Posts Tagged ‘Chris Evert’

PostHeaderIcon Legendary Serena, the Bryans Reach 100, and Marin Breaks Through: Final Thoughts on a Turbulent US Open

Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams, and Chris Evert (usopen.org/Philip Hall)

Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams, and Chris Evert (usopen.org/Philip Hall)

At the end of a hot, windy, and upset-filled fortnight, there’s much to digest from this year’s US Open. Serena Williams legitimately reached legendary status. The Bryan brothers reached a ridiculous milestone. Marin Cilic, a year back from his drug suspension, broke through for his first Slam title. And few can deny that the “Big Four” is officially on life support.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s dive right into my (25) final thoughts on the year’s final Slam:

  1. By defeating Caroline Wozniacki in Sunday’s final, Serena Williams won her 6th US Open title, and her 18th Slam title overall. Additionally, by winning her third US Open title in as many years, Serena achieved a rare three-peat; a feat not seen since Chris Evert won four successive titles from 1975-78. With number 18 in hand, Serena joins an elite group alongside Evert and Martina Navratilova, one behind Helen Wills Moody’s 19, four behind Steffi Graf’s 22, and six behind Margaret Court’s 24. However, NONE of these numbers really matter much in the grand scheme of things. Reaching 18 gives Serena more than enough legitimacy for any G.O.A.T discussions. (For more Serena discussion, check out ‘Serena Williams – The Humanization of a Flawed Champion‘)
  2. For her part, Caroline capped her resurgent summer season with an extremely strong showing to reach her second US Open final. Her victory over Maria Sharapova was one of the best in memory, and she can leave New York knowing that she left everything on the court in pursuit of her first Slam. Will she be able to keep up the aggressive play in 2015? It’s unlikely. Though aggression was at the heart of her summer success, it’s just not in her comfort zone. Also, it was fueled by her off-court personal struggles, but that won’t always be the case. But even if she can keep the aggression in her game, that only gives her slightly better odds to go deep again at the big tourneys where, unfortunately, she’ll continue to be outhit.
  3. Marin Cilic, the newly-crowned US Open men’s champion, has long been considered a contender, but was never viewed as a threat…and with good reason. Prior to winning his maiden Slam title, the Croat had won several ATP 250-level events, but never a 500-level tournament or Masters Series 1000. This win could serve as a catalyst for Marin to “backfill” his tournament resume, as it did for Stan Wawrinka after he won the Australian; hopefully without the follow-up loss of focus.
  4. Kei Nishikori had an excellent tournament with huge wins over Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka, and Novak Djokovic. Unfortunately, he fell short in the final when he needed to step up the most. The wear and tear of too much court time slowed him down, and prevented him from imposing his ground game as he had done so beautifully against Novak. Kei has a history of physical breakdowns in big events when his body is pushed to the limit, but not this time. He made it all the way through without a single thought of retirement in his earlier battles. I hope he can keep that up in 2015.
  5. 2014 Slam Results, Part 1: The 2014 Slam winners were Li Na/Stan Wawrinka (Australian Open), Maria Sharapova/Rafael Nadal (French Open), Petra Kvitova/Novak Djokovic (Wimbledon), and Serena Williams/Marin Cilic (US Open). Let’s break down what this possibly tells us about the future prospects for both tours, starting with the ladies…
  6. 2014 Slam Results, Part 2: For the women, the onslaught of WTA teen phenoms, formidable as they are, failed to make an impact at the highest level. Each of this year’s Slam winners is a tried-and-true veteran, and that’s no coincidence given the demands of the game. At this year’s US Open, Spaniard phenom Garbine Muguruza flamed out in the first round. Canadian Genie Bouchard, the most hyped of the younger generation, fell in the fourth round. Swiss teen Belinda Bencic fared the best of the bunch with a R16 upset of Jelena Jankovic. And that’s as good as it got. Just a thought: maybe the WTA should stop trying to push the younger players to stardom before they’re ready, marketing dollars be damned.
