Serena Williams-dominated game is short-changing itself
Do women run only 20-mile marathons? Compete in only two parts of a triathlon?
Serena Willimas ahead of the start of the US Open which begins on Monday. Photograph: EPA
Should Serena Williams complete a calendar Grand Slam in the US Open, which begins today, consideration as the greatest player in the history of women’s tennis will be hard to knock. So why has that athleticism been stretched solely to playing best-of-three sets throughout her major title career?
It is 17 years since the women’s game last staged a best-of-five tournament; the WTA Championships demanded winning three sets from 1984 to 1998, coincidentally also the year Williams began a Grand Slam career. That now sees her on the verge of 22nd major title, potentially becoming just the fourth player in the open era – man or woman – to win all four Slams in one year.
That Serena and her older sister Venus have provided the game with its greatest ever family storyline has perhaps overshadowed the scale of the younger sibling’s achievements. If she wins a seventh US Open, Williams will emulate Steffi Graf’s Grand Slam singles tally, leaving Margaret Court’s record of 24 within reach.
For much of her career, the consensus has been that Williams wins if she brings her A-Game. So that benchmark is hardly impossible, even with her 34th birthday only four weeks away.
Should that occur, however, it would still be silly to take that as absolute reflection of either her or Court’s tennis abilities. Every champion is a champion of their time. Watch clips of Court in action now, though, and it all looks impossibly sedate compared with the speed and intensity of the modern game.
Yet the same parameters apply, even though Williams’s fitness is that of a supremely conditioned athlete comparable to anyone in any discipline of any gender, anywhere.
The question of women playing five sets in Grand Slam events often gets tangled in the politics of equality, of differing prize money and profile levels across men’s and women’s tennis, accompanied sometimes by tired stereotyping and characters seemingly aching to be offended.
There is also a view that women playing best-of-three suits TV, which either has a whiff of misogyny or is simply a reflection of commercial reality, depending on whom you listen to.
Still, in sporting terms it is just plain silly that the world’s elite women aren’t presented with the same challenge as their male counterparts when it comes to tennis’ most coveted prizes.
A little too strenuous
Complicating this issue is how the top female players are hardly up in arms about discrimination, which some seem to believe positively works in their favour.
The legendary Billie Jean King has been quoted as saying women’s tennis should not only be left alone, but that the men’s game should be reduced to best of three as well – even in Grand Slams. King argued that epic five-setters, such as Nadal and Federer’s 2008 Wimbledon final and the 2012 Australian final between Djokovic and Nadal, are so physically demanding that they shorten careers.
Those matches were undoubtedly demanding, perhaps even more mentally than physically. But they remain some of the seminal moments of modern sport. Nadal won that Wimbledon title, and Federer’s defiant championship point- saving screamer down the line will always be as vivid an image as the Spaniard’s subsequent dogged refusal to give in against Djokovic after a near-six hour match so intense the Serb’s toes bled.
An argument can be made that Nadal’s injury problems since then may be a result of repeated endurance tests, although in 2013 he won two Grand Slams and returned to number one. And Djokovic has hardly tip-toed into obscurity on the back of that titanic effort.
Straight-sets victories rarely capture the sporting imagination to the same extent. John McEnroe’s 1984 Wimbledon final demolition of Jimmy Connors might qualify, representing as it did the zenith of McEnroe’s abilities, but exhibition-like routs aren’t what competition is about.
So, it is contradictory to suggest cutting playing time throughout tennis when players have never been fitter. Serena Williams is a supreme athlete, yet there are those who accept seriously McEnroe’s recent boast that he could “take” her. It’s as if this is a credible proposition rather than the hoary delusions of a 56-year-old attention-seeker angling for some tired “battle of the sexes” match-up.
Any match-up Williams should entertain would be with the very best. But surely she isn’t best-served by not having to match up to men in terms of the challenge presented for its Grand Slam prizes, the sport’s shop-window events.
It’s an old truth that women who want to be the same as men can be accused of lacking ambition. But continuing to have boundaries of sporting excellence dictated on the basis of gender indicates an even more regrettable lack of ambition, a lack that leaves arguments about equality open to attack on the basis that Williams & co don’t have to work as hard.
Most of all, the women’s game is surely short-changing itself of the drama and spectacle that can come when the best take each other on over five sets. Serena Williams deserves better than that.