Martina Navratilova won her first Wimbledon in 1978 as an enormously gifted but still chubby and naive person who had not yet reinvented herself and transformed the process of fitness training in tennis. When she began a string of six straight Wimbledon titles in 1982, she had become one of the fittest players on tour and carried that fitness through the rest of her career.
In many real ways, Martina in the 1970s and Martina in 1982 created two distinct acts at Wimbledon. Could one argue that the early 1990s were a kind of twilight, and therefore a third act? Sure. Yet, in the sense of building championship pillars on the grounds of the All England Club, Martina fundamentally established two structures: the introduction in the late ’70s, then the run of nine straight Wimbledon finals from ’82 to ’90 which gave her seven more titles and a grand total of nine.
Another especially successful women’s Wimbledon champion of the Open Era was Steffi Graf. If Martina had two acts at Wimbledon, Steffi could very reasonably be viewed as a player who had only one act. Graf made the Wimbledon final eight times in the 10-year period from 1987 through 1996, missing the final only in 1990 and 1994. Graf learned how to compete at Wimbledon very quickly and, save for a few random hiccups, established her monarchy on Centre Court for the next decade.
Having more “acts” than other Open Era greats doesn’t automatically make one career better or more luminous than another. If one or two acts carry more weight than three acts, so be it. Yet, if three acts carry the same weight as two, it has to be said: The resilience found in renewing oneself a second time has to count for something more.
Serena Jameka Williams definitely counts for something more in the larger workings of Open Era history.
This is not a new story or a fresh revelation, but the golden anniversary of the Open Era merits a reiteration of this point: Of every supreme champion of tennis — the great players who achieved at the very highest level of the sport — no performer, man or woman, has achieved more or been more imposing in the latter stages of a lengthy singles career more than Serena.
Roger Federer is doing some great things just before turning 37. Ken Rosewall was a remarkable “old man” tennis player. Andre Agassi deserves to be included in this conversation. Martina Navratilova made a Wimbledon final at 37 and established ridiculous longevity as a doubles champion. Billie Jean King was no slouch in her very late 30s. Yet, Serena trumps all of them.
Serena played sister Venus in 2002’s Wimbledon final on Centre Court, marking the powerfully symbolic — and complete — dominance of a family which had made the journey and transformation from the hardscrabble streets of Compton, California, to the world’s most famous tennis rectangle. That was a seminal moment because of an arrival of both Serena herself and the full Williams family on the biggest stage in the sport.
Serena’s significant injuries and career disruptions created a relatively wide gulf between her first burst of success at Wimbledon (two titles and three straight finals from 2002-2004) and her second great period from 2008 through 2012, in which she made four finals and won three championships. She defeated Elena Dementieva in the 2009 semifinals, one of the greatest matches in Wimbledon history. She prevented Vera Zvonareva from winning her first major title in 2010. She denied Agnieszka Radwanska in the Polish star’s only major final in 2012. Adding to the enormity of her 2012 grass-court season, Serena — one month after Wimbledon — returned to the All England Club to capture Olympic gold by thrashing Maria Sharapova at the London Olympics. By the time Serena celebrated her 31st birthday in September of 2012, she had claimed 15 major titles. Given the health-created stoppages in her career — something Navratilova and Graf never had to deal with (not to that extent, at any rate) — Serena’s 15 majors deserved to be seen in a favorable light. Fighting through difficulties of all kinds had already marked Serena as a champion on the highest level of iconic significance. This would have been more than enough for virtually any person and any career.
Serena, as we know, is not “any person.” She is something else entirely.
In 2013 and 2014, Serena won three majors — reflecting the quality everyone in tennis had come to expect of her. However, in the five major tournaments she didn’t win in that two-year sequence, she failed to make the semifinals all five times and the quarterfinals four times. Those two seasons, which carried Serena to her 33rd birthday, displayed the volatility — brilliance mixed with ordinary play — one would typically expect from a champion moving from the early 30s to the mid-30s. Serena appeared to be entering a period not of severe erosion, but of the inconsistency normally associated with aging.
Serena laughed at normalcy, as she has throughout her career. She then unfurled the majestic 2015 season which carried her within two match wins of a Grand Slam. She followed that 2015 season with a 2016 campaign in which she made the semifinals at all four majors, the finals in three, winning Wimbledon in an A-plus-level final against Angelique Kerber. Just in case an immensely impressive 2016 season — at ages 34 and 35 — might have been the end of the road, Serena (pregnant, as the world would later learn) romped to the 2017 Australian Open title, nearly 15 years after playing Venus in that 2002 final on Centre Court. Pregnancy and childbirth might have been the only reasons Serena didn’t win a third consecutive Wimbledon title last year.
Navratilova has her nine Wimbledon singles titles. Graf owns a particularly concentrated period of dominance with no true wilderness moment at Wimbledon. Serena Williams quite possibly played better tennis in her prime than either Martina or Steffi did — that much is debatable.
What can’t be debated: Serena responded to and successfully recovered from more career disruptions, both at Wimbledon and anywhere else. This is an essential part of the story of women’s tennis in the Open Era. It also might be the reason Serena’s career is regarded as the best of them all when these first 50 years of Open tennis are evaluated in full.
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