Saturday 18 November 2017

Williams two steps from Grand Slam immortality

Feeling no pressure: Williams
Feeling no pressure: Williams

Oliver Brown

The holy grail, the supreme achievement, the impregnable quadrilateral: the Grand Slam has worn all of these labels and more. As Serena Williams, 20 major titles to the good, zeroes in on one of the few distinctions to have escaped her, the feat has seldom carried greater cachet.

While a sixth Wimbledon title would mark the second time in her career that she had held all four Majors, it is the thought that the next fortnight could carry her to within one step of a calendar clean sweep that most tantalises the slam purists.

For it remains an accomplishment of unrivalled sanctity, the Koh-i-Noor diamond of tennis' crown jewels.

In Williams' lifetime, only one player has ever captured it. In 1988, Steffi Graf, the solitary figure ahead of Serena on the majors count with 22, completed the ultimate tetralogy of Australian, French, Wimbledon and US Open titles and also threw in an Olympic gold medal for good measure.

The fact that Graf managed her 'Golden Slam' at the age of 19 merely burnished her legend.

So, too, did her 6-0, 6-0 obliteration of Natasha Zvereva in the championship match at Roland Garros, the first double bagel meted out in a Major final since 1911.


This year, Williams clutches one of a vanishingly small number of opportunities to emulate Graf.

Roger Federer has never managed it, having won three of the four in 2004, 2006 and 2007, only to be deprived each time in Paris of his chance to complete the set in the same year.

Pete Sampras, the next greatest by numbers, could never muster more than two in a season.

The exception was Rod Laver, whose two Grand Slams in 1962 and 1969 - the seven-year gap explained by the fact that he rendered himself ineligible for the Majors in the pre-Open era by turning professional - have bestowed a venerable status upon the Australian.

Not for nothing does Federer identify Laver as his idol, betraying a palpable emotion whenever they meet.

For it is Laver's reputation as the "completist" that precedes him.

When he beat Tony Roche in New York 46 years ago to round off his second grand slam, commentator Bud Collins said: "He's the Slammer! The Grand Slammer! It's undoubtedly the finest achievement in the history of this game."

Williams would be assured of similar levels of reverence. Her pride in the 'Serena Slam', a run of four consecutive Major successes from Paris in 2001 to Melbourne in 2002, is dwarfed by the adulation she stands to receive from joining the sport's most exclusive enclave.

Only five players have ever won all four in the same season: Graf, Laver, Don Budge in 1938, Maureen Connolly in 1953 and Margaret Court in 1970.

In that context, harsh though it might appear, a 'Serena Slam' does not count.

Four in a row, which awaits Williams at Wimbledon, is rather passe.

Graf, after all, extended her run to five at the 1989 Australian Open. Court, with a sequence spanning the 1969 US Open to the 1971 Australian, notched up six.

The same unyielding initiation principles hold true in golf. When Tiger Woods rounded off the 'Tiger Slam' with a fourth straight dose of Major glory at the 2001 Masters, Arnold Palmer, who had himself been halfway to the full house in 1960, was immediately dismissive.

"It would be ridiculous to call it a Grand Slam," he scoffed.

"No way, Jose. I think Tiger might do it one time, but it has to be in one year."

While Williams knows full well the strict rules of induction, she is wisely refusing to add to her burden of expectation on the Wimbledon lawns.

"I don't feel under pressure to win all four," she said. "If I would happen to win here, then maybe I would start feeling it after that.

"But being mentally tough is probably my biggest strength. Being the youngest of five children really made me have to scrap and be tougher."

The argument advanced by Patrick Mouratoglou, her boyfriend and coach, is that Serena's abiding aspiration aged 33 is to surpass Graf with a 23rd Major trophy.

Indeed, the declaration on his website leaves little room for doubt.

"Serena is the ultimate champion," Mouratoglou says.

"She represents the values of high-level tennis more than anyone else. Her level of perfectionism reflects her ambitions."

These grand statements are little more than an effective distraction, though, from the pressing work of pursuing the Grand Slam.

It can be little coincidence that Williams, fresh from collecting an unprecedented seventh Major beyond the age of 30, has been redoubling her efforts with practice sessions on the North Palm Beach grass courts owned by Jack Nicklaus, the finest golfer to have lived.

Birds of a feather, when it comes to sporting immortality, flock together.


Already 2015 is fast evolving into the year of the Grand Slam. Novak Djokovic might never have a better tilt at one than he enjoyed in Paris earlier this month, where his challenge was thrown off the rails by the freight train of Stanislas Wawrinka's single-handed backhand.

Next month, Jordan Spieth will stir extraordinary hoopla at St Andrews, after he followed Woods, Nicklaus, Palmer, Ben Hogan and Craig Wood as the sixth man to combine Masters and US Open wins in one year.

Should he lift a maiden Claret Jug at 21 and then the US PGA at Whistling Straits, only Bobby Jones, winner of golf's amateur equivalent of the Grand Slam in 1930, would stand comparison with the young Texan.

For Williams, however, the best advice would be not to dream too loftily too soon.

Even for a player of her weapons on the Wimbledon grass and the concrete of Flushing Meadows, banana skins lurk at every turn.

Independent News Service

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