Serena’s Holy Grail on Hold

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Bill Simons

Cliches – they’re the poison writers try to avoid at all costs. But sometimes you have to pay the price. And on a soggy French day in a dark season around the world we must dwell on an old saying – “Records are made to be broken.”

The greatest record in sports history – the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927 – has been broken time and again. Many feel that the most unbreakable record in baseball – Joe DiMaggio’s getting a hit in 56 straight games – will last forever. In track, the Herculean effort to break the four-minute mile took on epic proportions.

In tennis, there are some freakish marks that will never be touched: John Isner and Nicolas Mahut’s 11:05 2010 marathon. Jimmy Connors winning the US Open on grass, clay and hardcourts. Players are great these days, but these records ain’t gonna be broken. And no one will ever Kevin Curren did and win back-to-back Wimbledon matches with white and yellow balls. Other less bizarre records that seem out of reach include: Federer getting to 23 straight Slam semis; Chris Evert winning 125 consecutive matches on clay, gaining 157 titles, reaching at least the semis in 48 of 49 Slams and winning at least one Slam for 13 straight years; Nadal’s 12 French Open trophies, the Bryan brothers’ 119 titles, Margaret Court’s 64 singles and doubles Slam wins; and Martina Navratilova’s and Pam Shriver’s 79 titles each. 

In men’s tennis, Roger Federer, with his 103 titles, has a shot to reach Jimmy Connors’ mark of 109. But these days the men’s record that matters most is Grand Slam singles titles won. Roger now has 20. Rafa, 34 years old, could soon equal Federer’s mark, and Novak, at 33, could leave Paris just two behind 39-year-old Roger.

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Just yesterday, it seemed like it was yet another happy day in Serenaville. On January 28th, 2017, in Melbourne, Williams easily swept Venus aside to claim her 23rd Grand Slam. This was her tenth Slam in her last 19 outings. Surely she’d promptly sashay past Margaret Court’s record of 24 singles titles.

After all, winning is Serena’s brand. Her serve is the greatest weapon in WTA history She long closed out matches with a certain fury and laser concentration. At one point she had a dominant 21-4 record in Slam finals: don’t mess with Serena.

When she won in Australia she’d done what no man could do. She won the 2017 title with Olympia in her womb. “Being a mother changes everything,” my wife informed me. “Of course, dear,” I replied with a typical male cluelessness.

All the while I thought, “Serena’s Serena – a power like no other, a player who knows her history well, an athlete who gets what she wants.” Pam Shriver noted, “When Serena wants revenge, it’s crush city.” And Serena has openly sought to surpass the problematic Margaret Court. 

But it’s been well over three years and nine Slams, and Serena is still marooned at 23. Jon Wertheim asked, “Who knew 24 would be such an elusive number?” And that was two years ago. 

Tennis has had its share of Moby Dick-like obsessions. It took 77 years before a homestanding Brit, Andy Murray, won Wimbledon. Gritty Chris Evert bulked up to catch up with Martina Navratilova. Ivan Lendl was determined to win a Slam after three dispiriting losses in finals. Late in his career, Pete Sampras successfully went on what was said to be a soul-deadening, late-season surge to gain the No. 1 ranking. 

But Serena’s ongoing pursuit of Court’s record has been an odyssey like no other, our favorite tennis soap opera that’s given us so many intriguing episodes. Yes, Williams has reached four Slam finals (against Angie Kerber, Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep and Bianca Andreescu), but there she didn’t win a single set. Arguably, Kerber and Halep played the Wimbledon matches of their careers, and youngsters Osaka and Andreescu in New York showed the fearless power and unwavering confidence of a new, free-swinging generation that’s unafraid to tug on Superwoman’s cape.

At this year’s French Open, Serena had a fine first-round win, but then withdrew due to a nagging Achilles heel injury.

Recently injuries haven’t really been her prime problem. At times, she’s suffered from slow, tepid starts. There were key moments when her serve faltered and there was that infamous run-in with a strict New York ump. Many say she’s just a tad slower. Others contend she’s been distracted by her own celebrity. All the while, the world asks, “How can a 39-year-old mother possibly be an international sports champion?”

Toward the end of her first-round match, and again today, Serena was limping. Today on Instagram, she bid farewell to Paris with a jaunty post and asserted that she’ll go on. She told the press that she’d spoken with her coach Patrick Mouratoglou and simply didn’t want to risk further aggravation of her tendon. She added that she’ll need four to six weeks of recovery and probably will not play again this year.

Just four days into Roland Garros, the women’s draw is more open than the Champs-Elysees. Last year’s champ, Ash Barty, chose not to come to the Paris party. All four players from the stunning US Open semis are gone. Osaka chose not to play. Jen Brady lost yesterday, Serena withdrew and Vika Azarenka, who’d won 15 of her last 17 matches, lost today 6-2, 6-2 to Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, who is ranked No. 161 and hadn’t won a Slam match since 2015. 

All this bodes well for the surging two-time Slam champ Simona Halep, who prevailed here in 2018 and has won 16 matches in a row. Except for one little foot fault. It would be a stretch to say that Amanda Anisimova is Halep’s Achilles heel. But the smooth-stroking American teen overpowered the Romanian 6-2, 6-4 in last year’s Paris quarterfinal, and the two will again face off in the third round.  

Achilles was a Greek warrior. And in the big picture, Serena doesn’t really have an Achilles heel or a fatal flaw. Her 40-year-old sister is an enduring example for her – Venus plays on. And Serena is far from burdened by her ongoing pursuit of Court.

Today she confided, “I love playing tennis. I love competing and I love being out here. It’s my job – and I’m pretty good at it still. So, until I feel like I’m not good at it, I’ll be OK. And I’m so close to some things. Like, I’m almost there. That’s what keeps me going.”

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AMERICAN SCOREBOARD: American men went two for six with Taylor Fritz beating Radu Albot and Sebastian Korda downing John Isner. Mackie McDonald lost to Rafa Nadal, Jack Sock fell to Dominic Thiem and Tommy Paul went down to Casper Rudd in five sets. Women went one for four with Amanda Anisimova downing country woman Bernarda Pera. Coco Gauff lost to Italian wildcard Martina Trevisan and Serena withdrew.

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