When Serena Williams was outplaying opponents in her 19th year at the Australian Open, Kim Clijsters, who the then 17-year-old Serena had beaten en route her 1999 US Open win, was being inducted in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Justine Henin, who's remarkable journey at the 2010 Australian Open was halted in the final by Serena, joined the same Hall of Fame in 2016.
Ana Ivanovic, who announced her retirement a month back, was among Serena's contemporaries in the mid-2000s. The likes of Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, and more recently Angelique Kerber have all battled Serena at the peak of their careers.
And here is Serena, who has just captured her 23rd Grand Slam and seventh at Melbourne. With a straight sets 6-4, 6-4 win over sister Venus. Without dropping a set through the tournament. At 35 years of age. She is now the oldest woman to win a major and will on Monday be the oldest World No 1 in the WTA rankings.
It is almost as if time has left Serena untouched.
Yet we know that isn't true. Last year, at this very stage, she had lost her title to Angelique Kerber. She would go on to lose her No 1 ranking to the German later in 2016 and another Grand Slam final to first-time winner Garbine Muguruza at Roland Garros, and then lose at the US Open and Rio Olympics to upcoming players Karolina Pliskova and Elina Svitolina. She cut short her season in September due to a persistent injury and only returned in 2017. Of course she did defend her Wimbledon title in 2016, beating Kerber in the final. But one Grand Slam a year is poor by the high standard Serena has set in her two-decade long career.
Longevity is the operative word here.
Sample this: Serena has won 10 Grand Slams after turning 30. She won her first Slam as a 17-year-old, beating Martina Hingis in the 1999 US Open final. Steffi Graf, whose record she overtook, won all her 22 major trophies before reaching 30.
But time and age have never been a limit for Serena. At a time when we call 35-year-old Grand Slam finalists resurgent, age is not associated with Serena's performance often. Of course, a lot has to do with the near flawless performance she gives on court. She still outplays younger, fitter rivals and sustains long, arduous games. If her technique errs, her strength endues; if her strokes don't force an error, her winners will take the point; when precision doesn't get her home, sheer power will.
Her victorious run at at Melbourne Park is another example of this. Her path to the finals wasn't easy. In fact, few would have called her an outright favourite two weeks back. After almost three months away, she hadn't had a good comeback at the Auckland Classic, losing in the second round to Madison Brengle. She was faced with a challenging draw and many recalled her failure in the last Slam she played as well as her last time in Melbourne. She overcame former top 10 players in Belinda Bencic and Lucie Safarova, upcoming Nicole Gibbs, tricky Barbora Strycova and the red-hot Johanna Konta as well as the veteran Mirjana Lucic-Baroni on her way to the final. The warrior in Serena was unstoppable.
War analogies in sport are often considered clunky and lazy, but for a player like Serena, heavy artillery warfare somehow seems like an apt metaphor. She is the tireless warrior who makes most of all the armoury at her disposable and blitzes her way forward. And this fierce, all-guns blazing attitude is a hallmark of Serena, the resilient champion.
Her journey – from ghetto to Grand Slam as it is called – making a name as a teenager in a white-dominated sport and going to become an icon of the game needs no retelling. Even without her record-equaling title at Wimbledon last year or record-breaking title in Australia, Serena Williams is a legend, or GOAT (Greatest of All Time) as social media calls it. When she was at 21 majors, she had held all four of them together aka 'Serena Slam' twice in her career –2003 and 2015 (when she narrowly missed a Calendar Slam). No one could have questioned her place in the pantheon of tennis. Along the way, she has been World No 1 for a total of 309 weeks – nearly six years – and won major titles against some of the greats: Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Sharapova, Henin and of course, her sister Venus. Add to that her winning career record against all 14 players she has beaten in major finals, including her towering 19-2 against Sharapova, and one has a fair idea of just how dominant Serena has been.
She didn't need this number – 23 – to establish her greatness, but it has only enhanced it. Every passing milestone now just cements her stature on the pedestal of all-time greatness in sport. By the looks of it, Margaret Court's all-time mark of 24 is possibly next. Maybe even something much bigger. Serena, after all, has never been defined by limits.
What keeps Serena going? She has won everything there is to win, multiple times. She has dominated her sport like few others. She has overcome challenges no other has faced. But every victory brings out the same childlike glee – look at her reaction after winning the quarters against Konta or semi against Lucic-Baroni, you'll see her raw desire to succeed and her delight in achieving it. The fact that she has sustained this drive for decades, battling everything that came her way – injury, controversy, form, defeats – is no mean feat.
And this what 'Serena 23' stands for – not merely a new record in the book, a representation of Serena's supremacy. But another reminder that Serena has no comparison, she is an undisputed champion, a legend of the sport, an icon of this era of tennis.
After her title victory at the Australian Open, sponsor Nike released a commemorative video. It was a simple black frame with white, steadily decreasing letters with a voiceover of Serena's records in the background.
The text read:
Sister of the greatest black female tennis player ever
Greatest black female tennis player ever
Greatest female tennis player ever
Greatest tennis player ever
This 30-second video captured the essence of what Serena Williams means to tennis today. Only the greatest this generation has ever seen.
Updated Date: Jan 28, 2017 22:38:55 IST