  7. 2014 Slam Results, Part 3: For the men, the significance of two champions outside of the “Big Four” cannot be overstated. Prior to 2014, the last guys outside of that group to win a Slam were Juan Martin Del Potro back in 2009 (US Open) and Marat Safin in 2005 (Australian Open). This year saw two outsiders win (Stan Wawrinka in Melbourne and Marin Cilic in New York). Will we see a further erosion of the old guard in 2015? I think so!
  8. The era of the “Big Four” is officially over. Let the debate begin.
  9. Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic ended his poor summer with a run to the semifinals where he was completely outplayed by Kei Nishikori. After his post-Wimbledon wedding and with the eminent birth of his first child, Novak is clearly distracted. He needs to have a serious sit-down with Roger on how to do the pro tennis thing with family in tow…
  10. Roger Federer had a great summer, and played well through most of his time in New York. He fell short against Cilic’s phenomenal onslaught, but shouldn’t be concerned about any lingering questions of age. Even though he still needs a little help from the draw and scheduling gods for his best chances at another Slam, he remains an unwavering fixture atop the men’s game. One need only look to Rafa Nadal’s absence to appreciate that fact.
  11. Though we all missed Rafa’s presence in New York, he seemed to be having a great time at home with his friends in Mallorca. I could be wrong, but it really didn’t look as if he missed this tennis thing all that much. We’ll find out soon enough when he plays his next event.
  12. If a quarterfinal showing qualifies as struggling, Andy Murray’s Slam “struggles” continued in New York. I guess that also means that Amelie Mauresmo’s struggles as his coach continued in New York. Why do I have a gut feeling that this partnership isn’t going to make it to the end of the year?
  13. Gael Monfils finally stepped up to the “big boy” table, put away his highlight reel mentality, and played the type of tennis that we all knew he was capable of in reaching his first US Open quarterfinals. I hope that trend will continue into the New Year.
  14. Disappointment, Part 1: Disappointing is the only word I can think of to describe performances by Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov at the Open. Both failed to back up their previous Slam showings in very uncharacteristic losses. I hope their teams were able to glean some positives from New York, because from where I sit, there were very few.
  15. Disappointment, Part 2: After semifinal showings in Melbourne and Paris, and the final in London, Genie Bouchard came into this summer as the hottest player on tour. It all quickly fell apart for her, however, with first-round losses in Montreal and Cincinnati, and a second-round loss in New Haven the week before the Open. Much has been made about Genie’s maturity, and her ability to handle the pressures that accompany elite-level tennis. Judging by her summer, as well as her subsequent withdrawal controversy from the Hong Kong tournament, she still has a ways to go.
  16. A few years ago, the “Super Coach” phenomena was merely an interesting novelty. After a strong showing in this year’s US Open men’s semifinals, it’s a novelty that’s likely here to stay. The semifinals saw Chang vs Becker and Edberg vs Ivanisevic. The victors, Chang and Ivanisevic, squared off in Monday’s final with Ivanisevic coming out on top. Anyone want to place bets on when we’ll see Sampras and Agassi sitting in player boxes?
  17. Broadcast Woes, Part 1: Cilic and Nishikori both played outstanding tennis to reach their first Grand Slam final. Unfortunately for CBS, the lack of a known quantity spelled doom for the oddly-placed Monday final ratings. As tweeted by Ben Rothenburg:


