Serena Williams is traveling in time, chasing the past. It’s all about history for her now. But that’s not new. What was new from the Australian Open was that the present and the future have decided to finally start chasing her. And that came with an assist from the past.
They’ve all decided to stop cowering in the corner in fear of Williams and start fighting her back.
I’ll get back to that in a minute. With her 19th major title Saturday, when she beat Maria Sharapova 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), Williams passed Chris Evert and Martina Navratlova on the all-time list. Steffi Graf is the next, and final, goal with 22. (No one seems to count Margaret Court).
Is Williams the greatest player of all time already? If you look at video of Evert, you see that she wasn’t even playing the same game that Williams is. The racquets are different, the strings are different. And the training and body types match the equipment. It’s like asking who’s better: a badminton player from the 1980s or a tennis player from the 2010s?
Still, I’m going with Williams as second best and Graf as No. 1. Graf won more majors (22-19), way more non-majors (85-46) and spent more than 65 percent longer at No. 1 (377 weeks to 226). Too much emphasis is put on today’s only measure, major titles, as the measuring stick through history. But in this case, the numbers hit me about right, with Graf ahead of Williams, but with time for Williams to catch up.
As Williams has gotten older, she has started thinking about her spot in history. She now talks openly about wanting to catch Graf. Williams is 33, and not as consistent in majors as she once was. But what came out of the Australian was this: While Williams is focused on Graf as her only challenger, the present has decided to join in.
Here’s what I mean: My biggest complaint about women’s tennis is that almost all the women play exactly the same game. Bash into open space. The end. No touch, no nuance, no style. It rarely works against Williams, with her great serve, strength, guts and athleticism, particularly when she cares, meaning the majors.
I’ve wondered for years why no one tries to slice the ball into Williams’ feet to see if she can get out of the way, rather than run something down. Or at least, why no one tries anything at all. ANYTHING! When plan A isn’t working, these women try Plan A. They don’t have a Plan B.
But we saw a much more gutsy approach in the semis from American teen Madison Keys — the future? —
AUSTRALIAN OPEN: No One Tells the Same Punchline 1,000 Times in a Row. You’ll Hear Tennis’ Classic Joke Again if Sharapova Wins
I’ll be honest and say I’m a little tired of the joke. It is actually a tennis classic, built into the fabric of the sport.
But every. . .single. . .time someone ends a long losing streak against another player, it’s the same line. Nobody beats Tomas Berdych 18 times in a row. That’s what we heard after he beat Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open this week. And when Andreas Seppi beat Roger Federer, ESPN ran the same joke on the scroll across the bottom of the screen.
Going into Saturday’s women’s final between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, Williams has won the past 15 times in their rivalry. I’m just going to warn you now, in case Sharapova wins. The joke is coming again. For most tennis writers, it writes itself on the computer.
It was a Vitas Gerulaitis original, though it has been misreported so many times that the truth of the slump he ended is now confused in oral history. He did not beat Bjorn Borg to end the streak. He never beat Bjorn Borg, period. But in 1980 at the Masters Gerulaitis ended an 16-match losing streak by beating. . .
Jimmy Connors. And he came into the interview room carrying a bottle of champagne, according to reports from the time, and said it in his self-deprecating celebration: “And let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.”
The funny thing is, it was the start of Gerulaitis’ five-match win streak against Connors.
And it appears that Gerulaitis was right. According to the official ATP record book, which is not perfect, his final record against Borg was 0-16.
And according to Matt Cronin’s book “Epic” about the Borg-John McEnroe rivalry, after Gerulaitis made the joke that lives in tennis history, someone asked him if he had broken into the Big Three of Borg, McEnroe and Connors. Gerulaitis said, “I’ve always had this potential, but there aren’t three. There are the rest of us. Then there’s Bjorn.”
More honesty: When I started writing this column, I planned on asking that we finally retire that joke. Then, I started looking up some stuff about Gerulaitis. I’m remembering, laughing. I remember
When Jimmy Connors didn’t approve of John McEnroe, he put his finger in Mac’s face and started jawing. When Andy Murray was unhappy with Tomas Berdych Thursday at the Australian Open, he tattled.
I’m having a hard time getting past that. Maybe it’s a British thing? Berdych made some remark to Murray as they walked past each other on a changeover after Berdych won the first set. And Murray, all 6-foot-3, 185 weight-lifted pounds of him sat down and, well, snitched. He complained to the chair umpire that Berdych talked to him.
Boo hoo. Let me put this bluntly: I am the official judge and jury on this. I’ll score the spat in a few minutes. But the bigger picture is the thrill you had to feel watching that match. I’ve watched it twice, once stopping every time they showed the players’ fiancees on ESPN to see if I could read Kim Sears’ lips. I’m pretty sure one time she said. “Oh for fun’s sake.” And “Take that, you fun-loving Czech funner.”
I don’t think funner is a word. Maybe a British thing? Surely it’s not a swear word, as Brits have made it clear to all Americans that they aren’t the ugly ones with bad manners. What would I know about it anyway, coming from the country of Milwaukee’s Tim Smyczek, who already locked up the tour’s good sportsmanship award for the year when he allowed Rafael Nadal to hit his first serve again after a fan yelled in a big moment.
