Of Serena Williams and never-ending fairytales


On January 18, 1915 – as the sustained havoc of the First World War started to engulf much of Europe – renowned modernist writer Virginia Woolf recorded in her journal one of the most singularly remarkable sentences that have ever been written down: The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think”. As the analysis in the New Yorker duly notes, this is quite an extraordinary declaration given the broader political instability of the time, coupled with Woolf’s personal struggle with mental health. During this time, Woolf was under supervision of nurses because of a recent suicide attempt. What is equally fascinating is the phrasing of the statement itself. The use of ‘I think’ right at the end, acting as a qualifier, adds uncertainty regarding the assertion of the statement itself.

Of the many instances that make writers particularly fascinating subjects in their own regard, I recall one particular anecdote concerning James Joyce with fondness. It goes something like this. Joyce was enjoying a holiday in Zurich during the peak of his popularity, post the success of his magnum opus Ulysses. A young man comes up to him and says, “May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?” Joyce replies with a sense of terse even-handedness that only he could pull off, “No – it did a lot of other things too”.

These two instances – so distinct and seemingly disparate in tone and sensibility – have a complimentary thematic resonance that best captures what has unfolded over the past fortnight at Wimbledon. Serena Williams won her seventh Wimbledon title and in the process matched the Open-era record of Steffi Graf with 22 Grand Slam titles. On the men’s side, Great Britain’s hope Andy Murray won his second Wimbledon title, beating the upcoming Canadian Milos Raonic who was playing in his very first Grand Slam final. As has been the trend this year, it was the women’s final that provided the higher quality, more dramatic match when compared to the men’s final. The Wimbledon women’s singles final provided the defining story for what this year’s major will be remembered for. After the intensely dramatic women’s singles finals at the Australian Open and the French Open this year, Wimbledon continued this welcome theme. So, what do two modernist writers have to tell us about this year’s Wimbledon women’s singles final and tennis in general?

A lot.

The women’s singles final at Wimbledon this year saw a rematch of the Australian Open final from earlier in the year, with Serena Williams taking on Angelique Kerber. Kerber had rallied to win the Australian Open – her maiden Grand Slam victory in her very first Grand Slam final no less – in three sets in what was considered to be a ‘shock’ upset at the time. I’ve found this assessment of that final rather cruel and insulting to Kerber’s ability – of not just maintaining her nerves under pressure on the big occasion, but also matching Serena’s power and intensity on the night. In that match, Kerber returned 81% of Serena’s serves. The enormity of this feat should not be overlooked, even if one acknowledges that Serena had a somewhat off night in terms of serving by her own lofty standards.

With Kerber and Serena meeting in the second Grand Slam final in the same calendar year, one can sense the beginning of a tennis rivalry – something that the women’s side of the draw has severely lacked in recent years. Many would suggest that Sharapova and Serena had what you would traditionally call a ‘rivalry’, however, with Serena’s dominance over Sharapova in their head-to-head, especially in Grand Slams, it’s a more persuasive argument to suggest that the result of these matches were never really in doubt.

There was also a sense of bitterness between the Serena-Sharapova dynamic that set it apart from the overt amicability of the Serena-Kerber rivalry. It is perhaps the world’s worst kept secret that Serena and Sharapova never got along – on or off the court. One could speculate as to the reasons why, and that list would be quite exhaustive, hence it’s better to leave that can of worms unopened for another day.

It’s interesting to observe how amicability – almost to the extent of affection – has characterised memorable tennis rivalries in recent years. Case in point: Federer-Nadal. Despite being gigantic personalities and brands in their own right that have headlined the recent golden age of men’s tennis, it is fascinating to see that both Federer and Nadal have nothing but mutual respect and admiration for each other. Time and again, Nadal has made it absolutely clear that Federer is the more naturally talented and complete player. Conversely, Federer has also been magnanimous in his praise of Nadal, admitting that their rivalry pushed him to adapt his game and made him a better player. It’s the kind of fairy-tale that mushy rom-coms are made of. And if you believe the extent of erotic fanfiction revolving around the ‘Federer-Nadal’ pairing, it’s safe to assume that their rivalry captures the imagination of tennis fans the world over in more exciting and creative ways than one could possibly imagine. It’s not just about the clash in styles – right-hander vs left-hander, the Artist vs the Energiser Bunny, and natural talent vs acquired talent. There’s something more primal at play in this dynamic. That you can revel in the ‘religious experience’ of being mesmerised by Federer Moments, while still appreciating the uniqueness of Nadal’s lasso-like forehand that generates massive top-spin, the likes of which cannot be taught by tennis coaches who intend to drill in text-book technique in young kids learning the basics of tennis.

