Serena Williams won her first Grand Slam singles title in 1999 at the US Open. Since then, Williams has rewritten the record books, claiming 23 singles Slam titles and losing eight finals, with the last two in 2018 at Wimbledon and the US Open. Williams’ dominance becomes all the more apparent when one calculates that her latest Slam loss was to Naomi Osaka, who was all of two when Williams claimed her first title!
Williams’ supremacy at 37 and the fact that since 2003 seven players have been crowned number one without a Grand Slam singles win has led to a debate on the lack of depth in the women’s field. After all, in contrast, the men’s game has had only two players top the rankings without winning a singles Slam since the present system was introduced in 1973; the last one being Marcelo Rios in 1998.
India’s most prolific achiever on the Grand Slam stage, Leander Paes, isn’t too impressed by the simplistic argument that the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) tour just isn’t throwing enough quality challengers for Williams. “To begin with, Serena deserves the highest respect for her continued athleticism, which allows her to keep winning. She still plays a power-game that sees her dictate matches with her serve while out-hitting her much younger opponents. That is special,” says Paes, who at 45, is ranked 68 in men’s doubles and is gearing up to train harder for next year as he pursues his dream of playing an incredible eight Olympics by qualifying for Tokyo 2020.
“The slower synthetic courts and the heavier balls have seen a new generation of players coming up with dominance of strong groundstrokes, but with little ability to really work the other player by coming up to the net or using drops, change of pace etc. Now, one can’t really expect a young girl to beat Serena’s experience unless she brings to the court a better arsenal of shot-making,” explains Paes.
The International Tennis Federation looked to tame the ball after the 2001 Wimbledon final between Patrick Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic was reduced to a slugfest dominated by overwhelming serving.
Three different paced balls now exist and these are far more difficult to put away than the faster balls of before. That, in turn, may well imply that the experienced player has more going for her as longer points bring into play experience, ability to soak pressure and doggedness: attributes that Williams has displayed throughout her career.
But the slower courts aren’t really conducive to an ageing player, after all, the legs have to do even more work. “I know this from personal experience,” laughs Paes. “With age, the mind gets even sharper on court; one can envision so much more to do with the ball and has the experience to tap just what works. Which is why I say that the lack of depth argument is a bit convenient, Serena has tremendous work ethic and that alone is the secret to her success.”
Aiding Paes’ logic is the fact that no one has really blamed the field for Michael Phelps’ overwhelming dominance in the Olympic pool. Tiger Woods was considered untouchable at one time, but again men’s golf wasn’t examined for want of depth. From Muhammad Ali in the distant past to Usain Bolt in the recent, these great athletes have been hailed as exceptional. The people they compete against haven’t been dismissed as not befitting the grand stage they looked to take the greats on.
“Serena is one of the greatest athletes the world has seen across sport. To say that her success comes from lack of depth is a bit farcical to me. You can’t dominate for nearly three decades without being special. The less competition argument doesn’t cut it with me,” says Somdev Devvarman, who at 62 (July 2011) in the world singles ranking was the spearhead of India’s challenge before his retirement at the end of 2016.
“The notion seems to come from this being a special era in men’s tennis with some of the greatest players playing at the same time. That is rare and unique. The women’s game is not at the same place. And weren’t they saying something similar about Roger’s (Federer) dominance from 2004 to 2008? That time men’s tennis was considered a bit bereft!”
Williams’ success at Slams also comes on account of precise planning. “It’s quite clear that Serena focuses on the Slams and even the world number one ranking doesn’t seem to hold much attraction for her. I have been out there and believe me, it isn’t easy to keep putting that ball and those matches away. Serena can only beat those who are in front of her, it’s silly to belittle that by alluding to a weak field.”
Another reason for William’s continued success is the advancement in sports science, which now allows players to recover better, have customised nutrition and training plans even as tournaments have upped their game with amazing hospitality.
“Now players live in luxury. They have physios and trainers travelling with them; tournaments take care of everything and players just have to focus on playing. This has enhanced player longevity,” Martina Navratilova, the other main contender for the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) title, told your correspondent on the sidelines of the 2018 Australian Open. “Hey, I used to rent a car and drive myself to matches when I came to the Aussie Open years back,” laughed the legend.
Of course, the GOAT debate will rage on and can’t be hinged on just plain statistics. Even as Williams has claimed her 23rd Slam and is well within reach of the all-time highest tally of 24 notched by Margaret Court, readers would do well to realise that Navratilova and her fiercest rival, Chris Evert, both skipped many an Australian Open as it was just too long a travel haul back in the day. In fact, Evert played Down Under only six times in an 18-year career.
Even as the sceptics debate on, one would encourage the reader to grab at any chance to see Williams play live. After all, legends aren’t on display forever.
The writer is a senior sports writer and the former national sports editor of the Hindustan Times
Updated Date: Dec 07, 2018 22:16 PM