    This is not an indictment of Marin/Kei, but merely the reality of televised men’s tennis without Roger, Rafa, Novak, or even Andy.

  18. Broadcast Woes, Part 2: After a remarkable run that started in 1986, CBS aired its’ final US Open match on Monday with the men’s final. With no real allegiance to the CBS coverage, I hope the consolidated coverage on ESPN makes it easier to follow coverage in 2015 and beyond.
  19. Broadcast Woes, Part 3: The tennis powers-that-be surely can’t keep bemoaning the lack of support for tennis on TV when the coverage is so inconsistent and disjointed. I know that I’ve said this before, but how can anyone expect increased support from the casual tennis fan when even the diehard fans can’t easily find televised matches for the biggest US tournament of the year? Some matches were on DirecTV, some were on ESPN, some were on ESPN2, some were on Tennis Channel, and some were on CBS. Heck, some were even on ESPNNews. Even when ESPN and CBS partnered to air coverage of different events during simultaneous coverage, they would inevitably switch to the over courts and end up showing the same match for brief intervals.  Honestly, it was a shit show! I realize that this is strong language, but it’s the only language I can think of to adequately describe the ridiculous situation at the heart of languishing fan support for tennis in the US.
  20. Broadcast Woes, Part 4: The last thing I’ll say about the broadcast issues at the Open is on the bias shown by commentators who assigned to matches with American players. Honestly, it was disgusting. It’s not that hard to show support for the home team without disregarding the other player on the court.
  21. Here’s a “Broadcast Thumbs-Up”! After listing in detail the broadcast issues of this year’s tournament, I should also note the “good stuff”. This includes Martina Navratilova’s on-air wedding proposal (and acceptance) to her longtime partner, Julia Lemigova. When same sex wedding proposals start becoming the norm, it’s safe to say that “We’ve come a long way, baby”.
  22. Steve Johnson retired from his first-round match after debilitating cramps in the August heat of a New York summer. That’s the simple version of the story. The actual version was that Steve started to cramp, and fought it as long as he could without any MTO (medical timeout) help while also enduring the forfeiture of code violation points. All this as he lay on the court in tears, racked with pain and visible muscle spasms. Fast-forward to Peng Shuai’s semifinal against Wozniacki, and the same situation was turned dramatically on its’ head when Peng – suffering from cramps – was allowed to delay play before being taken off court by medical personnel for evaluation and treatment.
    My gut impulse is to call out the outrageous of penalizing one player while allowing the other player over ten minutes of tournament assistance to help them compete. I’ll temper that impulse by merely imploring the WTA, ATP, ITF, and Grand Slam committees to come up with clear and consistent rules regarding the distinction between and treatment of cramps versus heat illness.
  23. On a more positive note, the Bryan brothers won their only Slam title of the year at the US Open, but boy was it a doozy! By defeating the Spanish team of Granollers and Lopez in the men’s doubles final, Mike and Bob reached their mind-boggling 100th tournament title win as a team…and with no signs of stopping anytime soon. As Dick Enberg would say, “Oh my!”
  24. BTW, can we stop with the “death of American tennis” stories already while we still have Serena Williams and the Bryans producing top-level results? (And NO, Patrick McEnroe’s departure from USTA Player Development isn’t going to help.)
  25. Michaela Gordon, Noah Rubin, Francis Tiafoe, and Stefan Kozlov are NOT the saviors of American tennis. Can we all just let them develop in peace?

When I start kvetching like a curmudgeonly grandpa, it’s time to call it a day on my final thoughts. Even with a few bumps in the road, it was an ultimately satisfying tournament with a nice mix of the new, the old, and the historic. And to be honest, I’m hoping that I witness all of this on the other side next year if I get a chance to work as a tournament official. Fingers crossed. Lastly, I never got a chance to mention anything about my time at the Connecticut Open, so I’ll leave you with this: Run, don’t walk, to Orangeside Donuts for the best freakin’ donuts in New Haven.

PostHeaderIcon Serena Williams – The Humanization of a Flawed Champion

Serena Williams (usopen.org)

Serena Williams (usopen.org)

Serena Williams earned entry to an elite group yesterday by defeating Caroline Wozniacki in the US Open women’s final for her 18th Slam title. Afterwards, she was joined on court for a presentation by Hall of Famers Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, the two other members of the “18” club.

Chris and Martina are tennis legends. By joining them with 18 of her own, Serena is in rarified air. Fittingly, it’s an accomplishment for which she was given full due after the win. But it wasn’t always this way for the 3-peating US Open champion.

Mention her name to anyone and they can tell you something about her. Generally the comments are positive ones about Serena’s power, her dominance over the other women (particularly Maria Sharapova), and her presumably atypical body type for a tennis player.

Many are also justifiably negative, like those regarding her tirade towards the “foot fault” linesperson, or her treatment of the chair umpire after being called for hindrance against Sam Stosur.

