Serena dragging women’s game out […]

If Williams completes Grand Slam it will match any sporting achievement

Serena dragging women’s game out of the shadows LET’S face it, women’s tennis has been in the shadow of the men’s game for a long time, but that is not the case going into the US Open. Without any exaggeration, I believe if Serena Williams completes the calendar Grand Slam in the next fortnight and wins five major titles in a row, it will be one of the greatest sporting achievements of my lifetime.

Only three players have achieved the feat since the open era began in April 1968 ‹ Rod Laver the following year, Margaret Court in 1970 and Steffi Graf 18 years later. Great players such as Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal tried but failed, but Williams is on the threshold of something special. And she will be doing it with her 34th birthday a matter of days away.

Some people might shrug their shoulders and mumble about a lack of competition but because of physical and technological advances, tennis is stronger now than it’s ever been, both in the men’s and women’s games. Should Williams achieve her goal, I will be the first to stand up and applaud her achievement.

Sadly, I think I am in a minority when I say that I hope she does it. In the past couple of years I have got to know her reasonably well and it is clear she is not the megaconfident tennis machine many people perceive her to be. She is sensitive, a big worrier who cares deeply about the public perception of her, and she has confided in me that it’s a real event if she can manage more than five hours sleep a night. Success does not come easy to her.

And it is a fact that the only person who can consistently beat Williams is herself. She is constantly fighting with her mind and that little voice all tennis players hear that repeatedly tells them they are not good enough. For Williams, it shouts loud, clear and repeatedly.

I believe that’s why she has had so many unfortunate meltdowns on court. Remember against Kim Clijsters in the 2009 US Open semi-final when she verbally attacked the foot-fault judge? Or the blow-up with the umpire during the 2011 US Open final with Samantha Stosur when she was judged to have contravened the intentional hindrance rule? These incidents were borne out of Serena’s insecurity on the court but have resulted in her unpopularity around the world. Her career has run concurrently with Roger Federer, who also turned 34 this month, but she doesn’t command a fraction of the same respect from the worldwide tennis public.

Comparing different eras is tough. Laver told me his first slam in 1962 was a hollow accomplishment because so many other top players weren’t competing because they had turned professional. 1969 was another matter but the Rocket still felt that the strength in depth wasn’t there.

Much the same happended for Margaret Court in 1970, when she won 21 of 27 tournaments and 104 of 110 matches. At Wimbledon she beat Billie Jean King in the final but elsewhere had things pretty much her own way.

In Graf’s great year two opponents stand above all others but the best years of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova had gone. Evert was zoning in on retirement the following year and Navratilova would win only one more major singles final.

Look at this year and Serena has struggled at each major. At the Australian Open in January she was suffering with a viral infection and lasted on court just five minutes in one practice session prior to the final against Maria Sharapova, and took advantage of a rain delay in her last match to throw up.

At the French Open she was arguably even sicker because of a virus that did the rounds at Roland Garros. It was touch and go whether she would even be able to face Lucie Safarova in the final but somehow she got through the ordeal. And at Wimbledon, who in Britain can forget the scare she received on Centre Court in the third round against Heather Watson, trailing 3-0 in the final set and dropping serve to love to allow her opponent to serve for the match.

New York has been the scene of some of Williams’ most notorious moments and I believe it’s because she puts herself under added pressure to perform in front of her compatriots. And that, I fear, rather than Maria Sharapova, Simona Halep or any other of the title contenders, is the greatest threat to her chances. Top-flight tennis is played as much in the mind as on the court and in Williams’ case this is exaggerated many times over.

Great credit for her accomplishments this year must go to her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. But even that relationship has been difficult because, if gossip and reports are to be believed, they are no longer together as a couple.

And maintaining a successful professional playercoach relationship through an emotional break-up is so hard. Of course, there are many things about Serena Williams and her family we will never know but if she completes the Grand Slam, let’s at least give her the respect that she deserves.