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).

Friday Fashion Face-Off: French Open 2019 Best-Dressed Woman

Hurray for the second Friday of a slam, the day when we get to vote for the best-dressed woman! I’m so excited for today’s Fashion Face-off I haven’t even watched the Rafa-Roger semi yet. Is it over? Did it get rained out? Is Rafa still in contention for title #12?

No, don’t tell me! I’m going to watch it right after I post.

So here’s a strange thing. We have three stylish American nominees today…yet I wouldn’t wear a single one of these outfits. What’s my problem, anyway? I’m the same way with jewelry. I like it in the store. And I like it on other people. But I don’t like it on me. Weird, right? Continue reading “Friday Fashion Face-Off: French Open 2019 Best-Dressed Woman”

Friday Fashion Face-off: A Combined Best Dressed

Are you going through Fashion Face-off withdrawal? Me, too. I initially planned to do them every Friday, but tennis fashion just doesn’t change often enough for me to maintain that pace.

However, I did see some new duds during the tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami. Let’s do a combined Best Dressed for the two tournaments. Continue reading “Friday Fashion Face-off: A Combined Best Dressed”

Friday Fashion Face-Off: Australian Open Worst-Dressed Award

The trophies have been awarded and the giant checks cashed, but we’re not done with the Australian Open yet. Today we recognize the worst of the worst in an overall fashion-challenged Slam. Continue reading “Friday Fashion Face-Off: Australian Open Worst-Dressed Award”

Friday Fashion Face-off: U.S. Open Worst-Dressed Award

Is it mean to do a worst-dressed poll? Probably. Are we going to do it anyway? Yes. It’s all in good fun. Besides, the players earn good money for wearing these outfits and getting people talking. They don’t really have cause to complain if not all the talk is favorable.

Here, then, are my nominees for worst dressed at the U.S. Open. Continue reading “Friday Fashion Face-off: U.S. Open Worst-Dressed Award”

A Tennis Twofer

Today is your lucky day because we have a tennis twofer–two topics in a single blog post! You can’t say you’re not getting your money’s worth with LittleYellowBall!

Our first piece of business is wrapping up the Serena Williams saga. No doubt more will transpire in this story, but after today I’m done. (Well, unless something really exciting happens.) Continue reading “A Tennis Twofer”

The Women’s Final: A Letter to Serena

Well, guys, I’m going out on a limb here. I wrote this draft and then decided it was too controversial to post. But then I saw a longer opinion piece on Tennis.com, making many of the same points, although at greater length and better explained than I was able to do here. Check out the Tennis.com piece if you can, and then let’s discuss in the comment section…

Dear Serena,

Yes, you’re the greatest of all time. That’s been established beyond question, regardless of whether you overtake Margaret Court’s Grand Slam record.

And it’s true the chair umpire erred in not giving you a verbal warning before issuing the final code violation that cost you the game. He didn’t have to give you a warning–you were well over the line–but with so much at stake, he should have. Maybe there was even sexism involved.

But honestly. Enough about being a mom. We know, we know. You’ve told us over and over again. Your bizarre argument to the chair umpire (“I have never cheated! I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her!”) was a painfully transparent play for the crowd’s sympathy, reminiscent of Jimmy Connors’s blatant crowd-baiting in the 1991 U.S. Open quarterfinals (“I’m out here playing my butt off at 39 years old, and you’re doing that?!”) Continue reading “The Women’s Final: A Letter to Serena”

A Quickie Poll: Will Maria Beat Serena Tomorrow???

In my recent post about Sharapova, I said she’d never beat Serena. (Well, of course, she has beaten her twice…but the last time was fourteen years ago!)

I wasn’t expecting Sharapova to get another crack at it so soon. The two career-slammers will meet tomorrow in the fourth round of the French Open. Sharapova looked sharp in her demolition of Pliskova yesterday…but Pliskova also looked uninspired and flat throughout the match.

Whatever happens tomorrow, we know Serena’s going to be gunning to win. Serena’s looking impressive but still seems a step slower than her old self. If Maria’s ever going to save some face, now would be the time. Continue reading “A Quickie Poll: Will Maria Beat Serena Tomorrow???”

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