The mid-90s in tennis was maligned as an era known as “Steffi & the Seven Dwarfs.” The modern day has done much to leap over the (admittedly low) bar Graf et al set in terms of parity. The last decade in particular has seen also-rans and underdogs alike climb to major triumph, with enough Cinderella stories to fill a book by the Brothers Grimm.
And yet, it cannot be denied that the WTA Tour remains dictated by a Serenocracy.
When Serena Williams is at her best, she is the best. She is one of the most naturally gifted athletes of all time (in any sport), with a tennis mind that has only become more expansive and all-encompassing with age and experience. Once criticized for her commitment, the American has outlasted all who ever doubted her, playing full schedules well into her 30s and showing little signs of stopping. Throughout her career, she has exhibited the uncanny ability to make ostensibly close competition look like amateurs, patently unfit to be spoken of in the same breath as the seventeen-time Grand Slam Champion.
Conversely, this presents a problem when the No. 1 falls decidedly below her best. Though she has maintained her domination of the world’s top 10 – five wins over four different players, including a decimation of Li Na in the finals of Miami – the best player on Tour has found it increasingly difficult to get up for the matches that don’t matter. Ana Ivanovic, Alizé Cornet, Jana Cepelova, and Garbiñe Muguruza are more believable as a semifinal line-up in Monterrey than as a list of the four women to have beaten Williams in a single season. But all four have done so, three of them in straight sets.
The American came to Paris as the defending champion with a title in Rome and a seemingly unassailable draw. The younger Williams was healthy and determined to reaffirm her domination of the sport with an eighteenth major title, one that would tie her with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. But before anyone had the chance to place bets on how many games last year’s finalist Maria Sharapova would earn against her nemesis in the quarterfinals, Williams was bundled out of the tournament by dangerous floater Garbiñe Muguruza. The Spaniard played an excellent match and parlayed the win into a maiden French Open second week. By contrast, Williams was, for all intents and purposes, a no-show. The mid-match revelation that there would be no comeback from this era’s most unshakeable competitor stunned Court Suzanne Lenglen into virtual silence.
Gone, but not forgotten. The fall of one who transcends not only her generation but also her sport can cast a shadow impressive in its ominousness. The success of others becomes inexorably linked to her failure. In a matter of days, Maria Sharapova went from favorite to cannon fodder after the announcement of the draw, and back to favorite again upon Williams’s untimely early-round dismissal. Because it didn’t matter that the Russian had won two clay tournaments to the American’s one. Because it didn’t matter that she had adapted her once immobile game to the slippery dirt of the terre battue and won the title in 2012.
Because when it comes to tennis, Serena Williams is just better. Everyone else becomes the beneficiary of the American’s charitable misfortune.
Should this emphatic inference follow an otherwise undisputed conclusion? It is true that, more often than not, Williams is just better. But part of what makes any superhero compelling is his or her humanity. Humans cannot gift Grand Slams, but they can face adversity with grace and fortitude, even if they do not always overcome it. The American’s vulnerability has been on display numerous times in her career, and that has only served to accentuate the many moments when her tennis becomes immortal.
Jokes about Maria Sharapova owing Williams a fruit basket for her early exit are to be expected given her comically long losing streak. But her clay court record speaks for itself; combine that with her tenacity over seven matches and the Russian is a worthy champion. Could she have gotten the elusive win over the American last week? Does it even matter when the latter failed to win the requisite matches to play her in the first place?
Serena has given us plenty to celebrate over a career that has spanned nearly two decades. There is nothing she could do that could take away from all she has achieved. At the same time, the success of others should not, and can never be, an affront to her legacy.
Yes, Serena will be back. But that’s only because Serena never left.