There is no benefit in asking when it will end, just be glad that it’s happened. And still happening. Across nearly a quarter of a century, since her humble amateur beginnings, Serena Williams has proven herself to firmly be counted as one of the greatest female tennis players of all time.
With the 2020 US Open - a tournament she has won no less than six times, an Open Era record - however, there’s that unwanted, and unwarranted, millstone ready to be hung around her neck again.
Williams has been winning Grand Slams since she was 17 years old, way back with that maiden at Flushing Meadows in 1999, when she became the first African American woman to win a Grand Slam tournament in the Open Era. She is one of the few people in any sport, in any discipline, to have sustained success in three decades. Just take that in for a second - Serena Williams has been at the top of tennis in her teens, her 20s and, and her 30s.
Six at the US, three at Roland Garros, and seven apiece in Australia and Wimbledon. Phenomenal. And yet if she remains on 23 Grand Slam titles, there’ll be disappointment. And there shouldn’t be. Serena Williams, of all people, arguably the most talented woman to ever pick up a racquet, doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody. This ‘Quest for 24’ is unnecessary.
But the desire to achieve it has arrived in three all-consuming tennis tidal waves; quite possibly from Serena herself, undoubtedly from the fans who want her to be certifiably seen as the benchmark, with all the stats and facts to support the claim, and those who want to see her depose the reigning record-holder.
Serena Williams has been stuck on 23 Grand Slam singles titles since the 2017 Australian Open. And it has kept her agonisingly only one behind Margaret Court’s all-time record.
Margaret Court is Australia’s greatest tennis export, completing a singles Grand Slam, winning all four major titles in a calendar year, in 1970. Her record of sixty-four major titles - singles, doubles and mixed-doubles combined - is unlikely to ever be eclipsed. Melbourne’s hosting venue of Show Court One, as it was called when it opened in 1988, was renamed the Margaret Court Arena in 2003. For many however, her shadow has loomed over tennis for too long.
Whether she hits ‘24’ or ‘25’ or not - and with that ominous 40th birthday arriving in 2021, seemingly now - Serena Williams will be known as a far greater player and person than the woman the watching world wants her to emulate in the standings. In Court’s heyday of the 1960s, she won 16 Grand Slam titles, a record to this day for the most by a player - male or female - within a single decade. But exactly half of them, beginning with her first ever major in 1960, came at the Australian Open in her homeland, at a time when the trip half-way around the world wasn’t as easy as simply booking on Expedia.
But for Serena to reach 24 in the modern era isn’t entirely about matching a great hero of the game: in certain circles that are growing wider and wider, this stems from a potent desire to put the controversial figure of Court firmly, finally in the past. To make sure Margaret Court is the relic with the racquet.
In retirement Court became a Pentecostal minister expostulating against LGBT rights and same-sex marriage. For a sport that has had openly gay athletes in Billie-Jean King and Martina Navratilova smashing new standards, it’s a bit of an unreturnable slap in the face. Legendary player John McEnroe is one such figure who has been willing, urging Serena to break through the Grand Slam ceiling, being an outspoken critic of Court’s, the woman he has dubbed the ‘crazy aunt’ of tennis.
“There’s only one thing longer than the list of Margaret Court’s tennis achievements: it’s her list of offensive and homophobic statements,” he insisted on Eurosport in January 2020. “Just a few examples. During the apartheid regime in South Africa, she said: ‘I love South Africa. They have the racial situation better organised than anyone else.’ What?
“About transgender children and LGBTIQ: ‘It’s all the work of the devil – tennis is full of lesbians. it is sad for children to be exposed to homosexuality’. Serena, do me a favour: get two more grand slams this year and get to 25, so we can leave Margaret Court and her offensive views in the past, where they both belong.” And we couldn’t agree more.
With Court being celebrated at the 2020 Australian Open on the 50th Anniversary of her historic 1970 calendar Grand Slam rout, McEnroe then protested alongside Navratilova at the Margaret Court Arena with a banner demanding a name replacement of the stadium with that of Court’s compatriot, the great Evonne Goolagong Cawley. So far the calls have gone unanswered.
The biggest middle finger, however, will ultimately be to expunge her from that top of the pile, where she has sat above a number of illustrious names for too long. Serena Williams is The Great Tennis Hope.
Where there is hope, there is life. And there’s plenty of top tennis life left in Serena Williams.
She has reached the final in four of the seven majors she’s entered since coming back from the birth of her daughter in September 2017. But has failed to win a set in any of them. Indeed she has even made the final at Flushing Meadows for the past two years, but has come up short against Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andresscu, respectively.
To, yet again, put added pressure on a player who has literally come, seen, served, aced and conquered wherever she has stepped foot, serves no productive purpose. It will undoubtedly be great if she makes it, but put simply, let’s just enjoy her while we still can.
Serena Williams. Matchless. Master. Mother. No pressure.