It has been three years since Serena Williams held up a Grand Slam trophy in victory.
That’s an epic drought for a player who has spent over two decades revolutionizing not only her sport, but what it means to be a woman in professional sports and how to integrate a social consciousness into public discussion.
She’s the greatest player in history by so many metrics, while one remains firmly out of her grasp after her withdrawal today from the French Open.
“I’m struggling to walk,” Williams said. “So that’s kind of a telltale sign that I should try to recover.”
And by pulling out of the French Open, citing an Achilles injury sustained in a loss to Victoria Azarenka at the U.S. Open, Williams ends her latest bid to tie the record of 24 career Grand Slam singles titles.
For so long, there was a sense of inevitability about Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam wins. Williams, with her powerful serve and a sustained competitiveness, had it in her sights.
She has overcome so much in her career: blood clots, systemic bias, age, and of course the physical effort it takes to regain peak form after having a baby. To think that it isn’t enough, to think that a record stands when it was attained in an era when women didn’t take the sport as seriously and didn’t have the resources to make it a true career, is disappointing.
Williams deserves that record. And she may not get it.
She won her 23rd at the Australian Open in 2017 when her daughter Olympia was still a secret passenger, which made the feat seem all that more, well, Olympian. She missed four Slams recovering from a challenging birth, and detailed the bonding that is nursing a baby, and having to stop in order to get back to training.
She got to the fourth round of the French Open in her Grand Slam return. Then she reached the finals of both Wimbledon, losing to Angelique Kerber, and the US Open. Despite the chaotic and anguished loss on Ashe to Naomi Osaka — a difficult way to win her first Slam but she’s added to her trove — Williams could still reach finals and play in top form.
Except in 2019 it was the same, two Grand Slam finals and two losses, to Simona Halep at Wimbledon and Bianca Andreescu at the US Open. Suddenly she is 0-4 in Grand Slam finals since having her baby.
Now, No. 24 is officially the rock that Williams has to roll up the hill every day, only to have it fall back down every night. It’s the task that might never be completed.
A pandemic, a US Open that is the second major event of a shortened season, a decimated field, and it seemed that Williams had a window — until she lost to Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals and injured her Achilles.
At 39, the injuries don’t heal quite as easily as they did at 19.
And let’s be very clear, Court’s gotta go. The Australian player won 11 of her 24 Slams in Australia from 1960 to 1973, when fewer of the top women made the trip. She also lost badly to noted sexist Bobby Riggs in the Mother’s Day Massacre, leaving Billie Jean King to clean up her mess in the Battle of the Sexes four months later. In her post-tennis life, Court has become a crusader against LGBTQ rights in Australia, writing public letters against same-sex marriage. There have been calls for the Australian Open to remove her name from its show court.
Every time Williams reaches a final, Court is discussed. It was fine for the first couple of years but enough. Williams is the better player, the better ambassador, the better person to represent her sport now and into retirement. But Court still has the record.
It would be nice if the record book finally reflected the objective truth; Serena Williams is the best player in modern history and, possibly, the best in the history of humans who ever picked up a racket-shaped object and whacked a spherical object with it.