The number one ranked woman tennis player is just three grand slam titles away from breaking Steffi Graf’s 22 wins. And considering Serena’s current form and past record, the goal is not far away
By Zoya Rasul
It was the first Grand Slam tennis tournament of 2007—the Australian Open. Serena Williams was out of form and practice and was ranked 81 in the world. Media was talking more about her being overweight than her ground strokes. Sponsors were threatening to drop her from their endorsement lists. Many experts had already written her off. But at 26, Serena believed she was yet to play her best tennis. She reached the final of that tournament and pulled off perhaps the most spectacular victory of her career by defeating the top-seed Maria Sharapova, 6-1, 6-2.
The win was special as she had spent most of the previous three years away from the game, battling depression that engulfed her following the murder of her older sister Yetunde in 2003. By the end of 2007, Serena was back in the top 10.
Eight years later, the final of the Australian Open 2015 also had the same opponent. And the result was also the same. The win fetched Serena her first Australian Open title in five years. More than that, it was her 19th Grand Slam singles title, surpassing Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert’s tally of 18 Grand Slams. Steffi Graf is the only open era player ahead of her with 22 major titles—a milestone which appears well within her reach if she continues to play the kind of tennis she is playing right now for another couple of years.
Serena brings great energy to the world of women tennis. Her serve is considered the best in the game. While most women on the tour serve in the 95 miles per hour zone, Serena’s serves break well into triple digits. Her style of play is often described as “power game”—no wonder she keeps her opponents on the edge, making for some of the most memorable contests in tennis history.
Serena’s greatness doesn’t come because she is almost invincible, but in her ability to stage unlikely comebacks, both in a match and career, and her knack for reaffirming her place at the top after lengthy layoffs or less than perfect form.
Her mental toughness and ability to come back from improbable situations compliment her physical strength. She has won three Grand Slam singles titles after saving match points (2003 Australian Open versus Kim Clijsters; 2005 Australian Open versus Maria Sharapova; and 2009 Wimbledon versus Elena Dementieva)—more than any other player in history, male or female. There is an evident gap between her and the rest. Her dominance over the game can be gauged by the fact that the world number two Maria Sharapova has lost to her 16 times in a row. The last the Russian managed to defeat Serena was in 2004.
Serena surpassed Martina Navratilova (first top) and Chris Evert’s (above) tally of 18 Grand Slams
Serena’s greatness doesn’t flow merely from the fact that she is difficult to defeat, almost invincible, but in her ability to stage unlikely comebacks, both in a match and career and her knack for reaffirming her place at the top after lengthy layoffs or less than perfect form.
The time following her half-sister’s murder in 2003 isn’t the only instance when she roared her way back to the top of tennis from nowhere. In July 2010, just four days after lifting the Wimbledon title after beating Vera Zvonareva in straight sets, Serena tramped on a glass bottle in a Munich restaurant, injuring her foot and requiring 18 stitches. The next day, she played an exhibition match against Kim Clijsters, but the injury worsened and the American professional tennis player was unable to compete again in 2010.
Serena and Venus have carved a niche for themselves in a sport dominated by the whites
(Above) Steffi Graf is the only player ahead of Serena with 22 Grand Slams
Then, in February 2011, things got considerably bad: a pulmonary embolism—or blood clot—was discovered on Serena’s lung. Although she survived this life-threatening condition, it resulted in a flood of speculations as to whether she would ever again compete at the highest level. Yet just four months on, Serena was back. She was two-time defending champion at Wimbledon 2011 but was defeated by Marion Bartoli in the fourth round. The defeat saw her dropping to 175 in world rankings from 25th, her worst ranking since 1997, when she was 304th. She fought her way back, reached the final of the year’s last Grand Slam, the US Open, where she lost to Samantha Stosur and ended the year as world number 12. She came back next year to lift the Wimbledon and US Open crown and was back in top five.
Disease, injury and emotional stress aren’t the only things which challenged Serena in the course of her career spanning almost 20 years. In a sport that has traditionally been an all-white preserve, success of Serena and Venus stands out. They were suspected of fixing their matches. (Elena Demetieva once said at a press conference before William sisters’ match: “I think he (Richard—their father) will decide who’s going to win tomorrow.”) Serena often voiced the supposed prejudice of tennis authorities, be it about controversial line calls or scheduling their matches away from the show courts.
The most upfront and ugly incident of racial bias faced by Serena happened in the 2001 Indian Wells final, a place which happens to be barely two hours away from the place Serena grew up playing tennis. It is said to be the most hostile crowd in tennis history as it booed, chanted and whistled at not only Serena on court, but her father and Venus in stands. A 19-year-old Serena was broken, afraid and made to look like an outsider in her own country. After boycotting the tournament for 14 years, Serena has now decided to go back to Indian Wells.
“As a black tennis player, I looked different. I sounded different. I dressed differently. I served differently. But when I stepped onto the court, I could compete with anyone… The under¬current of racism was painful, confusing and unfair. In a game I loved with all my heart, at one of my most cherished tournaments, I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid,” writes Serena, in an article for the Time magazine, recounting what happened at Indian Wells.
What Serena has achieved has blurred all boundaries and distinctions. She is the pride of not only her father Richard Williams and mother Oracene Prince, who coached her together since she was four, but the entire tennis world. She does not need any patronage as the whispers of her being the greatest women tennis player gains chorus.