What history is Serena Williams chasing?
It must be a strange feeling for Serena Williams, opening the year this way. Everything is in place: her game, her powers of intimidation and her reputation, now free of the rampant skepticism she so often absorbed about her commitment to tennis. It's all about her place in history now, and with that in mind, we offer a mixture of nuggets and clarification.
Exhibit A: In 2002, Williams won the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, a prelude to the 2003 Australian Open title that earned her the so-called "Serena Slam." Last year, she added the Olympic singles gold medal and the year-end WTA Championships to her Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles, finishing the year 48-2. The only other player in history to put together such dominant seasons 10 years apart was Margaret Court (later Smith), who won three majors in 1962 and again in 1973, missing Wimbledon each time.
Here's the question, though. After 2002, Serena was quite properly ranked No. 1 at the end of the year. How in heaven's name did she finish at No. 3 last year, especially after dominating Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, the two players ranked ahead of her? That has to be the most preposterous development in the rankings' long history.
Exhibit B: A published report noted recently that Serena "hopes to become the oldest-ever No. 1 at age 31," which she can accomplish by reaching the final of the ongoing Australian Open. Actually, she has company -- and within the Open era. Court was 31 when she won the 1973 U.S. Open, and by year's end, she was ranked No. 1, with Billie Jean King, Evonne Goolagong and Evert following at 2-3-4.
The following year, 1974, King turned 31 in November. She had just won the U.S. Open, and she was placed No. 1 in the year-end rankings ahead of Goolagong, Evert and Wade.
Exhibit C: Checking out other greats on the list of former No. 1 players at that age:
Tracy Austin: Long retired, she was pondering a comeback that, as it turned out, didn't work out so well.
Jennifer Capriati: Played her last match at 28.
Lindsay Davenport: Just playing out the string; barely a factor in her three remaining majors.
Chris Evert: Never got back to No. 1, but she reached nine more Slam semifinals, with a French Open win in 1986.
Evonne Goolagong: Played just one more major, the 1983 French, before concentrating on full-time family life.
Steffi Graf: Shortly after turning 30, she announced her retirement.
Justine Henin: Won her last major title, the 2007 U.S. Open, at 25.
Martina Hingis: Staged a mildly impactful comeback in 2006-07, but she was just 18 when she won the last of her five majors, the 1999 Australian.
Billie Jean King: Won the 1975 Wimbledon title and played the majors, off and on, through the age of 39.
Martina Navratilova: She broke out laughing at the age factor. Graf and Seles ruled the rankings, but after turning 31, Martina reached six Grand Slam finals, including a win at Wimbledon in 1990.
Exhibit D: The great stars of the 1960s and '70s (and before) are too often overlooked, with Court right at the center of the argument. How many times have you heard that Graf won the most singles majors, with 22? If you're speaking strictly of the Open era, that's true, but the magnificent Court won 24 over a 14-year span (1960-73).
Court had the type of credentials that would enhance any era: fabulous athleticism, raw power, an attacking style and a stunning wingspan (King called her "The Arm"). Everyone remembers King's life-changing victory over Bobby Riggs in the notorious "Battle of the Sexes." Not so well remembered, prior to that, was Court's televised challenge match against Riggs, a match Bud Collins recalls Court losing "implausibly and badly."
Perhaps the biggest source of consternation surrounding Court's career, though, is her record at the Australian Open. She won 11 of her 24 titles there, including seven in a row, but the popular notion is that she played against too many depleted fields to earn full credit.
Is that really true? Well, yes and no.
What people may not know -- and this weighs heavily -- is that throughout her 11-title run (1960-66, 1969-70, 1971, 1973), Court never contested a field larger than 32 players. Either it was a field of 32 to begin with, or an opening round of 64 in which the top-seeded players received a bye.
Another damning bit of evidence: As often as Court played King (impressively winning the head-to-head 22-10), they met only three times at the Australian Open: 1965 (Court won a semifinal), 1968 (King won the final 6-1, 6-2) and 1969 (Court in the final 6-4, 6-1). Remarkably, those were the only years King even ventured to Australia during the breadth of Court's career.
It doesn't seem particularly impressive that Court beat a relatively insignificant historical figure, countrywoman Jan Lehane, in her first four Australian finals. And there were far too many years in which the likes of Virginia Wade, Nancy Richey, Darlene Hard, Ann Haydon Jones and Maria Bueno -- consistently great players of that era -- did not make the trip to Australia. (Court did play one final against Bueno, the elegant Brazilian, and won it in 1965.)
Things were starting to get interesting in the early '70s when Goolagong came onto the scene, and it's to Court's eternal credit that she defeated her clever, carefree young opponent in two Australian finals: a classic three-setter in 1971 and 6-4, 7-5 in 1973. But the fast-rising Evert was too young to play any kind of role in Court's career, and everything changed when the first women's tour was founded in 1971. King, Jones, Rosie Casals, Francoise Durr and many other world-renowned stars became so heavily involved in that historic venture, the long trip to Australia dropped well down their list of priorities.
It seems clear, then, that Court didn't have enough top Australian Open matches to her liking, especially as viewed in a historical context. On the other hand, are things that much different now? Everyone's making the trip, to be sure, but is anyone in Williams' class? Assuming her sore ankle holds up, will she even lose a set? History shines on a player who, frighteningly, seems lodged squarely in her prime.