Serena's U.S. Open victory confirms lack of contemporary competition
Serena Williams has taken us to another place. It's a mythical sort of tennis court where Monica Seles awaits serve, Steffi Graf wields a modern-day racket and Martina Navratilova dares to come in behind a sliced backhand. There certainly are no contemporary obstacles for the magnificent Serena. She's that rare player, man or woman, for whom there is no serious competition.
I know Victoria Azarenka's many fans would take issue with that remark. I love how Azarenka made a match of Sunday's final, and how she isn't the least bit daunted by Serena's presence. But let's look at this objectively: Entertaining as it was, Azarenka ended up losing that third set 6-1. Their lifetime matchup stands at 13-3. And when it really matters -- in the majors -- Williams has eight wins to Azarenka's none.
Some of the sport's most erudite critics are lining up to proclaim Serena the greatest of all time, and I'm losing steam with my arguments to the contrary. Brash and forthright as a teenage U.S. Open champion in 1999, she's every bit as awe-inspiring in 2013. Dismissed as a flighty, underachieving sort in mid-career, she's still around -- with 17 majors and counting. There was a time when Navratilova, Billie Jean King and Margaret Court were the beacons of longevity in the women's game; it is now impossible to leave Williams out of that discussion.
I've never had a problem placing Serena ahead of King, Court, Seles or Chris Evert in the best-ever debate, but this one certainly isn't "settled," as one of my favorite web sites, The Tennis Space, claimed on Serena's behalf after Sunday's win. Just as such names as Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, Jim Brown and Wilt Chamberlain continue to represent the pinnacle in their respective sports -- many decades after their retirement -- I'm holding out for Graf and Navratilova. Superior athleticism has a way of transcending all eras.
Nothing against Serena whatsoever, but Graf was an Olympic-caliber athlete with exceptional speed, winning 20 out of a possible 36 majors (1988-96) with the game's most lethal forehand and the kind of temperament that ruled out emotional meltdowns. Give her today's equipment, and the spectacle would be breathtaking.
Navratilova ranks with the all-time athletes in women's sports, not merely tennis. It's said that no modern-day player can rely on a serve-and-volley attack, with balls rocketing across the net at such blinding speed, but I wouldn't put any challenge past Martina, especially in her mid-to-late twenties. She'd be loving those new strings and racket-head sizes if they dropped out of the sky. Her net play was clearly superior to what Serena offers today, and I think that would make a significant difference in this imaginary matchup. This is a woman who won her first eight Wimbledon finals with some pretty stern competition in play. You can't just dismiss those numbers out of hand.
Then again, Serena has a way of making people dismiss their old-school allegiance. As she piles up the wins, with no end in sight, I'm weakening by the day. Perhaps it comes down to this: Forget trying to pinpoint a single player. Just as Rod Laver and Roger Federer appear on any list of history's top five, Serena has undeniably entered that realm. It's quite enough. And there's so much more to come.
Other thoughts on the U.S. Open:
• In an age of oppressive social media and the dismantling of privacy, is any celebrity couple more discreet than Williams and her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou? According to the most reliable sources, they indeed are romantically involved. We'll see the occasional photo suggesting they are much more than friends, and Maria Sharapova dropped a rather catty reminder during a Wimbledon interview. For the most part, though, these two conduct their off-court life away from the spotlight, free of tabloid meddling or any other such intrusion. Good for them. It's nobody's business but their own.
• Deadspin's classic "Come On!" article should be required reading for everyone on both tours, just to drive home the silliness of this phenomenon. It started with Lleyton Hewitt (and not with dignity; he'd yell "Come on!" after an opponent's miscue) and is now fully out of control. "The other day I heard it in the second point of a match," tennis.com's Peter Bodo says in the article. "You see these freakin' Spanish guys and Bulgarian girls saying, come on!"
In a word, said Bodo: "idiotic."
It's hardly inappropriate to unleash a timely shout or two during a particularly intense match. But repeatedly yelling "come on" for the purposes of intimidation, or to celebrate someone else's mistake, is pretty weak. Really? You're that insecure? Mary Carillo and Tracy Austin each reminded Deadspin that in past eras, there was no talking whatsoever. "It was quiet," said Carillo. "Amazing. The rackets did the talking."