Serena won the Wimbledon final in straight sets: 7-5, 6-3. However, numbers rarely tell the whole story. They are quite deceptive that way. It was a high quality encounter, with both players matching each other’s intensity. In fact, it was Kerber who looked more solid in her groundstrokes. There was a point early in the second set, where Serena created a wicked short angle with a cross-court forehand, stretching Kerber wide and way out of the court on the backhand wing, only for Kerber to rip-off a screaming winner while on the run down-the-line that made even Serena applaud the audacity of the shot.

In the end, it was the shot that has defined Serena’s career, more than any other, that proved to be the decisive factor: the serve. Whenever things got close on the scoreboard, Serena’s pinpoint serving got her out of trouble and put the pressure back on Kerber. Ironically, it’s been her serve that’s proven to be her kryptonite in the recent past. When she lost to Roberta Vinci at the US Open 2015, Angelique Kerber at the Australian Open final 2016, and then again to Garbine Muguruza at the recently concluded French Open final, it was the serve that went missing. When on song, it’s an awe-inspiring shot, which sets up much of Serena’s offensive one-two punches. Equally, when it goes missing, it can be a unique insight as to how Serena feels on court on a particular day.

Yes, Serena has equalled Graf’s Open-era record of 22 Grand Slam singles titles. That is quite a remarkable feat. However, I don’t think it’s the most remarkable feat of Serena’s thus far. What is even more remarkable is that she has now won nine Grand Slam singles titles since turning 30. Just think about – nine! Since pairing with coach Patrick Mouratoglou, she has re-invented herself and reached another level of dominance.

It’s easy to think of this as a mushy fairy-tale, but that’s hardly been the case. When Serena decided to pair up with Mouratoglou, after losing to an opponent ranked No. 111 Virginie Razzano at the French Open in 2012, the initial conversation was to win just one more major. Fast forward four years, and she is just one more major away from leading the Open-era Grand Slam titles list.

Along this journey, she has had to deal with severe health scares and the enormity of expectation that the US media constantly places on her shoulders. When she lost to Vinci at the US Open last year in front of her home crowd – where most expected her to equal Graf’s record – you could see how hurt she was. It was not just about the serve. Her spirit was shattered.

The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.

If that wasn’t enough, along the way, Serena has had to stand-up once again for equal pay regardless of gender in tennis tournaments. In terms of reflecting upon its own internal attitudes, it has been a particularly disastrous year for the sport so far. The clothing brand Nike released its Wimbledon playing attire its female tennis players that many felt uncomfortable wearing on court because of how revealing it was. Raymond Moore, the Indian Wells tennis tournament director opined that women’s tennis should be thankful to men’s tennis because they ride on the “coattails of the men”. There was more fuel to the fire when it came to pay equality when the men’s word no. 1 Novak Djokovic opined that male players deserve more pay because they generate more income, before swiftly apologising and clarifying his stance that he is all for “equality in the sport”.

Tennis’s ‘old boys club’ culture rearing its ugly head is hardly a new phenomenon. And it’s up to female tennis players and role models like Serena to put this culture back in its place. In that sense, Serena is more than a tennis player with a global brand. She has always been unafraid to speak her mind on issues concerning the politics of the sport. Her very presence at the apex of the sport has helped change the way it functions. In a reductive way, she is an inspirational role model for a lot of women who look up to her and what she has achieved. More broadly, her dominance has made the sport confront its own inadequacies. I’d suggest that it’s this facet of Serena that is the most significant thing about her. Her on-court achievements – great though they are – are a misleading snapshot of where her true greatness lies. She has been able to change the internal, institutionalised culture of the sport. It has been a slow, incremental and at times begrudging process, but it happened. And Serena has been at the forefront of this change.

You may not kiss the hand that won 22 Grand Slam titles – for it did a lot of other things too.

Where does Serena go from here? Where does women’s tennis go from here? From all the evidence so far, Kerber has developed a solid game with the mental toughness to be a familiar face and contender for majors in the near future. At 28 years of age, she is incredibly fit, has solid groundstrokes, covers the court exceptionally well and most importantly, returns serve very well. It will be interesting to see how long she can maintain her consistency. For Serena, I’m sure she now has her eyes set on Margaret Court’s all time major record of 24 singles titles.

These are incredibly interesting times in women’s tennis (as if there was any other reason needed to put the old boys club of tennis back in its place).  I, for one, am eagerly awaiting how things play out for the rest of the tennis season.

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Virat Nehru


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