A goddess who is so human!

Serena Williams now has 18 Grand Slam singles titles and there is already talk of her being the greatest women’s tennis player ever. The hunger is intact and the American is game for more. By N. Sudarshan.

The last two years — 2012 and 2013 — in Serena Williams’ career has been all about building a legacy. She was a 13-time major champion by then, had achieved the Career Grand Slam and in the process had developed quite a halo. Yet the radiance was far from all-encompassing. Her record on clay was still suspect. She didn’t own an Olympic singles gold medal and in spite of being the best player in her era, she didn’t dominate the second-best, Justine Henin. She had an overall winning record of 8-6 over her, but in Slams it was 2-4.

So when she finished 2012 the way she did, winning her fifth Wimbledon, her first Olympic singles gold, her fourth U.S. Open title, and her third season-ending championship, the job was half-done. When she went unbeaten in the 2013 clay season, took home her fifth title at Flushing Meadows, and towered over her nearest rivals — she has 16-2 and 14-3 head-to-head records over her top two adversaries Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka respectively — she staked her claim to the title of the greatest-ever. She played 82 matches, won 78 of them, including 11 titles. An author writing in these sections subtly put it: ‘There hasn’t been a greater player in the game’s history.’ She had won 17 Slams.

Still 2014 turned out to be so different. When she went into the Australian Open in January, she was on a 25-match winning streak — the second longest of her career. She had no peer challenging her, a la an Agassi challenging a Sampras, a Nadal challenging a Federer. She seemed well on course, playing hypothetical battles for the greatest-ever tag. Yet five months later, after her loss in the third round at Wimbledon, it seemed she was having one of her worst seasons. She hadn’t progressed past the fourth round in any of the Grand Slams.

For Serena this has always been the story; of her never being able to divorce setbacks from success. If Roger Federer seemed God-like for large swathes of his career, lording over everybody, and looks human only now, for Serena the two have never been disjointed.

But as one author wrote in the aftermath of her Wimbledon loss, “this is what makes Serena so fascinating. She has always been bigger than the legend that surrounds her. She is not immune to time, or to the mental weariness that can accompany winning, or to the pressures that people go through. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about her is that really, she has always been more human than any God.”

So the story in New York was of her finding yet another way out of a mess. Serena was still the world’s best and No.1 player. Her ability to summon her best when she really wants it has always been unparalleled. A good tune-up to the U.S. Open where she won two titles and reached the semifinal in another brought her back to form. A sixth Open title beckoned.

On the eve of the tournament, Serena, when asked about the significance of what would later be her 18th title — which would tie her with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert — said jokingly, “the number 18 means legal to do some things,” before adding, “but it also means legendary,” As relaxed as her demeanour was, the second line fully reflected the intent.

The recent two weeks in New York was when it was fully on show. Her game was as close to perfect as it has ever been. True she did not have a fully-fit Azarenka to deal with, who comes closest to her in tenacity and power, and whom Serena had to beat in the last two finals here. And she did not quite dominate with her serve, as she often does, and got off to slow starts. But, she grew into the tournament, fixing flaws with each passing round.

An example of this came in the final against Caroline Wozniacki, when she showed how effective the serve was, even when the aces didn’t rain. After letting a set point go on Wozniacki’s serve at 5-2 in the first set, her next service game had two service winners. After breaking in the second, while serving at 3-2, she had three service winners and an ace to consolidate. As the defeated Dane, who came up with a stellar effort through the two weeks, putting behind her a spell of personal trauma, said, “When she needs to, she can pull out that big serve. She has the power. She can push us back on the court and take the initiative.”

“When Serena’s head and game are together, the serve and the groundstrokes in sync, it’s almost not a fair fight,” said Navratilova.

Through the tournament Serena lost only 32 games and no more than three in each of the 14 sets she played. The season might not have been a fulfilling one, but it has resulted in a happy ending nonetheless.

“It means a lot to me,” Serena said after the win. “It was definitely on my shoulders. It was definitely like, ‘Oh, get there, get there, get there.’ Now I’ve gotten there, so now it’s a little bit of a relief.”

Serena is now weeks short of her 33rd birthday. She now has 18 Slams to Helen Wills Moody’s 19, Steffi Graf’s 22 and Margaret Court’s 24. She has a remarkable 18 wins in 22 major finals. She has won her 18 Slams over 15 years (1999-2014). Martina won it over 15 too (1975-90) and Evert over 12 (1974-86). This indicates Serena’s longevity. Also, she has the most number of Slams for those over 30: five to Navratilova’s three and Evert’s two.

It was on these very lines, it was argued in this magazine last year after her 17th title, that she could be the greatest-ever. The current year might not have added more meat to the argument, but the triumph in New York has ensured that it is skewing more and more in Serena’s favour.

On that Sunday, Navratilova and Evert were on court to welcome her into the elite coterie by presenting her with an 18-karat gold bracelet. She then humbly said, “You know, I just could never have imagined that I would be mentioned with Chris Evert or with Martina Navratilova, because I was just a kid with a dream and a racquet.”

But barely hours had passed, when she said, “I’m already looking at 19. Hasn’t even been three hours and I’m already.” Time and Tide wait for none; Serena doesn’t, too!