The U.S. Open has been running for almost two weeks now, and (as of this writing, Thursday night) Serena Williams is still churning her way towards achieving the Grand Slam.
Meanwhile, in another country club sport, the FedEx Cup rapidly approaches, and it looks unlikely that Tiger Woods will make it into the limited field for the playoff events. Despite commentators’ obsessions with Woods, his sagging performance has at last started to push him below golf’s horizon, as new stars (Spieth, McIlroy, Day) have finally started to take the sport’s center stage.
Tiger’s decline almost certainly foreshadows Serena’s own inevitable, age-related fade. Indeed, these two kids might want to get together–because they really do have a lot in common.
Serena Williams and Tiger Woods share more than just African heritage. Each has gone through a period of complete dominance over one of our most prominent individual sports. Both have been lightning rods for controversy, in one way or another–occasionally for churlish behavior on the field of play, sometimes for far more damaging behavior off the field (particularly in Woods’s case). Both are media darlings, despite those occasional lapses, so much so that their fans in the commentariat rarely point out the most glaring truth about their dominance:
Neither one has had to beat anybody of note to achieve their greatness.
If there’s no competition, there’s no sport–and there’s certainly no greatness.
This argument has been made before, right here in these pages, about Tiger Woods. While Woods at least had to show up and win his tournaments to attain his lofty status, he did so against a largely anonymous and sub-par field of challengers.
So too with Serena Williams today. The pool of talent in women’s tennis has sank like a stone in recent years, and Williams has taken full advantage of that fact–even winning at peak performance at an age (33) when most female tennis players have long since begun their decline. Serena’s scorched earth run through the last three majors–and the U.S. Open in successive recent years–has grown out of more than just from her own prowess; the lack of said prowess from her alleged challengers has played just as large a part in Williams’s performance.
How should one feel about Williams getting a Slam when she achieves that feat against such a weak field? Consider: the current number two ranked player in the world, Simona Halep, has never won a Grand Slam event; her best finishes have included quarter and semi-finals in the Australian and Wimbledon, and one finalist appearance at the French. Those results have only come in the last year; it’s too early to say whether or not Halep represents a rising power, or just another flash across the sky. After all, she too is playing against a weak field.
Who else is out there? Attractive pieces of fluff like Caroline Wozniacki and Eugenie Bouchard can hardly be considered daunting obstacles. Victoria Azarenka is a serious, talented player, a two-time winner in Melbourne who has played deep into all the other majors, but she’s 3-17 against Williams head to head in her career–and barely would have been a speed-bump had they played this weekend. Maria Sharapova, despite her own championship pedigree, has been so often overwhelmed–and perhaps even intimidated–by Williams that some observers are starting to openly snicker about it.
It hardly makes for an impressive vista. Given Williams’s obvious physical abilities–she looks like she could beat up even the most athletic of the other female players–one should expect her to dominate the sport. The only question is, considering her talent and athleticism in contrast to that of the other women’s players, how has Serena not won a calendar Slam before?
It didn’t used to be this way. Past tennis champions always had at least one counterweight in the field at all times. Chris Evert had to cope with Martina Navratilova. Steffi Graf–the last Slam winner–squared off against Monica Seles at regular intervals, particularly in majors. Even Martina Hingis needed to deal with the likes of Lindsay Davenport, Mary Pierce, and Jennifer Capriati (not to mention the Williams sisters in their youngest years). But recent winners in the women’s game? Mostly, they came when Serena was either injured or indifferent.
This same charge could have been labeled once against Roger Federer on the other side of the tournament, but all that changed once Rafael Nadal showed up and bulled his way to title after title–several at Federer’s expense. The rise of Novak Djokovic further broadened the top of men’s tennis. The challenges made Federer’s accomplishments that much more impressive.
But for Serena, she’s mostly battling ghosts–record holders of the past, statistical milestones, and observers’ perceptions. At least Tiger Woods, when running through his dominance, could be challenged by course or tournament scoring records; Williams has few such objective standards to help make the case for her greatness.
In a weird way, it might be best if Williams falls short of the Slam. If some other player rises up and denies her, just as Serena’s on the brink of the accomplishment, it may provide fans with a sense of just how difficult her goal really is. After all, it is in being challenged that we climb to our highest heights. Right now, however, Serena’s march to the Grand Slam is looking like a cakewalk–and it’s hard to generate much admiration for a cakewalk.
That’s unfair, perhaps–but sports are all about competition. If there’s no competition, there’s no sport–and there’s certainly no greatness.