Three years ago, Roger Federer established a new record for Grand Slam singles titles. Just a few weeks ago, Serena Williams moved within one Grand Slam singles title of Steffi Graf, who finished her career with 22.
Going into this year, Rafael Nadal was 66-1 at the French Open—the major many pundits consider the most demanding—with a preposterous nine titles in 10 years.
Then there’s Novak Djokovic. Were it not for Stan Wawrinka playing the match of his life at the moment of his life, Djokovic would share the spotlight with Williams, the pair marching toward the U.S. Open in lockstep as the sporting world contemplated the outlandish prospect of two players completing a calendar-year Grand Slam at the same time. Only five players, two men and three women, have accomplished that in a century’s worth of tennis.
Are these insane times, or what?
In fact, only one man has completed a Grand Slam since the dawn of the Open era in 1968. It was Rod Laver, who swept all four majors in 1969. Only two women have pulled off the feat—Margaret Court in 1970, and Graf in 1988.
Graf achieved something Williams may have only one more chance to emulate in her entire career, the sport’s only “Golden Slam.” In ’88, Graf not only won all four majors, she also won the singles gold medal at the Olympic Games in Seoul.
Williams will have a chance to match that next year, when the Games head to Rio, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. For when it comes to degree of difficulty, the four majors are by no means equal when a calendar-year Grand Slam is at stake. The U.S. Open, the final segment of the puzzle, is sure to be the one most daunting to snap into place. Williams will learn that firsthand in the weeks ahead, although she had a preview of what she will face at Wimbledon.
This being Serena Williams, she’s actually been working on two Slams this year. There was the matter of her second “Serena Slam,” which she wrapped up at Wimbledon. During the fortnight, Williams was asked repeatedly about her dual efforts. After a very tight third-round clash with Heather Watson, she abruptly declared: “I’m not answering any more questions about the Grand Slam—or the alleged Serena Slam.”
The pressure was getting to her, it was obvious. A loss at Wimbledon and a pair of dreams would be ruined.
The press was somewhat respectful of Williams’ desire to avoid the subject for the remainder of the tournament, although by the end, “New York” had become code for something else, like when she was asked: “When you were dancing around Centre Court after you won, you thought of New York? What were you thinking?”
Of course, this kind of stuff comes with the territory when you’re trying to achieve something so rare, and it’s only going to ramp up as the final major of the year approaches. Williams must acknowledge and perhaps even embrace that, keeping in mind that priceless line uttered by Eugenie Bouchard: “If I didn’t want attention I would have been a librarian.”
But it’s difficult to quantify just how much more meaningful this edition of the U.S. Open will be for Williams. It’s her home major, a detail that could be a liability or an advantage in same way as being the host nation in Davis/Fed Cup. Certainly there will be more support. There will also be more motivation for Williams, who has the patriotic gene. But that can also create a greater desire to perform at the highest level, and the pressure that accompanies it.
Of course, athletes deal with this issue throughout their lives. But there’s simply a greater order of magnitude involved here. Some of the finest and most experienced professionals never find themselves playing for the highest of stakes under conditions so favorable that they threaten to become onerous.
Williams appears to know what she’s up against. Yet for all of her accomplishments, this is the first time in her life that she’s in a position to complete a proper Grand Slam. She’s a bit like someone fumbling around in a dark room trying to feel along the walls and moldings, looking for the light switch. Can you imagine her talking about the upcoming U.S. Open in the following manner if she weren’t on the cusp of completing a Grand Slam?
“Actually I didn't think about it (the Grand Slam) till the (BBC television) interview. Then I just thought, ‘Oh, man, I've won New York three times in a row. I hope this isn't the year that I go down.’ I want to do well there. We'll see. . . I mean, I've won three, so that's not bad.”
Is there a hint of trepidation in those words?
But apprehension isn’t a bad place to start the final leg of this journey. It also points to a more interesting question: Where does Williams go from here?
She is scheduled to play in Stanford, Canada, and Cincinnati, just as she did last year. That worked out well—she won two of the three events, losing only to sister Venus in the semis at Montreal. It set Serena up nicely for her win at the U.S. Open.
But then, this isn’t 2014. For one thing, an elbow injury forced Williams to issue a walkover before her second-round match in Bastad, Sweden; she also canceled her World Team Tennis obligations. For another, the Grand Slam question will follow and pop up wherever she goes.
Still, Williams has shown that she doesn’t need a great deal of match play to find her A-game.
Williams went into this year’s Australian Open without having played a tournament match in over two-and-a-half months—and she didn’t lose a set in the quarters, semis, or final. She clearly has options if she wants to lay low and prepare for this very different U.S. Open in way tailored to her present situation.
But there also will be a little voice counseling Williams and her advisers not to overthink or obsess about this mission. The voice will tell Serena: You’ve won this tournament three times in a row, just do what you did every other time and the rest will take care of itself. As for this Grand Slam business, don’t prepare to complete a Grand Slam; just prepare to win the U.S. Open.
The just-completed Serena Slam has been relegated to the shadows by the task ahead, but in one critical way it may play a pivotal role in Williams’ quest. Having completed Part A of her mission, Part B may actually be easier. As she said at Wimbledon:
“I've been trying to win four in a row for 12 years, and it hasn't happened,” Williams said, reminding skeptics just how much this second Serena Slam meant to her. “I've had a couple injuries. You know, it's been an up‑and‑down process. I honestly can't say that last year, or two years ago, or even five years ago I would have thought that I would have won four in a row. So just starting this journey, having all four trophies at home, is incredible.
“I feel like if I can do the Serena Slam, I will be okay heading into the Grand Slam. Like I always say, ‘There's 127 other people that don't want to see me win.’ Nothing personal, they just want to win.”
There’s that, too.
So far this year, Williams has kept those legions at bay. We’ll see if she can do it one more time.