One has 21 Grand Slams to the others 9. One has been viewed as the singular dominant force in the women’s game for many years, while the other has seemingly forever been seen as one of an all-conquering male quartet. The age-gap between them is also half a decade. Yet, the remarkable careers of Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, the number one players in the world for women and men’s tennis respectively and the deserving 2015 Wimbledon Champions, have far more in common that you could ever imagine. They are the faces of tennis, the King and Queen of the sport, who their challengers can simply not usurp, not matter how hard they try.
Yet their similarity is not just in what they have accomplished but in how they are perceived. Do we, as sports fans, really fully comprehend and appreciate quite what they have achieved, and will surely continue to achieve, with racket in hand and fleet of foot on court? One of the hardest tasks as a sports follower is to truly acknowledge wonder and brilliance when it is staring you so blatantly in the face. We become familiar with a certain occurrence to the extent that the regularity diminishes our approval - the realisation often only arrives once that brilliance has bid adieu and the nostalgia, memoires and the longing to still see them out there playing at their pinnacle strikes back with vengeance. So with that in mind, a Sport Lived appraisal is most definitely due...
William’s 6th Wimbledon title occurred almost 16 years after her first Slam and 13 since she first achieved world number one status. It is the consistency and the physical capacity to have stayed at the top for so long that makes her 21 Grand Slam titles even the more remarkable. Combined with doubles she has won 36 Grand Slams and 4 Olympic gold medals. In the singles she now stands just one behind Steffi Graf’s record; it seems inevitable that that record will be matched and surpassed. It will be fully deserved. The script says that as you get closer to your mid-30s your fitness and abilities, technical and mental, are meant to diminish. Williams has not just tore the script up but laughed at it – she seems just as strong, if not stronger, as before. She has just secured her fourth successive grand slam title and, if she wins this year’s US Open, will hold the ‘Serena Slam’ for the second time in her career by winning all four major tennis titles in a season. She already now holds all four slams simultaneously. Has there even been such utter authority in a sport?
Williams’s mental fortitude consistently astonishes audiences. Each point is played as if it is her last, each match given the same stratospheric levels of focus and determination. Opponents know that she will fight to the end of any match and that any door left slightly ajar will be torn from its hinges by another awe-inspiring groundstroke or powerful serve. The ability to mentally pull herself over the finish line when things are not going well is one of the defining features of a woman who has been winning major titles with a staggering efficiency since the age of 17. Even when Heather Watson was serving for a shock win against her on Centre Court, there was a feeling of inevitability when she found a way to fight back. Immense power, terrific off both wings, an astonishing serve, amazing athleticism and a psychological make-up unmatched by any other makes her perhaps the women game’s greatest champion, Serena Williams has it all. It is time to stop highlighting the deficiencies of the chasing pack and praise the brilliance of the one continuing to set a pace that no-one seems capable to consistently match.
It is often said that this particular member of the much-fabled ‘big four’, which at one point had split 34 out of 35 majors, has increasingly grown frustrated at the lack of support he sometimes gets from the watching crowds. At Wimbledon, for example, the crowd was almost totally behind Roger Federer. Yet with the big four steadily becoming the all-powerful one, that may be about to change. He has now won 9 Grand Slams and if things continue to play out as they have this season, where he has won 6 titles and lost just 3 of 48 matches, he will surely move ever higher up the all-time major leader board. Even if he had lost his 9th Slam final, he would still have been the world No1 by more than 3,000 rankings points. Like many in this current Federer-inspired generation, Djokovic has struggled to maintain his time in the spotlight, no matter how many times he has found himself on centre stage. He could easily have another half a decade at the very top and at 28 is getting better and better. With his stranglehold over Murray, the recent struggles of Nadal and his supremacy over the new generation of up and coming players, it would seem only a matter of time before Djokovic’s name moves from the periphery to the forefront of the debate over who is the greatest ever.
Like Serena, Djokovic wins not just because he is the best but because his talent forces him to fight, having a relentless commitment, especially in times of adversity, that so few can replicate. Even when the odds are so stacked against him that the most daring of punters would shy away from a gamble, Djokovic still believes. The way he kept fighting even when down 3 match points in the Wimbledon Final to Murray two years ago is a fine example. Djokovic is known for his mental and physical endurance as much as his undoubted talent. Do not forget that he has been beaten eight times in Slam Finals and was clearly distraught at his latest French Open final defeat that prevented him from joining the select company of players to have won all 4 majors, this time surprisingly going down to the juggernaut Stan Wawrinka. His response? He shrugs it off and wins Wimbledon just over a month later. Like the other greats of the past, he always seems to deliver when it counts, on the most pressurised points. Pressure is a fuel, not a poison. He is scarily consistent – against the greatest grass-courter of all time, he pinned Federer back with pounding groundstrokes of metronomic efficiency, hitting 46 winners and committing just 16 unforced errors. He is one of the best returners around, has a marvellous forehand, a stout defence, an underrated serve and spell bounding endurance. His fitness, flexibility and strength are the wonder of the tour.
It is a regular occurrence for fans to have a sprinkling of abhorrence amongst the rueful respect towards individuals and teams who rule supreme in their sports and pick up all the glories, as if they are spoilt children hogging all the best toys from the other kids. Yet this can detract from the marvellous gifts that such players have. Whether you a fan of them or not, lets enjoy Williams and Djokovic while we still have them – they may seem the immortals of tennis but they won’t be around forever.