There will be so much to post about this week that is beyond tennis — although to my mind a tennis match is a metaphor for life — that I need to offer a few thoughts about the winner of the women’s Australian Open this past weekend.
I find it difficult to proclaim anyone the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT), but there is no question for me that Serena Williams is now that person. By winning the Australian, she broke a tie with Steffi Graf for the most major singles championships in the Open era. I’ve always believed that Steffi would have had about eight or nine fewer than her total of 22 had Monica Seles not been stabbed early in her career. Before the stabbing, Monica was on a roll, and Steffi’s dominance was slipping away. After that horrifying incident, Monica was never the same player.
Serena has also won far more major doubles titles than Steffi.
Margaret Court won dozens of singles and doubles championships, but her all-time record of 24 for singles has a major asterisk next to it: the Australian Open.
Before the Open era that began in 1968, and even though 1980, the Australian Open was in danger of losing its status as a major championship. Held at an awkward time of year — late December — and in a hard-to-reach corner of the world, it was a tournament many top players from other countries overlooked. Hence, most winners until 1980, especially on the women’s side, were from Australia. Only after Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova competed in seven consecutive finals between 1981 and 1988 against each other or four other opponents was the Australian truly regarded as a full-fledged Grand Slam tournament. The venue was changed, prize money, sponsorship and attendance increased dramatically, and even the court surface switched from grass (and its association with privileged country clubs) to more reliable, accessible hard courts.
Margaret’s titles, gained against many players ranked outside the top 100 in early rounds of the Australian in the ’60s, are analogous to winning the United States Women’s Clay Court Championships: a specialty tournament in the pre-Open and immediate years of the Open eras dominated by the home crowd favorite.
Serena may be 35, but for tennis, that age is the new 25, and given her love for the game and for competing, Serena will add many more major trophies to her collection. Like Muhammad Ali, she is truly The Greatest.