Sport

Serena Williams Used to Push Boundaries – Now She Transcends Them

Serena Williams is so much better than everyone else on the circuit that you could see her winning one slam after another from here. Could you say that about the greatest male players?

Serena Williams during a game, 2012. Credit: ishot71/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Serena Williams during a game, 2012. Credit: ishot71/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

It was an unusual Sunday. Only for the fourth time in the championships’ history was tennis being played at Wimbledon on ‘Middle Sunday’. Rains had ensured that the schedule had fallen behind. There was catching up to do. Yet, there was a saviour whom the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) could rely on. A star turn to put the hurried preparations for the day away from sight.

It must have been reassuring to know that in times of uncertainty, there was a beacon of reliability. The decision to play on Sunday was made on the Friday, only 48 hours before. To ensure the prospect remained enticing enough for people to cram the online ticket booking lines, Serena Williams was chosen to play on centre court. If the history of the playing venue would not pull you, the history-making Williams will.

She was four wins away from claiming her 22nd Grand Slam singles title. A highly significant number, for Steffi Graf held the record for the most number of slam trophies. Williams had been on the cusp of matching Graf for almost a year. She had not won a slam title since last year’s Wimbledon. It was not exactly a crisis, but she had lost the final in Australia and France this year. At the age of 34, the chances to win silverware don’t come so easy. Ask Roger Federer.

Her opponent on Middle Sunday was Germany’s Annika Beck. The centre court was filled to the brim and the crowd had already watched her compatriot Coco Vandeweghe best Italy’s Roberta Vinci in a little over an hour. Interestingly, Vinci had proven to be the first rock in Williams’s path to the record last year when she defeated her more illustrious opponent in the semis. The opening act was over; it was time for the show to begin.

Williams arrived in her all-white ensemble, perhaps in acknowledgment of the AELTC’s dress code for players. But that would be unusual of her. Williams has little time for frivolous regulations. Perhaps, she was more driven by a sense of style. Williams is known to be a conscious decision maker when it comes to her on-court apparel.

The warm-up was done. Beck provided a remarkable counterpose to Williams. The German was a frail-looking 22-year-old, ranked 43 in the world. She was not expected to challenge Williams much. This was the American’s theatre. Nearly 15,000 people were there to watch Williams enthrall them with a rasping serve, a blitzing groundstroke, a spontaneous show of emotion. You don’t mess with the expectations of such a large crowd.

But three games into the match, Williams was a break down. Beck had started the story by outing the mystery killer. Surely, that left the rest of the plot a bit weak. It did. The plot was non-existent thereafter. There was no mystery. Williams was outrageously good.

The best player in women’s tennis needed 51 minutes to dismantle Beck’s opposition. The break of serve was a bump; Williams overrode it. She still produced one of her characteristic screams after winning a point, though. It was almost as if she was aware the crowd had come wishing to see an impassioned moment from her. She was happy to oblige.

There was the odd shot that left you wondering what went into its production but, by and large, Williams did not break a sweat. Sitting inside her theatre, you could not be sure she hit even one shot well enough. Perhaps that’s the result of watching Williams play over the years. Having seen her produce moments that only unbridled will could deliver, you felt Williams could do more. It’s an easy observation to make from the comfortable seat on the couch, or at centre court.

Six days later, Williams met another German. This time her challenger was Angelique Kerber in the final. She was a challenger in the true sense of the word. At the end of January, she had surprised the guests at Williams’s coronation party in Melbourne. A thrilling final, probably one of the best in recent times, had seen Kerber pull through in three sets. It was a contest that would give pride to any sport.

This time, it was an entertaining contest once again but it never really reached the levels of their matchup earlier this year. Williams had waited too long for her moment and she could not wait any longer. When it finally arrived, she celebrated like she has done all these years. She fell on her back and lay motionless for a moment. She could have taken a few more seconds to take it all in; it was truly special. The photo of the winning moment made it to her Instagram feed later.

The next time Williams wins a Slam, she will stand alone at the top. No other player would have won as many singles titles as her in the Open Era. Before the final, she was asked a question that she answered with her customary confidence. A reporter asked her about being regarded as “one of the greatest female athletes of all time.” She replied: “I prefer the words ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time.”

Williams is very aware of her place in history. Last week, she put a tweet out saying, “Obsessed with breaking records and rewriting history.” Williams was quick to flash the number 22 as soon as she won on Saturday. She is highly conscious of the fact that she has to battle the centuries-old prejudices of gender and race every time she steps on the court or out in public, for that matter. She is a walking revolution.

Yet, there is a curious nonchalance to her manner which has become increasingly pronounced in recent years. It’s as if the more she has chosen to align herself to the issues of women and black people, the more she has lightened her burden. It does not hold her back – rather she feeds off of it. A more confident presence; a more radically inclined human being.

During the tournament, Williams’s focus was distracted by the disturbing police shooting of Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota. The outrage in her response on Twitter was as clear as it could be: “In London I have to wake up to this. He was black. Shot 4 times? When will something be done- no REALLY be done?!?! (sic)”

Williams could not help but betray her frustration. She recognises that while she breaks new ground on the tennis court, others from her race and gender are being left behind. When will something be done? No, really be done?

It’s a shame that systemic prejudices cannot be overcome by the will of one person. If they could, you could be sure that Williams would have taken the mantle. For now, though, she will have to make to do with excellence in tennis arenas.

It’s the kind of excellence that has already immortalised her. If Williams does not win a slam again, she will still go down as arguably the greatest ever. Across genders, classes, races and blitzing groundstrokes, Williams is the outlier who cannot be brought inside the restrictive circles of tennis.

She is famous because of tennis but she stands out because of herself. If Williams had limited herself to her brilliant tennis alone, she would have been poorer for that. But she continued to push boundaries until she transcended them. Now Williams stands outside, looking inwards and remaking the order.

There’s nothing to say Williams’s career is approaching its end either. She’s so much better than everyone else on the circuit that you could see her winning one slam after another from here. Could you say that about the greatest male players?

Roger Federer’s yearning for an 18th Grand Slam title will probably not come to fruition. He has had near misses in the last couple years but that’s how it seems it will end for him. It has been four years since he last won a slam. When was the last year when Williams did not win a single major title? 2011, a season in which she missed the first two slams due to injury.

And it’s not so much about the competition either. It’s misguided to brush aside Williams’s achievement by saying there is no player to challenge her supremacy. It’s easy to forget that Federer did not face a serious challenge, except on clay, until 2008. Yet, that did not seem to undermine his achievements.

Federer, however, is no yardstick to measure Williams’s glorious career. Her achievements stand in their own right and it’s irrelevant whether they are better or worse than the Swiss great. It is about Williams standing in her own place and time in history. A place from where nobody can dislodge her. A place she truly owns.

What next, though? The 23rd title? 25th? May be even the 30th? One of the measures of greatness is that numbers begin to lose their relevance after a point. Williams could end up on any number hereafter and she would not lose a smidgen of her legacy. The same goes for Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. LeBron James. One could go on…

What really matters now for Williams is how she continues to lay the ground for other female and black athletes to flourish. She has been a vocal proponent of equal pay for women and it would not be a surprise if she uses her platform to speak out for more in the future. Her history suggests she would not be taking the silent way out. As the Wimbledon authorities learnt on Middle Sunday, she can be trusted upon to deliver.

Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.