Tennis: Stars can sidestep the Moody blues by viewing their careers in a wider context

Serena Williams of the US and Serbia's Novak Djokovic pose with their 2015 Australian Open trophies. -- PHOTOS: REUTERS  
Serena Williams of the US and Serbia's Novak Djokovic pose with their 2015 Australian Open trophies. -- PHOTOS: REUTERS  

CONTEXT is everything, not just for the new tennis season but also for the first champions of 2015.

And each of those champions had their respective moment of frailty in the public eye. Did you notice the moment when Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, who played with such precision over the Australian Open fortnight, were actually wrong-footed, unsure of themselves and in need of direction at one crucial stage?

No, not during their assured march to the men's and women's singles titles, but in the immediate aftermath of victory.

There each stood, trophy in hand - Williams last Saturday and Djokovic on Sunday - and briefly, no longer in control. Where to stand? Where to look? What to do next?

Such are the demands of inventive camera angles that each player then needed to be told where exactly to stand, trophy in hand, to gaze upwards allowing the overhead camera to shoot images of each with their glittering prizes and their feet neatly aligned with the clever typography that spells "Melbourne" on the court surface.

It's almost as if both champions set aside a time before this tournament to skulk off to the Lost Property office at Melbourne Park to see if they could reclaim their misplaced mojo.

Each is world No. 1. Each has bounced back from disappointments in 2014. To all intents and purposes, Williams and Djokovic, back in overdrive after coping with the odd curve ball last year, also own prime real estate in Melbourne. Mind you, they didn't pay a cent, they don't have any title deeds and they'll never be able to sell for a profit. But what they really own is that centre court.

As in: They totally own it.

Consider this. Djokovic has never been beaten in an Australian Open final. And then consider this. Williams, 33, has won six singles titles there and in beating - no, not just beating but brushing aside - Maria Sharapova - she surpassed the tally of 18 Grand Slam singles title jointly held by those stalwarts Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.

She has 19 Grand Slam singles titles; the rest of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) field collectively have just 21. That's dominance for you.

Context also applies in the handing over of a legacy. Literally and metaphorically, the Australian Open organisers orchestrated that handover in a truly meaningful way.

Remember who presented Williams with her trophy? None other than Navratilova herself. Remember the grey-haired man who passed the Norman Brookes trophy to Djokovic? His name is Roy Emerson and the 78-year-old won the same trophy six times in the 60s, just before the Open era of tennis began.

Emerson's career achievements were also the benchmark for all the biggest stars of the live television era that followed, yet none of them could match him. In addition to the six Australian Open crowns, Emerson also won two singles titles each at Wimbledon, the French Open and the US Open.

His tally of 12 Grand Slam crowns, achieved as an amateur in the pre-Open era when the professionals played a separate circuit, stood unsurpassed through the eras of other great champions. Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl - none of them could match Emerson, whose record stood for 33 years.

Not until the new century, when Pete Sampras beat Pat Rafter in the 2000 Wimbledon final to win his 13th title, was Emerson bettered.

So the presence of Navratilova and Emerson and the role each played in the trophy ceremonies last weekend is a fitting contextual nudge. Their inclusion in proceedings reminds us that sport, like life itself, needs benchmarks. To see how far we have come, we also need a finite reference point by which to evaluate that progress.

Not every tennis professional has a sense of the game's history or its most significant achievers - but it certainly helps. Chris Evert once told the story of sitting in a tournament waiting room during a Grand Slam, waiting to take the court with Hana Mandlikova, the Czech player eight years her junior.

Mandlikova, already one of the established stars of the women's circuit and whose career eventually included two Australian Open wins, a French Open and a US Open, pointed to a historic photograph on the wall and asked who the player was.

Evert answered: "Helen Wills Moody." Mandlikova looked nonplussed and replied: "Who?"

Moody had dominated tennis in the 20s and 30s, winning Wimbledon eight times in an overall tally of 31 Grand Slam titles and two Olympic medals. It is her tally of 19 Grand Slam singles titles that Williams equalled with her victory in Melbourne.

But the fact a player like Mandlikova had never even heard of her astounded Evert.

Even the term "Grand Slam" - borrowed from the card game bridge, where it denoted the taking of all 13 tricks in a single hand - needs to be contextualised.

Now we loosely use the phrase to denote the four major titles of the men's and women's tours - the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. But strictly speaking, the term actually refers to the exceedingly rare feat of one person winning all four titles in a calendar year.

In 1938, the late Donald Budge, an American, was the first do so and it was almost three decades later, in 1962, that Rod Laver emulated him. The Australian did it again in 1969, in the Open era of tennis and remains the only man ever to have done it twice. He too was there, in the stands of the arena that bears his name, when Djokovic vanquished Andy Murray last Sunday.

In dollar terms, it is interesting to note that a first-round loser at this year's Australian Open took home A$34,500 (S$36,280); back in 1969, Laver received a cheque for just A$5,000 for winning the tournament.

And while on the subject of prize money, Murray's runner-up cheque last weekend was A$1.55 million, which is not really too shabby for a fortnight's work. On the other hand, Laver's total career earnings, as one of the game's finest players, was US$1.56 million (S$2.09 million).

Now that's contextual.

dmcmahon@sph.com.sg