WIMBLEDON, England — Go ahead and say it: Grand Slam. Magic words in tennis, in sport, an attraction beyond the norm, a standard of brilliance, a mark of excellence, an achievement sitting right there within the grasp — well, the serves and the ground strokes of the magnificent Serena Williams.
Williams had attempted to avoid the subject, the way some baseball announcers refuse to tell us a team hasn’t had a hit, fearing somehow the words would have an effect, be a jinx.
But Serena has to face it now, discuss it now, while we discuss the inevitable fact she is the greatest woman tennis player in history.
And she’s willing, and so are we.
“I feel if I can do the Serena Slam,” said Williams about successfully taking the last four major tennis tournaments in succession — in different years — “I will be OK heading into the Grand Slam. I have confidence.”
So do the rest of us. There’s been nobody better. Ever.
Williams struggled a bit Saturday in the Wimbledon final. Double-faulted three times in the first game, had her serve broken. It was as astounding as Jerry Rice dropping a pass, as Madison Bumgarner losing a must-game. Nerves, of course. Pressure, of course. Expectations, of course.
Yet those expectations were met with resolve and joy. Williams would show her power and domination, win four straight games to end the set, would control most of the second set, would beat the newest ingénue on the scene, 21-year-old Garbine Muguruza of Spain, 6-4, 6-4, for her sixth Wimbledon, her 21st major victory overall
If it was more testing than some had thought — “Muguruza is going to be hard-pressed to hang in there,” said John McEnroe on the BBC broadcast at the start — still, this was the final of the oldest, some say the most important, tournament in the game. To borrow a line from golf, it ain’t how, it’s how many.
For Williams — at 33 years and 289 days, the oldest, male or female to win a Slam event — it is a great many. It was a victory in a fourth straight major, starting at last year’s U.S. Open. It was the penultimate step on the route to the game’s Holy Grail, the true Grand Slam, all four majors in a calendar year. Now she faces the coming U.S. Open, at the end of August in New York, with a wonderful chance to make history.
The Grand Slam has been won before, by both men and women, but in Serena’s lifetime it’s been done by only one player, Steffi Graf, now married to Andre Agassi — who, as Serena, won all four majors but not in a calendar year. Graf’s “impregnable quadrilateral,” — as someone wrote about Bobby Jones in golf — was recorded in 1988
Graf was wonderful. She won 21 majors overall. Margaret Court of Australia won 24. But here comes Serena, one back of Graf, three back of Court. And as well as the other two played, McEnroe, a men’s champion before he turned to announcing, insists that Serena is the best ever.
Her side of the draw in this Wimbledon was loaded: sister Venus Williams, England’s Heather Watson, former No. 1 and two-time Australian champ Victoria Azarenka. Williams lost a couple sets along the way. She didn’t lose a match.
“I don’t feel I have anything to lose,” said Williams about the U.S. Open, on hard courts — as opposed to the grass courts at Wimbledon or the clay courts at the French. “I’ve kind of solidified my place at No. 1.”
She was talking about the current WTA rankings. We can walk about all-time rankings, arbitrary as they might be. Who would beat Serena head to head? Martina Navratilova, perhaps. Maybe Graf or Chris Evert. Older sister Venus was ahead of Serena until Serena matured and also started taking the game seriously.
For a while, Serena was more interested in acting than tennis. Billie Jean King, another fantastic champion in her day, got on Serena’s case, telling her a career is so limited she’d better not waste the talent. She’d wake up one day and realized her opportunity had flown.
Instead, partly because of the urging, partly because she understood what was possible, Williams roared back and took over women’s tennis.
“I feel like I’m better than I was 10-12 years ago,” said Serena.” I’m more fit. I keep reinventing myself in terms of working out.”