Meant for Sundays

Tuesday, December 17, 2013 /by
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

At 32 years of age, Serena Williams is coming off one of the greatest years of her career, one during which she won 11 titles—including two Grand Slam tournaments—and 78 of 82 matches. (All four of those losses were in three sets.) And the ongoing success of over-30 players on the WTA tour suggests that she’s far from finished.

It was a glorious year for Williams, even if some pundits suggest that her failure to defend her title at Wimbledon is a stain on that resume. It seems a silly caveat when you also factor in what she did at the French Open, a tournament that has always been a tougher challenge for Serena.

In fact, clay itself has always posed the most obstacles for Serena and her shot-making, attacking style. As she said late this year: “I really wanted to win that (Roland Garros title) for a number of years now, so that was definitely something exciting. And also being undefeated on clay was pretty exciting too. So my results on clay this year definitely stand out.”

You have to wonder what Serena can do for an encore this time, and the answer is obvious: She can win at least one major in 2014 and thereby join Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in the three-way tie for second place on the list of Open-era Grand Slam singles champions. Steffi Graf, the leader, has 22 majors.

A closer look at the Grand Slam records of these women is telling. While Serena trails her nearest historical rivals by just one major, she’s been far more productive than either on a quantitative basis. Serena has played just 21 Grand Slam singles finals; by contrast, Navratilova played 32, and Evert a whopping 34.

Granted, the extraordinary and much celebrated rivalry between Evert and Navratilova worked to suppress each woman’s individual numbers. Thanks to the other, each of them barely won more Grand Slam finals than they lost. Evert was 18-16 in Grand Slam finals; Navratilova was 18-14. Those numbers make Serena’s 17-4 record appear that much more dazzling, and it underscores her standing as a champion in search of a rival.

Evert lost major finals to six different women: Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Tracy Austin, Graf and—of course—Navratilova. Navratilova lost Grand Slam finals to seven different women: her frequent nemesis Evert, Goolagong Cawley, Austin, Graf, Hana Mandlikova, Conchita Martinez, and Monica Seles.

Serena has lost finals to just three players: Venus Williams (twice), Maria Sharapova, and Samantha Stosur.

Graf, incidentally, looks better than Evert and Navratilova. She was 22-9 in 31 singles finals, and lost to just five players: Seles, Navratilova, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Gabriela Sabatini, and Lindsay Davenport.

But Serena shines in another area as well. Surface proficiency cuts both ways in tennis: It can really boost your record, but make you appear less of an all-around player—a valid criticism when you begin splitting hairs. The player most aided by surface proficiency among these women is Navratilova, who won half of her 18 Slams at Wimbledon.

Evert appears twice on the list; her seven titles sat Roland Garros and six at the U.S. Open are the most by any Open-era female at those venues. Williams tops the charts at the Australian Open, but her five wins Down Under are a more modest show of surface proficiency.

It’s good to keep in mind that quirks of history, like participation in the Australian Open (top players often shunned it in the 1970s and 80s) or the French Open (because of World Team Tennis), help shape these numbers. But the war of attrition fought for so long by Evert and Navratilova certainly had an enormous impact on their totals. Eliminate one of them from history and the other surely would rank right up there beside Graf, all other things being equal.

Also, this discussion is taking place while Serena appears to be near or at the very peak of her career, while many of her rivals at a comparable stage (age-wise) were already struggling. Serena’s numbers are likely to lose a bit of their luster if she plays on, simply because she’ll be more apt to lose to younger, hungrier, or fitter players. On the other hand, it’s unlikely that her game is going to go off a cliff in 2014.

Serena is at a stage of her career when she needs to pick her spots wisely, playing a schedule meant to keep her at her best at the majors. If she were a car, you wouldn’t want to use her commuting, or taking the kids and the dog to the park. You’d keep her in a clean, warm garage and take her out during a nice, long, traffic-free spin early on Sunday mornings.

Given the way Serena seems to be taking new pride in her career, we can expect her to have another big year. Besides, the women most capable of troubling her did little to threaten her supremacy last year. Serena remains that most unusual of players, a champion in search of a worthy rival—as well as the most proficient Grand Slam singles champion, by far, among the top players.

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