Based on evidence from Flushing Meadows, this annoying trend is just getting off the ground. Serena let fly with a "come on!" after her postmatch handshake with Azarenka, as if there were more points to come. I wonder if she busted one out at dinnertime.
• So far, I've found only one reason to watch "Fox Sports Live," launched as a prime-time viewer's alternative to ESPN: the refreshingly bright commentary of Andy Roddick. Turned loose with players at the Open, he proved to be an able interviewer, as well.
• Let's hope John Isner learned a few things during the tournament. You don't go into a snit when a New York crowd starts cheering for Gael Monfils; that was all about pure entertainment and a desire to see more tennis. You don't leave the court for a so-called "bathroom break," causing inexcusable delays, when things aren't going well (after Isner lost the third sets to both Monfils and Philipp Kohlschreiber). And if you feel motivated to pump up the crowd with furious gestures, don't apologize for it later ("I wore myself out," he said after losing to Kohlschreiber. "Had I kept it calm, I think I could still be out there"). It's all quite unbecoming for a man at the top of American men's tennis.
• Then again, regarding bathroom breaks: When Roger Federer pulled that stunt against Tommy Robredo, returning some eight minutes later in a fresh new outfit, that officially made it acceptable for everyone. Look for plenty more of this nonsense -- rampant on both tours -- until some type of legislation comes down.
• People got all huffy when Michael Llodra tapped an underhanded serve against Andy Murray, as if the Frenchman had violated the code of ethics, but what's the harm? You wouldn't want to see this tactic on a regular basis, nor would the elite players ever stoop to such desperation (short of a sudden torn rotator cuff). But it's perfectly legal and makes for a jarring change of pace.
• As late as Wednesday of the second week, the men's draw still had Richard Gasquet, Stan Wawrinka and Mikhail Youzhny. Long live the majesty of the one-handed backhand.
• Good to see a number of influential tennis writers belittling the notion of pre-match interviews in the tunnel. They're a complete waste of time, and positively rude. Try to catch the players well ahead of a match, if you're trying to capture the mood.
• With ESPN holding contractual rights to the most attractive weekday matches, Tennis Channel held its own with a series of compelling interviews with past greats, including Seles, Maria Bueno, Michael Chang and Mats Wilander. The daily exchanges between Carillo, Jim Courier and Jon Wertheim (disclosure: friend and colleague) were pretty lively, as well. And Carillo had a terrific interview with Alison Riske, one of the most pleasant and down-to-earth players in tennis. More than willing to laugh at herself, Riske cracked up when Carillo mentioned the fact that the 23-year-old American still carries around a blanket from her infancy. Wondered Carillo at her whimsical best: "Is that a blankie or a binkie?"
• Brilliant idea from CBS: Filling a rain delay with classic U.S. Open tiebreakers of the past, giving viewers a fresh look at Seles-Jennifer Capriati, Jimmy Connors-Bjorn Borg, Navratilova-Tracy Austin, Pete Sampras-Alex Corretja and so many others. Yes, these were only the tiebreakers, but the package served as a modern-day history of the Open.
• Navratilova getting straight to the point, with a defensive Caroline Wozniacki in the process of losing to Camila Giorgi: "You can't play not to lose against the top players, and that's why Wozniacki hasn't won a Grand Slam. It doesn't work. Sometimes it doesn't work against players like this, either."
• Tennis Channel aired a marvelous, one-hour "Signature Series" piece on Bud Collins during the tournament. Written, directed and produced by Nitin Varma, it struck all the right notes and captured the essence of this remarkable man. One quibble: That ridiculous "crawl" along the bottom of the screen, showing the latest tennis results. Please. Can't you take a break from that? We're trying to focus on a compelling interview, and here comes the doubles result from Peya-Soares vs. Cuevas-Zeballos. If you're planning to save the piece as part of your tennis library, that split-screen madness will only become more ridiculous.
• As Rafael Nadal picked himself off the court, victorious at the U.S. Open after a comeback that seemed so tenuous in the spring, John McEnroe told the stunning, almost frightening truth: "He's better than he was."