Regardless of merit, they show precisely the reason why she resonates so strongly in a sport that previously boasted benign heroines like Evert. On her good days, she’s almost mythical in her abilities. On her bad days, she’s flawed beyond belief. It’s that humanity that we either love, or love to hate.

But with this step up to “legend” status, she’s become much more. In fact, her path to respectability reminds me an awful lot like that of another great champion: Andre Agassi.

Back in his younger days, Andre’s ball-striking talent was undeniable. But along with that talent was a rebellious streak a mile long, and a piss-poor attitude to boot. He was all about the show, and didn’t really care if you liked it or not.

After early success, Andre sank to spectacular lows. There were many who counted him out. But as he worked his way back from the tennis wilderness, crowds began to cheer for him in spite of, or maybe even because of, his difficulties. They continued this support as he went on to achieve late-career success.

When Andre finally retired, he’d completed a remarkable transformation from young punk to career-Slam champion and elder statesman. I believe the same will eventually hold true for Serena.

In spite of her talent, acceptance from the tennis establishment was initially begrudging, at best. There always seemed to be too much drama, like the Capriati fiasco at the US Open (that led to the use of Hawkeye), or the Henin “hand” incident at the French Open. Few players have been involved with as much controversy as Serena.

She’s also did few favors for herself with the myriad of excuses that would flow after a loss. After losing to Davenport in the 2000 US Open quarterfinals, she exclaimed, “I don’t know how I lost that match.” Later, when told of a joke between Davenport and Hingis with regards to knocking them both out before the final, she stated: ”Obviously, no one would want to see an all-Williams final because everyone doesn’t really like us.”

Excess drama, faux-outrage, and persecution pity parties aren’t especially endearing. Consequently, many fans struggled to embrace Serena regardless of her early successes.

Then came the career-threatening injuries and the murder of her older sister, Yetunde. Serena still managed some big wins, but under extreme emotional duress. The turning point came after a seemingly benign foot injury in 2010 eventually led to a prolonged absence from tennis with a life-threatening pulmonary embolism.

Few things endear an athlete to their fan base like a life-or-death struggle. When Serena finally emerged from this health scare in order to compete on the grass at Eastbourne, adoration for her among fans, even those who’d once been indifferent, began in earnest.

To be certain, her transformation is still a work in progress. Her threat to shove a tennis ball down a line umpire’s throat was appalling. Her tirade towards the chair umpire after a hindrance violation was also unnecessary. Fortunately for Serena, she’s been able to hang on to the positive cachet built when one looks at her behavior in totality.

Also, let’s not forget the crucial maturation that occurs for these athlete’s over the course of their careers. Andre turned pro at 16, and retired at 36. Serena turned pro at 14, and is just shy of her 33rd birthday. Maybe we gain an appreciation for their humanity simply as a function of watching them struggle, then learn to be better champions as they get older because of those struggles.

Serena is by no means a perfect champion. She’s played the game on her own terms, and begrudgingly gained our respect, admiration, and her own legendary status along the way. And in spite of all the drama we’ve witnessed over the years, it will still be a sad day when she leaves the game.

PostHeaderIcon Serena Williams Wins A Record Seventh Miami Title

Serena Williams with trophy (photo courtesy of sonyopentennis.com)

Serena Williams with trophy
(photo courtesy of sonyopentennis.com)

Serena Williams won her seventh Miami title over Li Na in straight sets, 7-5 6-1.

With this win, Williams becomes the winningest player in tournament history. Competing in her ninth final, Williams’ seven titles now eclipses the six won by Andre Agassi. She has the most main draw match wins in tournament history (67), and joins Evert, Graf and Navratilova as the fourth player in the Open Era to win the same tournament seven or more times.

None of this would have come to pass, however, if Serena hadn’t willed herself into yet another brilliant comeback after an error-filled start to the women’s final. In her semi against Sharapova, Williams found herself in a deep hole, down 1-4. In her final against Li Na, the reigning Australian Open champion, she once again found herself behind the eight ball.

