Sporting Life

Dominant Williams deserves to complete a Grand Slam

Serena Williams at a New York City street tennis event on Aug 24. She is on the verge of becoming only the fourth woman to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam.
Serena Williams at a New York City street tennis event on Aug 24. She is on the verge of becoming only the fourth woman to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Cartoonists, who are pithy yet eloquent all at once, often leave us with wise phrases. In a quote attributed to Charles M. Schulz, the creator of Snoopy and Charlie Brown, he once stated that "Life is like a 10-speed bike. Most of us have gears we never use". Of course, this does not include Usain Bolt, who finds gears we never knew existed.

Bolt, a fellow who accelerates on demand, year after year, race after race, makes me wonder about people who claim to be bored by domination over time. When, in fact, it is the most beautiful form of tyranny. Valentino Rossi in his prime should have been set to classical music for he did not so much ride a motorycle as dance with it. Every week. Year after year.

Boring? Never.

Steffi Graf was dominant yet never flirted with dull. She could sing the same tennis aria repeatedly - high toss, serve, fast skip of feet, faster forehand, point finished - and it was still a furious, compelling piece of work. She didn't beat rivals, she dismissed them. In 1988, the year of her Grand Slam, of the 54 sets she won at the four Majors, 14 were by a score of 6-0 and 17 by a score of 6-1.

And yet it was exhilarating.

Domination in sport is the only permissible form of oppression. You can be greedy for titles, ruthless, unsparing and be lauded for it. Domination is excellence stretched to an unreasonable point.

Should Graf suddenly be assaulted by a feeling of retrospective sympathy for her peers, she should quell that emotion. On a ruthless scale, she is no Heather McKay. The squash player lost two matches in 20 years.

Domination in sport is the only permissible form of oppression. You can be greedy for titles, ruthless, unsparing and be lauded for it. Domination is excellence stretched to an unreasonable point. Edwin Moses won 107 consecutive 400m hurdles finals and on the 81st his lace came untied. "I couldn't stop to tie it," he said. Then again, he might have tried, for he won by 20 yards.

Domination is the ability to win when tired, injured, unwell, irritated, erratic. Serena Williams, who is chasing the Grand Slam, had the flu at the French Open this year. In 1962, at the start of his first Grand Slam, Rod Laver had such a bad cold during a match at the Australian Open that a reporter wrote that he appeared "sick and tired of tennis".

Williams must win this fortnight while knowing if she loses some idiot will say she failed. She must win with everyone asking if she is going to win. History is not made quietly these days. When Laver - wrote the LA Times - completed his 1962 Grand Slam there were eight reporters present. Now an entire sporting planet is agog over a feat that reportedly began as a throwaway phrase by a reporter in a newspaper called The Reading Eagle on July 18, 1933.

On that day, below an item on boxer Jack Dempsey, a snippet titled Tennis "Grand Slam" noted that Jack Crawford, winner of the Australian, French and Wimbledon now had a chance to win at the US Open.

Months later, Crawford led Fred Perry two sets to one in the US Open final. At the 10-minute break after the third set, Perry - as he wrote in his autobiography - went to change his clothes but Crawford "just sat in a courtside box with his wife, smoking a cigarette". He looked cool, but on a hot day he'd just had enough. Perry won the last two sets 6-0, 6-1 and that Grand Slam was done.

Seven men and 10 women in more than a century have won a Career Slam - all four major titles in an entire career. To win them all in a single season - only two men and three women have - is hideously hard and it is this restrictive, throttling frame of time which gives the feat heft.

It is argued occasionally that the Serena Slam - she currently holds all four Major titles - is as extraordinary a feat and it is hard to devalue it. Yet the Serena Slam - four in a row in any order - can start at any time while the Grand Slam, now at least, must start in January in Australia and follow an established sequence. It means the year begins with pressure; it means if you err in January you are already disqualified from the feat. In 1993, 1995 and 1996, Graf won three Majors in a row, yet each time she had already lost in Australia. Before her year had taken shape, her Grand Slam was over.

It is precisely why the Grand Slam holds such fascination. When Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal wished Williams luck before this Open it was not just a reflection of their manners. It was also, perhaps, an appreciation of the task before her by players who had won three in a year yet never four. In a way, they are cheering for tennis to be conquered. And so am I.

Sport seduces athletes to chase perfection, yet it rarely allows them to get there. But, now and then, perfect should be possible. Just to prove it is achievable. Just to prove the chase is not always futile. Now is the right time for the Grand Slam to be achieved and Williams is the right player.

She may not be instantly endearing but there is a rare substance to an athlete, 34 this month, who is the best and still sees the beauty in better. On she goes, shaping her game, trying, pushing, beseeching, shouting, hitting, proving, running. In this, her unrelenting ambition, Serena Williams honours her game.

And that is never boring.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2015, with the headline 'Dominant Williams deserves to complete a Grand Slam'. Print Edition | Subscribe