There are times in sport when certain events seem inevitable. One such case was Serena Williams tying the legendary Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert with 18 Grand Slam titles.
It seemed unavoidable that Serena would reach this milestone at some point in 2014, given how sensational she was in 2013: the 32-year-old finished last season on an 18-match winning streak, which included Slam number 17 at last year’s US Open. In those 18 matches, Serena surrendered only three sets of tennis. For the entire 2013 season, Serena lost only 4 matches and collected an astounding number of titles: 11.
Serena was so unstoppable that reaching the magic number of 18 seemed like a mere formality; a nice accomplishment on the way to the larger goal of catching Steffi Graf and her 22 Major titles.
But, as all sports fans know, things don’t always go as planned.
Serena arrived at this year’s US Open still sitting at 17 Major titles, with the awkward knowledge that she hadn’t even made it past the Round of 16 at any of the previous three Majors. While her early exit at the Australian Open could be partially chalked up to back troubles, Serena’s unceremonious second-round exit at the French Open, as well as her third-round demise at Wimbledon, seemed a lot more complicated. In Paris, Serena was obliterated by promising (though unseeded) youngster Garbiñe Muguruza from Spain. At Wimbledon, it was erratic Frenchwoman Alize Cornet (just the 25th seed) who sent Williams packing. Adding insult to injury, that wasn’t even the only time Cornet had toppled Serena in 2014; it also happened at the WTA Premier event in Dubai.
2014 had been such an odd year for Serena that after Wimbledon, the inevitable 18th Major started to feel more elusive. Fortunately, there’s a lull in the tennis schedule between the grass season and the summer North American hard-court stretch. This break gave Serena and her team the opportunity to regroup and find answers.
Serena figured what others have before her: If lack of confidence is the issue, the best way to get that belief back is by playing (and winning) tennis matches. Williams and her team decided that she would play for three straight weeks in Stanford, Montreal and Cincinnati in preparation for the US Open, something she hasn’t often done in the past. And the decision seemed to pay off quite handsomely.
Serena won two out of the three hard court events (her lone loss was to sister Venus in Montreal), notching important victories against players she would surely have to overcome at the US Open along the way. Two of those came against Caroline Wozniacki, Serena’s good friend and eventual opponent in the US Open final. Wozniacki gave Serena all she could handle both in Montreal as well as in Cincinnati. Those were tough three-set affairs that Serena was able to withstand. Williams also got a chance to play (and defeat) Ana Ivanovic, her Australian Open conqueror, twice. For good measure, Australian Sam Stosur also showed up twice during that stretch. Stosur is, to this day, only one of three women to beat Serena in a Slam final (at the 2011 US Open). Serena won their matches in Montreal and Cincinnati without dropping a set.
All of these hard-court wins seemed to prime Serena for victory at her home Slam. After all, she was healthy, and she was fit. But now she was confident too, which helps explain the way she rolled through everyone in sight on her way to the title in Flushing Meadows. Her utterly dominant campaign can be neatly summarized in one number-filled tweet:
— Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) September 7, 2014
As you can see, not only did Williams not lose a set; she barely lost a game. She was absolutely ruthless throughout, making it quite hard to compare this iteration of Serena to the one we saw exit Roland Garros and Wimbledon in such desultory fashion.
She steamrolled her way to the Open final, and once Wozniacki’s last ball sailed long, sealing the 6-3, 6-3 scoreline that confirmed Serena as an 18-time Slam champion, we saw just how much the feat meant to her. It was hard not to wonder if the pressure of reaching 18 had affected her earlier in the year. Many of us had taken for granted that she would reach that feat, forgetting that winning Grand Slams is a difficult task, even for someone as immensely talented as Serena Williams.
One cannot help but think that few all-time greats have seen their skills be as misunderstood as Serena’s. Most of the discussion around her abilities focuses almost exclusively on raw power, which paints a far-too-simplistic picture of a once-in-a-lifetime tennis player.
Simply put, it’s highly unlikely we will ever see someone like Serena on a tennis court. The tennis gods seemed to create her just like we’d create an avatar in a video game: setting every available skill to the highest possible level. It can be argued that few humans, if any, have ever been endowed with such immense gifts for playing the sport of tennis.
Serena Williams owns the consensus best serve in women’s tennis history: even in a “down” year, Serena has hit 80 more aces than any other WTA player. Nobody has won more service games, or 2nd serve points. She’s listed at number 2 in percentage of first serve points won…by a measly 0.7 percent. And since those are pre-US Open numbers, Serena is likely to top that category as well by the end of the year.
But here’s what makes Serena Williams so very unique: she’s arguably among the best returners in the world, too. While this year finds her only once in the top 10 of the four statistical categories associated with return of serve, last year she featured in the top 3 of all four.
When you start talking about groundstrokes, it becomes more and more evident why Serena’s talent is just so overwhelming. She easily has the best forehand/backhand combo in the WTA. Nobody can match her in terms of power, placement and depth. There’s really no obvious place where one can attack: Serena is perfectly able to turn the tables on anyone with either her forehand or backhand. She can place any shot she wants anywhere on the court – and from anywhere.
Then you look at the way Serena covers the court. She will defend as well as anyone, and few can hit more lethal, accurate shots on the run (off either wing) as well as her.
You can understand the conundrum that Caroline Wozniacki faced yesterday in the US Open final. Serena Williams is able to do pretty much everything you need to do on a tennis court to be successful, and she does it all at an elite level. It’s not just about power. It’s about placement, it’s about consistency, it’s about depth of shot. It’s about being a nightmare for returners…as well as for servers. This is why there isn’t really a tried-and-tested gameplan against her. There’s no obvious area to attack. You can only really hope Serena is having a bad day. And against Caroline, Serena had a good one.
All of this explains why Serena hoisted Grand Slam trophy number 18, and why she’ll most likely hoist more in the future. And that’s good news for tennis fans everywhere. It means we get to keep watching her make, and chase, history. It also gives more and more people a chance to realize, before it’s too late, that the tennis gods aren’t likely to be this generous with us ever again.