The statistics tell the story of Williams struggles, with a first-serve percentage at 42%, 3 double faults, and 21 unforced errors against only 15 winners. While it’s true that Li Na got off to a great start with her own game, Williams was her own worst enemy. And then, two breaks down and fighting to stay in the set at 2-5, Williams rediscovered her championship mettle.

Forehands that had previously found the bottom of the net were hitting their mark deep in the corners or on the back of the baseline, her “down the line” backhand became untouchable, and her serve became the weapon that we’ve all come to expect from World No. 1.

The rest is history. Williams went on to win 11 of the next 12 games, fighting off one set point at 4-5 before winning a closely-fought first set, and rolling through the second. It was a vintage performance from a player who seems to play her best when facing defeat.

When asked about this particular trend in her post-match press conference, Williams was quick to say, “I definitely don’t do it on purpose.”

“I think for the most part, I try to do the best I can, and sometimes, you know, things I’m doing don’t work out, but they are the right things and eventually they start to work.”

Li Na had her chances to close out the set, but was broken twice in the process. The second of those breaks, lasting 6 deuces, handed the first set to Williams. After relinquishing such a big lead, one might expect a certain amount of frustration or disappointment. But Li Na, who’s gained a newfound sense of calm since beginning her work with coach Carlos Rodriguez, was pragmatic about the lead that slipped away.

“I don’t have to see how was the score, because even the match didn’t finish yet.  Still everyone has a chance.” She went on to add, “I think this is tennis, because if I was play more aggressive, for sure she will going back a little bit.  If she play a little bit forward, I have to going back a little bit. So this is tennis.”

In spite of the loss, Li was happy with her game. “I mean, really nothing to say.  I don’t think today I was doing like a wrong game plan or I was play totally wrong. I think it was pretty good match.”

The second set was a cleaner affair for Williams. Though her first serve percentage remained low at 43%, she managed to win 90% of first serve points and 61% of second serve points. More importantly, she didn’t allow her serving woes to bring down the rest of her game as it has in past matches.

“I think now if my serve isn’t great, it’s okay because I have a great forehand, I have a great backhand, I have great speed.”

“You know, I have so many things that I want to have a backup plan, because today I only served at 40%.  I still have to figure out a way to win doing that.” Her backup plan was clearly more than enough to overcome on this day.

With 59 titles under her belt, and a slew WTA records, Williams could justifiably retire tomorrow as one of the all-time greats. I was curious to know just how this future Hall of Famer continues to challenge herself when there’s so little left to prove.

“I think I love the challenge, and I feel like if I feel like I can be the best right now, then why not continue to be the best and do the best that I can?”

Spoken like a true champion!

PostHeaderIcon Rafa v Roger: The Death of a Rivalry That Never Really Was

Roger Federer serving to Rafa Nadal at the Western & Southern Open (Kevin Ware)

Roger Federer serving to Rafa Nadal in the quarterfinals of the Western & Southern Open
(Kevin Ware)

Rafa Nadal played Roger Federer at the Australian Open in a semifinal that was billed as the 33rd chapter of a storied rivalry. And as he’s done many times before, Rafa scored an impressive and comprehensive victory over his disheartened Swiss foe, winning in straight-sets 7-6(4) 6-3 6-3.

I take issue with the term “storied rivalry”, which implies a sense of uncertainty and drama about the outcome. The hard truth about their matches is that the outcome is often not in question. Such is the case for this “rivalry” that never really existed.

Google’s search defines “rivalry” as competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field. When Rafa and Roger compete for the same objective, or superiority in the same field, there’s little competition.

The head-to-head numbers, a 23 – 10 series lead in favor of Rafa, don’t lie. In fact, one could say that it was never a rivalry from the outset. Rafa won 7 of their first 10 meetings, 5 of which came in finals. More to the point, he won them during a period of time that coincided with Roger’s heyday (2004-2007).

Any real chance at a rivalry was effectively over by 2008, the year that Rafa embarrassed Roger in the French Open final with the loss of only 6 games. He followed that with a defeat Roger on “home” turf at Wimbledon’s Centre Court. It’s one thing to dominate someone on your favorite surface. It’s quite another when you beat them on theirs.

