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Match point: the unequalled Serena Williams is a ‘fluke’ that keeps on giving

There is no doubt that Rena is the greatest athlete of all time, surpassing most in longevity and accomplishments, but it is evident that time and injuries are catching up
Author: Andile Ndlovu
Thu, Sep 10, 2020
  • MAIN IMAGE: Serena Williams at the US Open quarterfinals. Credit: Gallo Images via SuperSport

Serena Williams was not meant to stick around this long. She was never meant to be a threat to Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles.

But her sheer determination to clinch a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title, even after several heartbreaking near-misses, has made her a nuisance to those who predicted (or rather hoped) it would never happen – and quite frankly has been an anxiety-ridden burden to those of us watching and praying for its attainment.

This is because the wheels have invariably come off spectacularly every time things have looked promising over the past three years.

As a big stan, watching Olympia’s momma huffing and puffing (and hearing her, what with there being no fans allowed inside the stadiums at the US Open) on the tennis court since her Australian Open win in January 2017, has been onerous.

During her post-childbirth comeback, there was a sense she was not fit enough even before she pulled out of her Round of 16 match against Maria Sharapova at the 2018 French Open.

Then came the straight sets losses in the Wimbledon and US Open finals to Angelique Kerber and Naomi Osaka respectively. Last year, she exited the Australian Open at the quarter-final stage to Karolina Plíšková, was knocked out in the third round at the French Open by Sofia Kenin, lost another Wimbledon final in straight sets (this time to Simona Halep), before Bianca Andreescu got the better of her in the US Open final – in straight sets, too!

I’m not even going to get into the several walkovers she’s handed her opponents due to niggling injuries during some of the intervening tournaments.

With each passing month, it feels a lot like her detractors have become emboldened by her struggles. For each hater calling her fat or unfit in the social media comments section, there’s a desperate fan laying the blame on her coach, Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou, for being distracted (he also coaches Coco Gauff and Stefanos Tsitsipas). I’ve even directed my frustration towards her hitting partner, Jarmere Jenkins, for not “moving her around enough” during practice sessions.

This is not a slight on her tenacity, as that is all too clear to see. It was telling when two-time slam winner Amelie Mauresmo, upon calling it quits in December 2009, aged 30, said: “I don’t want to train anymore. When you grow older, it’s more difficult to stay at the top. It’s a bit sad but this is the right decision.”

To put things into context, Court retired in 1977 at the age of 35 and since then many a great champion has come and gone – with only Steffi Graf threatening to surpass her 24 slams (she ended with 22 slams).

Serena turns 39 at the end of this month. It is almost unheard of for players to last this long – injuries, motherhood and other pursuits eventually take over.

Graf retired in 1999 at the age of 30. Jennifer Capriati retired at just 28 years old in 2004. Elena Dementieva finished at 29 in 2010. Li Na was 32 when she called it quits in September 2014. Justine Henin was a mere 25 years old when she stopped playing.

It makes Rena’s longevity all that more remarkable. She is by far the oldest player left at the US Open tournament in progress.

It is very rare for players to last this long at the top, but we are now having to face the reality that Serena’s chances of eclipsing 24 are getting slimmer with each passing Grand Slam she misses out on. At the time of writing this, she is about to play Bulgarian, Tsvetana Pironkova in the quarter-finals.

Whether she ultimately wins this slam, however, should not alter the conversation around her GOATness, as she is the first player to win a century of matches on the Arthur Ashe Stadium (Roger Federer is next with 77 wins). You don’t get to question a woman who has won 73 singles titles (with a win record of over 85%), reached at least one Grand Slam quarter-final in 19 of the past 20 years, and has won just under $93 million in prize money (more than Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, and Lindsey Davenport combined).