Serena’s Slam Quest

“How’s that three-posts-a-month resolution coming?” snarked a so-called friend the other day. Okay, I’ve fallen a little short on that, but in my defense, coronavirus. I mean, how can I be expected to work under these conditions?

Fortunately, there are writers out there who are way more professional than I am, writers who wouldn’t let a global pandemic stand in the way of quality tennis prose. One such writer is Cecil Harris whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, and many other publications.

Cecil has just come out with his new book, Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution. As you might surmise from the title, it’s about the Williams sisters and other black tennis players, the strides they’ve made, and how much farther there is to go to achieve true equality in the sport we love.

Speaking strictly for myself, I could use a little more education on these matters. I plan to read Different Strokes over the weekend and blog about it next week. You probably have some time on your hands these days—why not download a copy for yourself so you can weigh in? (No, seriously. How many times are you going to organize that damn sock drawer? Let’s read a book, for cryin’ out loud.)

In the meantime, I asked Cecil if he’d be willing to write a guest post on Serena’s quest to beat Margaret Court’s Grand Slam record—and boy, did he ever come through! Keep on reading—you’re in for a treat.

(Don’t get too used to this level of professionalism, folks. Next week, it’s back to amateur hour.)

 

Serena Williams Faces Tougher Road, But Don’t Count Her Out
By Cecil Harris

Serena Williams’s quest to win a record-tying 24th major singles title has become tougher with the cancelation of Wimbledon because of the coronavirus pandemic. Wimbledon had not been canceled since 1940–45 because of World War II.

In this tennis year unlike any other, Serena may have only two more opportunities in 2020 to match Margaret Court’s record. Yet there is no guarantee that the U.S. Open will be played as scheduled from August 31 to September 13, and no guarantee that the French Open will take place as rescheduled during the final two weeks in September.

If you’re an optimist and a Serena fan, then surely you’ll root for tennis to return by September—not only to give Serena a chance to tie or surpass Court, but also because the French Open would be played when she turns 39 on September 26. In that case, her best birthday present could be the one she gives herself.

But if you’re a pessimist who roots for Serena, then you’re truly lamenting the removal of Wimbledon from the 2020 calendar. Serena’s incomparable serve and power game have enabled her to win seven singles titles on the famous grass courts. Wimbledon’s Centre Court is also where she crushed Maria Sharapova, 6-0, 6-1, to win the Olympic gold medal match in 2012.

Serena has also won seven Australian Opens and six U.S. Opens. Her fewest major titles have come on the slow red clay at the French Open—three.

However, that does not mean she couldn’t win in Paris again. A determined Serena has done remarkable things over the years. But her road will be tougher now because of the wave of young talent that has swept into women’s tennis in recent years—a wave that includes 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, who upset Serena in the French Open’s third round last year.

Serena and her elder sister, Venus, have inspired not one, but two generations of female pros to play a faster, quicker, hard-hitting and more athletic brand of tennis. Many of those players are beating the Williams sisters. Aside from Kenin’s victory in Paris, Naomi Osaka defeated her idol Serena in the 2018 U.S. Open final, and Bianca Andreescu beat Serena in the 2019 U.S. Open final.

Add to that list Coco Gauff, now 16, who conquered Venus in the first round of Wimbledon last year and the Australian Open this year, and it becomes clear that Father Time will not be Serena’s only formidable foe.

Yet no player has won more big matches or big tournaments than Serena. With 23 major titles, she’s the most celebrated champion in the Open era, which began in 1968 and made tennis a truly professional sport.

Someone really should tell Google about Serena’s achievement. Yahoo and Bing should learn, too. If you enter in a search engine “most major tennis titles in the Open era,” the answer you get is Roger Federer. That’s wrong. Serena has won 23 majors to Federer’s 20. Because of sexism in the algorithms, the search engines treat the men’s record as the default answer.

Serena deserves better. She also should not take a back seat to Court.

Court, a star in the 1960s and ’70s, and Serena played in completely different eras. But Serena is widely considered the superior player. Eleven of Court’s titles came at the Australian Open, including seven in a row from 1960–66. In those days, many tennis stars did not make the long round trip to Australia when it was summer Down Under and winter in North America and Europe, so Court often played against less challenging competition. In all, Court won 13 of her 24 majors before the Open era.

Serena, on the other hand, has played her entire career in professional tennis, against full-time players rather than a mix of part-timers and full-timers.

But Serena still yearns for the all-time record—because it is within her grasp. She can erase any doubt about who stands above all in women’s tennis history by winning one more major to tie Court or two more to own the record.

Serena’s most recent major title came at the 2017 Australian Open—while pregnant! She gave birth to daughter Alexis Olympia on September 1, 2017 and returned to tennis in March 2018. Since then, she has been foiled in her efforts to add to her list of majors:

  • 2018 Wimbledon: she lost to Angelique Kerber in the final
  • 2018 U.S. Open: she lost to Naomi Osaka in the final
  • 2019 Wimbledon: she lost to Simona Halep in the final
  • 2019 U.S. Open: she lost to Bianca Andreescu in the final

Also, in the 2019 Australian Open quarterfinals, Serena held four match points and led 5-1 in the third set against Karolina Pliskova before she sprained an ankle. Rather than call for a trainer, Serena continued to play with increasingly limited mobility. She failed to win another game.

Setbacks such as those would sap a lesser player’s confidence. But Serena is more likely to be hungrier to win in 2020 or 2021. Given her talent, determination and motivation, she can win any Grand Slam event she enters.

Although Serena is among her sport’s oldest competitors, she may have a potential advantage during this global sports shutdown: While other top players find it virtually impossible to practice because medical experts have mandated physical distancing to flatten the COVID-19 curve, Serena can practice against another future Hall of Famer at almost any time.

As long as Serena and Venus stay on opposite sides of the net, that’s more than enough physical distancing. The sisters can keep each other’s game fine-tuned until competitive tennis returns.

Nobody knows exactly when that will be. But if Serena has taught us anything in a stellar career that has spanned four decades, it is this: Never, ever count her out.

Cecil Harris is the author of Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution (University of Nebraska Press).

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