I enjoy watching tennis; my mom and grandfather brought me up in the game. I have enjoyed playing the sport and really enjoy watching the best in the game perform. The sport, especially singles, pits athletes mano-a-mano where specific skills are needed to overcome an opponent. We see great feats of power and finesse, supreme strategy and jaw-dropping otherworldly championship clutch. The game has an inherent complexity at the highest level of performance and history often elevates a tournament’s and match’s drama and meaning. I would argue to really enjoy the game (like almost anything else in life), one needs context. To understand the present, one needs to know about the past. This context (awareness) also enables one to predict the future. Somewhat.
Obviously, Wimbledon is underway, nearing its dramatic conclusions. The women’s semi-finals are going on now. In one semi-final is a match-up between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. These two are pretty much the best in the women’s game today and Serena owns this non-rivalry. Serena owns everyone right now. In fact, she is up a set and up a break in the second set (as I write this). If she wins this championship, she will have completed her second “Serena slam” (in possession of all four majors) and if she also wins the U.S. Open in September, she will have completed the calendar Grand Slam, where a player wins all four majors in the same calendar year (Serena did not win all four majors last year but she did win the U.S. Open; a win here at Wimbledon this week will mean she is in possession of the 2014 Open and the other three consecutive majors of 2015). Either way, she’s on top of the game right now.
Part of the enjoyment of watching tennis is listening to the commentators (other than the buffoon Chris Fowler of ESPN – he’s their big college football honk, but as the behemoth network gobbles-up more sporting events, naturally they put their staff to work on these events even if they’re clueless about the game. Fowler is clueless. I mean, CLUELESS. But I digress). Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is waxing on Serena’s historical tennis greatness. She is being called the greatest women’s player of all time by a lot of these talking heads. Completing a calendar Grand Slam is very difficult. Obviously. Only three women have ever completed a Grand Slam: American Maureen Connolly (1953), Australian Margaret Court (1970), and the German Steffi Graf (1988). That’s pretty elite company. Most of us tennis fans today are, of course, more familiar with Graf’s accomplishments. She went on to win 22 majors and has been considered by most, probably, GOAT. A pretty telling stat of her claim at GOAT, aside from her work in the majors: she was world #1 for a record 186 consecutive weeks, and a record total 377 weeks overall. That, my friends, is consistent dominance.
As I said, the tennis world is drooling all over Serena, who, by the way, is no where near the class act that is her sister Venus. Frankly, Serena is a jerk. Her temper and lack of class precedes her. She has humiliated (racially) line judges, boycotted tournaments over petty matters. In other words, we have a kind of Barry Bonds of women’s tennis here.
Well, I’m going to make another suggestion that echoes the life and times of Barry Bonds. What REALLY bugs me is that no one is asking a very sensible question. How is Serena Williams on the verge of winning a Grand Slam at the age of 34? Is the WTA field that shitty? Is she playing in a very down market right now, an historical low-point of women’s tennis? Because at 34, this kind of dominance does not generally work. Graf won her Grand Slam at the age of. . . wait for it. . . 19. Connolly was about the same age, and Court was in her twenties. But Graf is probably a better comparison. Winning all four majors is a huge athletic achievement. If you look at the career arc of other tennis greats (just to keep things close to home here, but you could look at the natural athletic life-span of most athletes in most sports), the “greatness” of this kind (dominating every tournament, the majors, etc.) wanes as one reaches her 30s. Even Martina Navratilova, whom some accuse of taking PED, won her final major at the age of 31. Just go look at the life-span of these athletes. It’s not very difficult to see that Serena Williams is a massive outlier. She’s playing this kind of tennis at the age of 34. 34! And she’s untouchable.
If you had a graph (damn, that would be illustrative) to compare these players’ career arcs, you would see a problem with Serena Williams. We all sat around watching Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and then Barry Bonds do things with the home run in baseball that defied common sense, logic and history. That’s because those guys were juiced out of their minds on PED. One’s athletic career doesn’t work that way; the body starts to concede to time and all of the hard work one has already put-in through out his or her career.
At 34, Serena Williams should not be playing this kind of tennis. At least ask the questions, you idiots! The headline, as I write this line, on the obnoxious ESPN website reads “Serena Crushes Maria to Reach Wimbledon Final.” Really? The public made the same naive play on other drugged-up athletes in the moment, only afterwards feeling somehow shocked at the truth.
There are other factors that contribute to this argument that Serena Williams is not clean. Her inability to stay at the top of the game (world #1) consistently throughout her career speaks to this skepticism. She has battled injury often (like a Nadal), dominating at times and disappearing for stretches. The true greats (Roger and Steffi) maintain a consistent dominance, defend titles, create strangleholds on their respective fields IN THEIR PRIMES. Roger is 33. And sure enough he is struggling to win majors at this point. Why? Because winning five set wars with other (younger) great athletes is very difficult. Again, not to be too controversial here, but when you age, you begin to fade. Roger is fading. All athletes fade in their 30s. Except certain kinds.
Lastly, even Serena’s style gives me pause. She sits at the baseline and literally HAMMERS her opponents with ground strokes that transcend the women’s game. I watched her play Azarenka, a big hitter. Serena toyed with her. Sure she lost the first set, but the match was never in doubt. And watching her sit there and out hit another opponent was head scratching and uninspiring. It’s all power. The tennis is not beautiful. I can hear people say Yeah, but she’s had more three set battles in this run than easy, dominating wins. How many times has she come back after losing the first set? Watch the matches. It’s never in doubt. I haven’t even brought-up her odd-ball antics on the court that paint her as weird drama queen. Read between the lines, people. At least ask the questions. 34 years-old. In a global sports culture riddled and jeopardized by the preponderance of PED use and abuse. Is she simply the great outlier of women’s tennis, of all time? Explain to me how she is so dominate right now and even more, why no one is asking these questions.