Sentiment wants us to believe that Rafa v Roger is one of the great classic rivalries, but it’s not. Take, for example, this sampling of great rivalries: McEnroe v Borg (7 – 7), McEnroe v Connors (20 – 14), Sampras v Agassi (20 – 14), Navratilova v Evert (43 – 37), and even Lindsay Davenport v Venus Williams (14 – 13).

These are rivalries in the sense that whenever these players faced one another on any given day, either player had an equal chance of winning. Or, as in the case of Sampras v Agassi, the presence of one (Agassi) usually brought out the greatness in the other (Sampras).

f_nadal_day12_91

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the Aussie Open
(Ben Solomon/Tennis Australia)

With Rafa v Roger, we generally know who’s going to win. Some might argue that they still qualify because Roger’s presence brings out Rafa’s greatness a la Sampras and Agassi. While that’s sometimes been the case, as in the ’08 Wimbledon final, this is simply an incredibly bad match-up. Rafa is Roger’s kryptonite, and there’s not much he can do about it.

In many ways, their rivalry is reminiscent of Serena v Maria (15 – 2). No matter the circumstances, Serena wills herself to win, and there’s little that Maria can do to stop her. Maria hasn’t managed a win over Serena since 2004, and has tried everything to reverse this trend of perpetual losses to no avail.

The same could be said of Rafa v Roger after Melbourne. Roger came into this match pain-free, and feeling confident with his new racquet. Rafa came into the match with talk centering mostly on his badly-blistered hand. It was Roger’s best chance to notch a Slam win over Rafa since their ’07 Wimbledon final. Instead, Roger was beaten in straight sets…again.

Few, if any, believe this is a rivalry that will ever turn in Roger’s favor.

Context also makes a difference when discussing the gravitas of this rivalry. Their earlier matches felt important because they were meeting in the finals of Slams and Master Series. That importance is diminished when they’re meeting in quarterfinals – which happened twice in 2013 at Indian Wells and Cincinnati.

That’s not to say that good hasn’t come from their many encounters, because it has. Rafa’s early losses to Roger inspired him to become a more complete player on all surfaces, not just clay. Conversely, Roger’s losses have kept complacency at bay, forcing him to improve his backhand and competitive resolve.

Roger’s also gained a large dose of humility from his losses to Rafa. Even a player as great as Roger must admit the inherent duality of holding virtually every modern tennis record while being utterly unable to beat his main foe, regardless the surface.

It’s a shame that the Rafa’s rivalry with Novak Djokovic (22 – 17) doesn’t produce the same level of fan passion (and tournament dollars) as that with Roger, because it’s a better example of a true rivalry. It succeeds where Rafa v Roger fails because, on any given day, either of these gladiators could win. This on top of the fact that each has consistently brought out the greatness in the other. It succeeds on both fronts.

Unlike Roger, Novak has the shots to counter Rafa’s game, particularly his two-handed backhand that he can direct down the line to Rafa’s backhand, or angle extremely back as a crosscourt to expose more court even if Rafa manages a defensive response.

Rafa, on the other hand, has the resolve and defensive skills to draw crucial errors from Novak’s game. In the slim margins that separate a Slam victory from a Slam loss, that’s crucial. Who knows what might have been had Novak not touched the net in the fifth set of their incredible ’13 French Open semifinal?

However, none of that matters if it doesn’t excite passions beyond a tennis audience. Rafa v Roger is known to tennis fans and non-tennis fans alike, Rafa v Novak is not. It’s certainly a better rivalry, but not one that I believe will ever be referred to as “storied”.

Maybe the bottom line for most folks is not necessarily the details of Rafa’s rivalry with Roger, but more the fact that they represent intriguing polar opposites in the game of tennis: much like Borg-McEnroe and Sampras-Agassi before them. Also, they keep us on the edge of our seats hoping that, maybe this time, Roger will find a way to vanquish the Spanish thorn in his Swiss paw.

Odds are that won’t be the case. But you never know.

