t keep second place.”

In Melbourne, Williams didn’t even finish second. Another young American, Jennifer Brady, lost the final to Osaka in straight sets. So much was made of how Williams greeted Osaka at the end of their semifinal, with her hand over her heart, as if saying goodbye to Australia and hello to her successor’s reign. Osaka has made it clear she doesn’t want to see Williams go, owing so much to the legacy of Serena and older sister Venus, two Black girls from Compton who shunned the sport’s White establishment and were home-schooled to glory by their father. Osaka, among 12 Black women in the 2020 U.S. Open singles draw, wrote in a recent column in The Telegraph (yes, she writes her own columns): “My young aspirations owe so much to Serena and Venus. Without those trailblazers, there would be no Naomi, no Coco (Gauff), no Sloane (Stephens), no Madison (Keys). Everything we did was inspired by them.”

When asked about Serena’s future last week, Osaka grew wistful. “It’s kind of sad when you say it like that, because for me, I want her to play forever. That’s the little kid in me,” she said. “As long as Serena’s here, I think she’s the face of women’s tennis.” And make no mistake, Osaka still can be a little kid, such as when she signed a TV camera lens immediately after beating Williams. “Mari, stop sending weird images in the group chat,” she wrote, directing a message to her older sister.

But Naomi is the predominant one-name icon now, capable of winning majors as long as she wants to keep playing. Said Jen Brady: “She’s such an inspiration to us all, and what she’s doing for the game is amazing in getting the sport out there. I hope young girls at home are watching and inspired by what she’s doing.” Osaka likely won’t want to play until she’s 39, but that doesn’t mean she won’t be remembered — like Tiger Woods juxtaposed against Jack Nicklaus — as having played the best tennis ever in the female ranks.

Perhaps that realization already has tapped Williams on the brain. On Instagram, just before leaving Australia for possibly the last time as a player, she thanked local fans in a note. “I am so honored to be able to play in front of you all,” she wrote. “Your support — your cheers, I only wish I could have done better for you today. I am forever in debt and grateful to each and every single one of you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I adore you.”

Hours later, after ruling the final with a serve that reached 122 mph, Osaka was saying after her 21st straight victory, “For me, I feel like every opportunity to play a Slam is an opportunity to win a Slam. So I think maybe I put that pressure on myself, but honestly, it’s working out in my favor right now.”

She was handed a pour of champagne. Not a drinker, she reluctantly took a sip and made a sour face, having been told growing up that alcohol is a no-no. “Like it’s ruining your body or your liver,” she said. “I just want to give myself an advantage for as long as I can.”

Naomi Osaka celebrates with champagne during a photo shoot at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy

And how long might that be? “I feel like the biggest thing I want to achieve is — this is gonna sound really odd — hopefully I play long enough to play a girl that said that I was once her favorite player or something. For me, I think that’s the coolest thing that could ever happen to me. … I just think that that’s how the sport moves forward.”

Spoken like the new QUEEN, with no interest in abdicating until she says so. Let the dethroned shed the tears.

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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