I’ve never been a fan of Serena Williams. I’ve hated the ugliness of her play, her grunting, her mental humiliation of her opponents, her parents’ behaviour, the gracelessness of her strokes, the outfits she wears, the superficiality of her post-match comments. I’ve willed her to lose to pretty young things like Sharapova, Mandlikova, Kerber and co. who play pretty tennis.
But this year I’ve come to realise one truth: she is – by far – the best women’s tennis player ever to play. I’ve watched the grace of Margaret and Martina N, the determination of, Billie Jean, Chris, Steffi, Martina H and Monica. I’ve seen each of them dominate their time periods. But when I watch the power of Serena, her refusal to admit defeat, her utter humiliation of those just below her in the rankings, I’ve no doubt she is the best ever.
The only person who can beat Serena is Serena. When she loses a match, it’s mostly due to her own unforced errors, not the opponent’s winners. She serves at speeds similar to all but the fastest men. She has all the shots (she’s won many grand slam doubles titles). Despite her apparent huge size, she covers the court , runs down every shot. Despite playing relatively few tournaments each year, her absolute record is held back only by herself. She could have won many more minor titles.
So now she’s won 23 grand slam singles titles – on all the surfaces. Only Margaret Court on 24 is ahead of her. But Margaret played before the Open era, when relatively few countries competed significantly in women’s tennis, and before the big money made tennis so attractive for women. Serena is now 35 years old, well past the age when most women have retired. But she played as well in the recent Australian Open as ever. Her major competitor is…her 37 year old sister Venus, who is the only one to consistently challenge her when both are at the top of their games.
She’s done this as a black woman in a white person’s game, coached by her father with limited financial resources outside conventional coaching programs and support, with a body shape quite different from the ‘desirable’ ones of some of her competitors, refusing to follow tennis’ conventions.
This year – for the first time ever – I wanted her to win, to add to her record, to become the best statistically. She deserves it. I’ve never liked her, but I recognise her as the greatest. Hail Serena. You are truly the greatest.