PostHeaderIcon Serena Williams: Best Ever? Only If She Can Reach Graf’s 22!

serena-greatest

To say that 2013 was one of the best years of Serena Williams’ storied career would be an understatement of epic proportions! Here are some high-level stats from her impressive year:

  • Serena finished 2013 with a 78-4 record that included a 34-match winning streak, the longest of her career
  • She won 11 titles on the year, including 2 Grand Slams (French and US Open)
  • She’s won a total of 17 major titles, behind only Margaret Court (24), Steffi Graf (22), Chris Evert (18), and Martina Navratilova (18)
  • She was the year-end #1 for third time in her career, the oldest #1 in WTA history, and 6th on the list for # of weeks at #1
  • She earned a record-breaking $12,385,572 for the season

serena-trophyThat’s just the high-level stuff. I could go on for days listing her stat achievements, especially with respect to her legendary serve. She served the fastest ball on tour this year at the Australian Open (128.6 mph/207 kph). Only her sister, Venus, has ever hit a faster serve on tour. It’s clear, however, that there’s more involved than “serve speed” when you look at the other women at the top of that list (Lisicki, Vandeweghe, Keys, Stephens, V. Williams, Gajdosova, Paszek, Hradecka, and Stosur).

I encountered this “serve” gem while perusing Courtney Nguyen’s Twitter timeline. The original stats were in a graphic that I’ve converted to text.

Service Games Won
2008: Serena Williams:  79.4%
2009: Serena Williams:  77.6%
2010: Serena Williams:  81.4%
2011: Serena Williams:  85.4%
2012: Serena Williams:  87.5%
2013: Serena Williams:  84.1%
Note: Williams led the category for the sixth straight year.

Serena’s winning pursuits tend to begin with her amazing serve, but I could probably find similar stats to support almost every part of her game. The point is that she is, without a doubt, the dominant player of her generation, and one of the most dominant players ever to play the game.

On the heels of her successful title defense at the WTA Championships, is it a fair question to ask if Serena is the best ever to play the game?

Though she shows no signs of retirement, it’s definitely a fair question. But is she really the best ever? Not even close. And I say that at risk of further stirring the pot I got going after posting my plans for this piece. There were passionate feelings on both sides (“Definitely yes!” and “Are you kidding? No way!”), but only a relative few that took into account the last bit of work needed by Serena to have a legitimate claim to that title.

1151151475_extras_albumes_0Serena is in tennis’ rarified air with four other women for the title of “Greatest Ever”: Margaret Court, Steffi Graf, Chris Evert, and Martina Navratilova. Not surprisingly, these are also the women that Serena is chasing in terms of major titles won. All are great champions, but one stands out strongest as Serena’s toughest rival for best ever. That woman is Steffi Graf.

I respect Court’s 24 major titles (if not her off-court stances on various social issues), but she played in an era that is not wholly comparable to the Open Era game. Comparisons between eras are often fraught with bias, but one can only view her titles – mostly won on grass – as indicative of one of the best grass court players ever, not “best ever”.

Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova are great champions. In terms of our comparison, they both played in an era that I view as more comparable to the environment in which Serena plays i.e. more varied court surfaces. Unlike Court, both of these women played AND won on a variety of surfaces, though admittedly Evert prospered on clay while Navratilova lived for the grass at Wimbledon.

Being great champions, however, is not quite the same as being the “best ever”. If Serena wins number 18 and ties their major title total, I’d automatically put her above them. I love them both, but Serena’s mastery over her game and her opponents tops both of these women by just enough to knock them out of contention.

That leaves me with Graf in the octagon for the top spot! Her achievements are beyond belief, and go well beyond just the 22 major titles. She is the only woman in the Open Era to win a calendar-year Grand Slam in 1988. With her win at the Seoul Olympics that same year, she achieved a “Golden Slam”; a feat that has yet to be matched by any other player, male or female.

She’s won each of the majors at least four times (4 Australian, 6 French, 7 Wimbledon, 5 US), and has won the WTA Championships five times. She’s married to the also-legendary Andre Agassi, whose total of 8 major titles and a career Grand Slam pales in comparison.

Many point out that her numbers might well be different if not for the attack on Monica Seles. But we can’t speculate in what might have been. We can only look at what was achieved, and those achievements are outstanding.

