Madison Square Garden: World's Best Woman Athlete to Shine in America's Most Celebrated Arena

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2016 Australian Open - Day 11 : News Photo

Jerry Solomon, the promoter of the upcoming BNP Paribas Showdown in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, March 8, chose to honor Serena Williams this year. And with good reason. Sure, she may have faltered in her historic match against Roberta Vinci at the US Open, and she again stumbled in Australia, but make no mistake about it, the 21-time Grand Slam winner is the best and most compelling female athlete in the world. She dominates in tennis, has a huge social media presence, and when it comes to big serves, imposing forehands and dramatic plot turns on court and off, there’s no one that touches the singular Serena. She’s a diva, she’s dramatic, and her play – well, it’s devastating.

Held on World Tennis Day, the 9th Annual BNP Paribas Showdown is a one-night-only event, with Serena facing off against Caroline Wozniacki, and defending French Open champion Stan Wawrinka taking on the French shotmaking wonder Gael Monfils. “We are very fortunate to have Serena playing this year,” says Solomon. “What she has done both on and off the court is off the charts in terms of success. At Madison Square Garden on World Tennis Day is a time to step back and say, ‘Wow – what you have accomplished is extraordinary.’ To do that in the world’s most famous arena is special…It’s appropriate at this stage in her life and career that she’s playing in the Garden, and we have the opportunity to do something to celebrate her.”

For over 20 years, Serena’s given us more twists and turns than “Scandal.” She overcame a jeering crowd as a 19-year-old at Indian Wells, and there were big-time controversies with players like Justine Henin in Paris and Jennifer Capriati in New York – a dust-up which led directly to the implementation of Hawk-Eye. It seems that with Serena it’s been nonstop drama: she’s bounced back from a life-threatening pulmonary embolism, and after temperamental flare-ups in the Big Apple in 2009 and 2011, went on to three straight victories at the US Open. There’s something about this athlete. She’s inner-city tough, and knows how to rebound and soldier on. She’s got it, and then some.

After a crushing loss in the first round of the French Open in 2012, Serena signed with the little-known coach Patrick Mouratoglou, and has sprinted since, winning eight Slams. Selecting her as their Sportsperson of the Year in 2015, Sports Illustrated claimed she’s the embodiment of America, inspiring African-Americans, women trying to break the glass ceiling and more. “She’s stepped out above and beyond tennis and above and beyond sports,” says Solomon. “She’s become a role model for people, because of where she came from, what she’s had to overcome, how she’s dealt with success, how she’s dealt with failure, how she’s dealt with injury and family [tragedy], all in a very public way. I have a genuine respect for what she’s done, on so many different levels…She’s evolved with the spotlight on her for 20 years. That is a very hard thing to do.”

Serena will be playing her good friend, the personable Caroline Wozniacki, the former No. 1 and 2015 US Open finalist, who recently grew great attention when she appeared in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue. “It’s awesome we can play with Serena on World Tennis Day in New York,” says Wozniacki. “To play in Madison Square Garden is so special – so many unbelievable events have happened in that arena, from boxing to concerts to the Rangers and the Knicks. It’s such a huge opportunity – this is going to be my second time [playing at the BNP Paribas Showdown], and the first time was awesome.”

Serena and Wozniacki won’t be the only tennis stars in the Garden in March. Stan Wawrinka, who arguably has the best backhand in tennis and maybe the best one-two punch – his backhand and forehand – will be playing the incredibly entertaining and athletic Gael Monfils, who narrowly lost to Roger Federer in an over-the-top 2015 US Open night match. Expect a battle between a heavyweight hitter and a dazzling magician who tends to make jaws drop.

As for Serena herself, she is looking forward to the Showdown. “It’s always great to play in Madison Square Garden,” she told IT. “I love New York. It’s such a special place.” And the annual BNP Paribas Showdown is pretty special too. For info go to worldtennisday.com/newyork.