Anyway, there was such an edge to the match Thursday that you had to keep paying attention. ESPN has been criticized for showing side-by-side photos of both fiancees and comparing engagement rings. Both rings were estimated over $300,000, Berdych spent more, the funner. I have no idea why ESPN was criticized for that.
Loosen up, tennis. It was fun. I guess that’s the message here. For someone like me, who loves the sport, I’m fine with it as it is. But I have to admit enjoying that added element — personal tension — Thursday. We rarely see it, except when Serena Williams plays Maria Sharapova, which will happen in Saturday’s final.
The general sports fan would be a whole lot more interested in tennis if the sport had just a hint of reality show to it.
Real Houswives of Tennis. And it was just a few months ago that Roger Federer’s wife, Mirka, was calling Stan Wawrinka a “crybaby”
It takes a recklessness to be Nadal. It’s not only about running with abandon, but also about throwing everything you have with every single body part into every single motion. It is to push limits, to create energy and adrenaline so powerful that even people watching can feel it. To be Nadal is not to float gracefully like Roger Federer, but to storm the court like no one before.
And all of that is to point out one thing: The guy who lost to Tomas Berdych 6-2, 6-0, 7-6 (7-5) Tuesday in the Australian Open quarterfinals? That wasn’t Nadal.
Rafael Nadal warned us. He said he wasn’t ready to win this tournament, that he was rusty from his time away because of injuries. He said Tuesday that reaching the quarters was a good step. But are we supposed to believe his words — and, those of ESPN’s analysts who think he just needs practice — or our own eyes? Because what I saw was this:
Nadal’s body is broken. It’s amazing he lasted this long, to 28. How long would your car last going pedal to the metal all the time?
“I am feeling OK,” he told reporters. “Just was not my day. I didn’t play with the right intensity, with the right rhythm. And the opponent played better than me.”
But you were rubbing your hamstrings. And you took some sort of medicine during the third set.
“Yeah, happened nothing,” he said. “I am feeling well. That’s it.”
Truth: Nadal hates it that people think he blames injury for losses. More truth: Injury was the reason for this loss.
Well, actually I don’t think it was injury, though that’s how Darren Cahill portrayed it. Maybe he’s right. I hope he’s right. But I suspect this is just Nadal’s normal state now. He has put his body through torture for so long.
But the problem against Berdych wasn’t rust or timing. Nadal can’t change directions on a dime — as
The tennis gods like to give aging superstars one last good-bye run. Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras. It’s a graceful way out. And it’s something about luck mixed with wringing out the last drops of greatness mixed with making adjustments to account for what has been lost.
Everything sort of comes together at the same time. And that brings me to Venus Williams, who is suddenly relevant again, reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open after beating sixth seed Agnieszka Radwanska Monday 6-3, 2-6, 6-1. Williams was excellent, awful, excellent. In that order.
But here’s the thing: I’m not sure this is a one-last-run thing. Someone forgot to tell Venus this is her farewell tour. That’s what I was thinking it was.
Now I’m thinking it’s her comeback tour. But know this: I could be way off. It’s too close to tell.
“For me, it’s all about the title,” Williams, who’s 34, told ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez, who had asked about her feelings of getting deep into a major again. “It’s not about a good showing anymore. I’m past that time.”
Venus, who hasn’t been this deep in a major since 2010, doesn’t understand the nostalgia.
It’s just hard to know exactly what we’re seeing. It might be luck: The first top player she faced in Australia is Radwanska, one of the few high-ranked players Williams can overpower.
And maybe her body is just in a good cycle now with her Sjogren’s syndrome, which steals her energy. Her fight against that is permanent.
Or she might have found the right diet and medication. Or, she could take the court against Madison
Maria Sharapova has talked about her passion for fashion, and how she enjoys helping with the designs of the tennis dresses she wears, including the little black tennis dress. Last year, Glamour magazine called her clothes “saucy.” A few years ago, Forbes said she likes “tank dresses with kicky skirts.”
Who can argue with that? And who can forget Serena Williams’ catsuit? I was at the Australian Open a few years ago when Venus Williams explained that she had designed skin-toned underwear for a natural look.
Awkward? You bet. But on Wednesday, Eugenie Bouchard won her match at the Australian Open, and when she did her post-match interview on court for the crowd, she was asked to give “a twirl” to show off her dress.
It is now a fullfledged scandal, with Billie Jean King posting on Twitter that the request to twirl was “out of line. This is truly sexist. If you ask the women, you have to ask the men to twirl as well.”
Go ahead. Ask Roger Federer to twirl. Ask Rafael Nadal. Ask Andy Murray. You know what? They won’t do it.
Bouchard, and earlier Serena Williams, did because it’s part of women’s tennis.
And God bless King for all she’s done to set a path for girls, including my daughter, with Title IX and the women’s tour. But on this one, I’m calling BS. She’s coming off like Al Sharpton, looking for any opportunity — genuine or not — to push the cause.
Look, it was an uncomfortable request, yes. It’s an unfamiliar balance, too, that the tour is selling. Bouchard, 20, is one of the best tennis players in the world. But the truth is, if this is a serious issue of sexism, then it’s not about what some guy asked Bouchard to do to show off her dress.
If there is need to change, then the women’s tour needs to take a hard look at what the women’s tour is selling.