For Serena to be considered the “best ever”, she needs to equal Graf’s total of 22 major titles at a minimum. Given Serena’s history of physical struggles, and her status as one of the grandes dames of the WTA tour at the ripe old age of 32, those 5 titles that separate the two could be a huge undertaking for the current #1.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say that she manages to reach 22. If she can do so while managing a calendar-year Grand Slam (no the Serena Slam doesn’t count), we’ve got a legitimate contender. It wouldn’t need to be a Golden Slam either, because she has a bonafide claim to Olympic greatness with 3 gold medals in doubles (with sister Venus), and a singles gold medal from her crushing defeat of Maria Sharapova at the London Olympics. Olympics aside, however, she must reach 22.

Like Serena, Graf was easily the dominant player of her generation. Yes, she had her struggles against Seles, much like Serena did with Justine Henin, but she was never truly contested at the top by anyone else. She didn’t have the flair of Serena off the court, but then again, flair isn’t required for best ever. It’s a “nice to have”, but not necessary.

If, however, Serena reaches that 22 total, flair might just be the deciding factor for me. For now, we must wait to see what 2014 will add to this discussion. Here’s to a potential #18 in Australia…

PostHeaderIcon SAP Open 2012: In The Presence of John McEnroe…

I had the most improbable experience last night in the press room at the SAP Open. Sitting in front of John McEnroe, as iconic a figure as you will ever find in men’s tennis, I finally “got” him, and the experience touched me!

This surprised me. I don’t think that I could ever say I disliked McEnroe as a player. I certainly wasn’t attracted to his style as I was to, for instance, Bjorn Borg. Bjorn was so handsome, so cool and precise, with one of the sweetest backhands out there. Every time I hit a backhand growing up I imagined myself to look like Bjorn Borg doing so. Johnny Mac, on the other hand, was merely a hothead who seemed more interested in getting the crowd riled up than playing great tennis.

Even as John made the transition from the court to the commentary booth, I was still on the fence about my feelings for him. You have to acknowledge his on-court achievements. But, man oh man, those personality issues, his infamous temper, the “You cannot be serious” thing, his proclivity to inevitably turn the conversation back to his own greatness no matter who was playing in front of him… it was all a bit much.

Over the years since his retirement from the court, as he has softened… so have my perceptions about him. His analysis on the game is astute, especially on the technical levels of what the guys are doing these days. I especially love to hear his admiration of the top guys and acknowledgement of their abilities over his generation of players. Whereas Chris Evert still needs to make the transition from “When Martina and I were playing”, John rarely ever does that with Borg, Connors, or Wilander references.

John is intensely interested in the game “here and now”, and in the players “here and now”. More importantly from the perspective of his tennis academy, he is all about developing the players “here and now” into the future of the game. He loves the game of tennis. Loves playing it. Watching it. Discussing it. Developing it.

That sense permeates his presence and his words. Sitting there in the front row not more than 5 feet away from him, I was overwhelmed with an intense feeling of wishing I had appreciated him more as a player. He had just dazzled me (and everybody else) with his still formidable skills on the doubles court. But in that moment in the press room, I realized that there is so much more to Johnny Mac than his tennis skills.

When I talk about tennis with my friends who don’t know much about tennis, I try to get them to feel the love and admiration I have for the game and its’ players. Sometimes it comes across, sometimes not. In fact I started this blog so that I could write about something that I love a great deal. And I’ve always hoped that my love was conveyed to readers who read my posts.

Back to being in the press room last night with John… In that moment while listening to him from the front row, I got it. I got him. I fell in love with his love of tennis. And I understand much better now why, love him or hate him, you can’t ignore him. He’s a special man. He is human and flawed as well, but nonetheless special.

I hope I get the chance to meet him again in a better setting. I didn’t get to ask a question during the press conference, because his time was limited and we mostly deferred to the “big” guys of tennis journalism. But that’s okay. He answered most of what I wanted to ask. Asking a question (or not) is not the important take away from last night. John and I’s shared love of the game of tennis is what matters most.

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