As seen on Guardian
It is time to salute unreservedly tennis’s greatest warrior-queen, now 32 and with 17 grand slam singles titles to her name
The victory boogie started after Serena Williams had struck a second serve that swirled and dipped and then leapt like untamed fire. There were hands raised, bunny hops, a twirl – as if examining a new dress in a mirror – and then a smile as wide as the gorge between Williams and the rest of the women’s tour.
We have seen variations of that dance against Li Na in Miami on Saturday many times before. On 59 occasions, in fact, after every one of her tournament victories.
Williams is 32 now, just a month younger than Roger Federer. Like Federer she has 17 grand slam singles titles. But while tennis watchers are continually assessing his legacy and lauding his achievements, Williams’ excellence is accepted without excessive forensics or much love.
It is time to salute fully the game’s greatest warrior queen. She is the oldest No1 in the women’s game and has won nine of her past 19 grand slams. Last year she had a 34-match victory streak and finished 2013 with a win-loss record of 78-4, the best of her career.
Such brilliance can be boring. There are only so many times a player can connect graphite with rubber and wool before the thirst for variety kicks on. But at an age when even the greats usually shift down in stature and ranking, Williams shows few signs of doing either.
In Miami her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, talked of her “destroying the ball”. That is nothing compared with what she does to opponents. She has now won 15 straight against top-10 players. The damage is worth dissecting. Williams has a 16-2 win/loss record over Maria Sharapovaand is unbeaten against her since 2004. Her hold over Victoria Azarenka, whom she has beaten 14 times in 17 encounters, is almost as great. Li Na, meanwhile, has triumphed only once in 11 matches. These are not rivalries; they are processions.
Of the best players in the past decade only Justine Henin, who beat Williams six times in 14 matches, and her sister Venus, who has won 10 of their 24 encounters, have mustered an argument – an argument that Serena has, more often than not, eventually won.
Does this lack of a rival diminish her? Perhaps. Martina Navratilova had Chris Evert and then Steffi Graf; Graf had Navratilova and then Monica Seles. Williams has had no such sparring partner apart from Venus and their matches often seemed like pillow-fights.
The contrasts with the men’s game are clapped out but retain their force. A decade ago this week a 17-year-old Rafael Nadal laid down his calling card by beating Federer, then the world No1, in straight sets. Since then the pair have played 33 times, including eight grand slam finals. Later Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray joined the party. Williams has often danced alone.
Her dominance starts with her serve, of course. In the women’s game it is usually a conversation starter; with Williams it is often a full-stop. How many players have suffered her version of a boxer’s one-two: a serve followed by forehand into open court?
Many of her shots appear to be delivered with no great effort. It is only when the ball has crossed the net, and her opponent’s lunge is a little wider and her shriek an octave higher that you realise the damage wrought.
In the past Williams has talked about disliking her legs – “too thick” – and her arms – “too muscular”. But boxers will tell you that power comes from the legs; having extra oomph in the arms has not hurt either.
She is now one grand slam title behind Navratilova and Evert, who have 18 apiece, and five adrift of Graf with 22. Graf is probably too far out in front but few would bet against Williams slipping into second.
Graf had more variety – on grass her backhand was a devious riddle that skidded and dipped and died, and her volleying was more certain – but Williams’ cold-blooded ability to win big matches is unequalled. She has a 17-4 record in grand slam finals, a win percentage of 80.9% – better than any player, man or woman, in history. Three times she has come from matchpoint down to win a grand slam final.
And under Mouratoglou’s tutelage she may even be improving. Her backhand appears more consistent and her movement is better, too. True, there remains a touch of robot about her footwork – if Federer is poetry in motion, Williams is heavy metal – but the rest of her game is so good it does not usually matter.
Some bemoan her lack of subtlety and nuance. If you want that, watch Pinter. And if you want spin, watch a political broadcast. For raw power there are few better sights than Serena with surety as well as strength in her right arm.
There is a scene in The Fight, Norman Mailer’s account of Muhammad Ali’s victory over George Foreman, where he describes Foreman attacking the heavy bag. “These were no ordinary swings,” writes Mailer. “Each of these blows was enough to smash an average athlete’s ribs, anybody with poor stomach muscles would have a broken spine. Boom! … boom! … boom!”
That is what a Williams barrage must feel like. And 15 years after her first grand slam title it shows few signs of letting up.