The concept of sustained dominance in sports — anything Grand or Slammable — should have gone out with the last millennium. We’re in a bloated era of megamoney, which should lead to complacency. We’re in an age of optimum equipment, preparation, coaching and nutrition, which should result in parity. We’re in a time of advanced tech and data, which means more spying and hacking.
“There’s a reason it doesn’t happen very often,” Serena Williams said of the elusive, immaculate Grand Slam.
So why, in the summer of 2015, are Williams and Jordan Spieth piecing together the unutterable phrase with seeming simplicity?
As if immune to the demons of pressure, injuries and a more progressive level of global competition than ever before, the hottest items in tennis and golf are threatening to claim the four major championships in their sports within the same calendar year. It never has happened in modern golf and only has happened three times in tennis’ Open era, last by Steffi Graf in 1988, yet these two Americans have managed to hijack attention spans from barbecues, beaches, baseball and a bozo (Donald Trump). This after another American — Pharoah — won the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing for the first time in 37 years, meaning the humans and the horse either have better drugs or basically are better than the field.
Cynics, go home. They’re better, and the common denominator is savvy, with Williams growing into the profile after years of drama and outbursts while Spieth, just 22, is embracing his Slam quest as a breakthrough prodigy after entering the season as promising but unproven. He surgically dismantled Augusta National for his first major, then showed he could win a U.S. Open via survival and some luck at Chambers Bay. Now, after winning the John Deere Classic somewhere in Illinois on the second hole of a playoff Sunday, Spieth is at fabled St. Andrews, where he’ll try to extend his majors streak to three at the British Open. Only Ben Hogan, in 1953, ever won the first trio of big ones in a season. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods each won the first two.
All were halted in Scotland like a tilted kilt.
“To have an opportunity to get to a level where you would only include one name, and that’s Ben Hogan, that would be pretty cool,” Spieth said. “And then maybe zero names after that.”
This after his now-famous comment upon winning the Open, courtesy of empty-net misses by Dustin Johnson as his future father-in-law, Wayne Gretzky, watched in horror. “I’m the only one who can win now, right?” Spieth said.
He means no harm. There is no arrogance here, only confidence mixed with the proper dose of hopeful reality. After all, his odds of winning the British increased sizably with news that Rory McIlroy, Spieth’s adversary in the rivalry that golf so sorely needed amid Woods’ demise, won’t defend his Open championship. Why? Because McIlroy, in an act of foolishness, ruptured a ligament in his left ankle while playing soccer with pals. Rory says he was cross-training. Phil Mickelson, who still hasn’t explained his association with dirtball gamblers, says he can’t fault McIlroy. Spieth won’t either, defending McIlroy’s right to live his life.
That life won’t be as celebrated if Spieth, the Texan, wins on European soil.
“I played basketball against Michael [Greller, his caddy] a few weeks ago one on one. I do things everyday where you could get hurt. Sometimes there are accidents that happen,” Spieth said.
And accidents that don’t happen, such as the day last month when Spieth thought he was tuna-fishing with some of his own friends. Cue the “Jaws” music. “The captain was scaring [the tuna] off, banging on the boat and on the water. And all of a sudden, it just rips back down again,” he said. “And I almost got pulled in. And it was so much heavier.”
Why? “What surfaced was like a 12-foot long, 300-pound black tip shark that had eaten this tuna and then had hooked itself,” Spieth said. “So I guess I caught both in one because I got that shark.” I happen to believe that tale, though it’s probably a lie, because it reflects Spieth’s recent luck. McIlroy plays soccer and destroys his ankle. Spieth engages in a fishing tussle and destroys the shark.
“As far as Rory, we want him back. Everybody does,” he said. “It’s unlucky, it’s unfortunate and I’m sure he’s taking it harder on himself then anybody else. But I don’t think he did anything wrong; it was just an unfortunate situation, and hopefully he rebounds very quickly and gets back right to where he was.”
Next year, that is.
Saturday in London, Williams completed the Serena Slam. She now owns all four tennis majors at once, and you’re probably thinking, “Ho-hum,” in that she has won 21 Grand Slam titles overall. Does the order in which she wins them really matter? With every major triumph, the obvious crystallizes — she’s the greatest women’s tennis player ever — but if she wins the U.S. Open in September and clinches the calendar-year Slam, it will trigger a more important conversation.
Is she the greatest female athlete of all time? Yep, knock off the talk about her booty, her disturbing crying fit last year, her unfortunate comments through the years and her verbal attacks on linespeople and ask the bigger question — in the context of nearly impenetrable preeminence within a timeframe approaching two decades, isn’t Serena alone atop the mountain? It’s not even necessary to interject her life obstacles — racism, sexism, coming out of Compton with sister Venus, a 2011 illness that threatened her well-being, a bout with indifference several years that dropped her out of sight — though all of it magnifies the enormity of her accomplishments.
Just ask it: Has any woman ever wielded a bigger wrecking ball through a sport? I say no. Once reluctant to address anything historical in nature, much less monumental, Williams now is comfortable with it. How nice to see it, at last.
“I’m just super relaxed,” she said after winning her sixth Wimbledon title. “Peaceful, feeling really good.”
She’ll savor the Serena Slam, as she should. “I honestly can’t say that last year or two years ago or five years ago I would have thought that I would have won four in a row,” she said. “So just starting this journey, having all four trophies at home, is incredible.” There will be time to chill and prepare for New York, including a few days at Stanford for the Bank of the West Classic. But when she does arrive at the Open, it will signify her crowning moment, with the women’s final returning to Saturday night, the eve of the opening NFL Sunday. It will be her stage alone, her universe, her imprint for the ages.
“Yeah, it’s huge. It’s really, really huge,” she said of the Grand Slam. “But I haven’t done it. I have the Serena Slam now, which is amazing. But, you know, it’s different to actually have something and then try to accomplish it. Of course I’m going to try to do the best I can, but I don’t have the Grand Slam in my hands. I can’t really feel that if it’s not there.”
It will be.
And if Spieth isn’t ready to join her, stymied in Scotland like the legends before him, that’s all right. The Summer of Slam has been a revelation regardless.GolfGrand SlamsJOrdan SpiethSerena SlamSerena Williamstennis