02 October 2020

Serena! Serena! Serena! (way beyond the number ‘twenty four’)

Serena Williams turned 39 on the 26th of September. Thirty nine is way past retirement age for most professional athletes. Serena’s sister Venus is 40 and as such still holds that longevity edge. As I write, Venus has just suffered a first round exit at the French Open at the hands of Anna Karolina Schmiedlova of Slovakia, 14 years junior to her (6-4, 6-4).

Back to Serena. She’s won 23 Grand Slams (her sister has seven Grand Slam titles). She’ll be taking on another US player Kristie Ahn (28) in her first round game.

Serena, let’s not forget, is also a mother. She’s battled injuries and personal trauma but never in her career spanning three decades has she not been a contender. In the very least, she’s spoken as someone who can spring a surprise. Most experts, for example, have picked Simona Halep of Romania to win the French Open in the absence of Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty and Bianca Andreescu (Halep beat Sara Soribbes Tormo of Spain 6-4, 6-0 in her opening match), but there’s always one or two who will pick Serena. Why? Well, she’s Serena.

Halep is the favorite of course. She made it to the finals in three of the past six French Open championships. She won the Italian Open last week and now has seven career titles on clay. She’s tied with Venus Williams for the second-most among active women. And who’s ahead? Why, Serena (she has 13 titles on this surface).

Simona has just two Grand Slam titles, but is 10 years younger than Serena. Serena’s name is tossed out but is almost as though out of respect. Sure, it’s been three years since her last title (Australian Open 2017) but she made it to the final in four Grand Slam events since then.

And yet, all that people seem to care about is whether or not Serena will win a 24th Grand Slam title, thereby equaling the record* held by Margaret Court. The asterisk is because some of the titles were before the open era.

Things were different back then. Garden club tennis is nothing compared to even a minor event in the ATP circuit. To be fair though, Court did win many Grand Slam events in the open era, and anyway she had no control over tournament formats.

So what if Serena never gets to ’24’ (or goes beyond)? Would she be considered to have failed? Would it be said that Court is the greater of the two (‘She has more titles, after all!’)?  

That kind of question always reminds me of Robert Horry. Did someone ask ‘Robert who?’ Never heard of him? Well, he played basketball. Heard of Michael Jordan? Of course you have! The greatest of all time, you might think. But get this, MJ has 6 championship rings and Horry 7 (he won with the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs)! In fact there are eight others who have won more championships than Jordan including of course Bill Russel (11).

It’s hard to compare players of different eras, but one does get the feeling that the number 24 is being unnecessarily dangled over Serena’s head. The question ‘Will she get to 24 (as opposed to ‘can she win the French Open,’ for example) is like saying ‘I hope she does not!’

In the next few days we will see who is playing well. In a couple of weeks we will know who won the French Open. Either way people will talk of Serena. And of course Margaret Court. Court had a great record no doubt, but 13 of her titles came before the 'Open Era' began (1968, when only amateur players competed in Grand Slam events. She won 11 of her 24 titles in Australia which didn't often draw the best players due to the remoteness at the time.

What did Serena achieve? She won 73 career titles, including 23 at Slams, 14 major doubles titles (and a perfect finals record) with her sister Venus, two mixed doubles titles, four Olympic gold medals and 319 weeks at world No. 1.

So I don’t care if Serena gets knocked out in the first round. She’s in a league of her own. Raised the bar. Set the standard. And she’s not done yet.

Other articles in the series titled 'The Interception' [published in 'The Morning']

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