Wednesday, March 22, 2023

In the skin of immortality

Tennis is a lonely sport. This, after all, is the game Andre Agassi called the closest to solitary confinement. At a casual glance, tennis really doesn’t look that brutal. It is not a contact sport, players do not even curse unless it’s at the umpire, occasionally. They do not enter the arena wearing a helmet, gloves and mouth guard or crotch protector. But tennis is worse than violent. It is lonely. Amidst all the sound in the stands, it is just you and the other player. The tens of thousands of people occupying the seats are simply bystanders to a personal brawl. Sport needs words. Players need advice and instructions. None of that is allowed in tennis. Your sneering rival at the other end of the net could be slapping backhands down the line, reading your moves, his/her shots scattering your concentration and you desperately need a counter-strategy, a plan, something, but there is no help allowed during a match, no voice allowed to calm you, no coach allowed to guide you. Nothing. But then, this loneliness of the game is treasured because it is compelling to watch players make tactical errors, not hold their temper, not be decisive. And then somehow find a way through and fight fear, quieten nerves, create solutions. They draw out their own greatness, they soothe their tortured selves. They wear embarrassment alone and they triumph by themselves. So far, the word count in this piece is 233. And all of them are merely a roundabout way of introducing the greatness of Serena Williams, who ~ according to reports ~ is set to retire from the game following her recent exit from the US Open. If and when she can bring herself to say goodbye to the game, Serena will have walked away an immortal. And it is not just because of her 23 major singles titles, the highest haul in the Open era but tantalisingly short of Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24. Serena’s greatest achievement was in removing gender and race from contemplations of supremacy in sport. That is her ticket to immortality. She is not one of the greatest female tennis players of all time; she is simply one of the greatest players, period. In 2018, Roger Federer, no less, said she was the best ever, man or woman. Earlier this year, she said in an interview: “We took colour out of it (the equation), and we just became the best. Records are proof. That’s what we did”. Society, culture, people’s minds ~ she’s changed them all. And her usage of “we” is not mere dressing. It’s always been Serena and older sister Venus. Serena may not equal or break Court’s record of 24 major singles titles, but the Williams’ family tally of 30 will never be surpassed. “Without Venus, there would be no Serena”, the younger sister had once said. But tennis, in its most essential form, is a one-on-one sport that thrives on rivalries. Serena had none. Maria Sharapova was once touted as a worthy challenger; the record between them was 20-2. Williams sat at No. 1 for six years cumulatively, three-and-a-half of them unbroken. Of her 23 singles titles, she won the most recent ~ 5 years ago in Melbourne ~ by beating her sister while pregnant with her daughter. Consider this: she won in four decades, across seven American presidential terms. And she did it with a style of game not really seen before in women’s tennis. Previously, it was thought that you could have craft or ~ for a rare few ~ power, but not both. The serve once was merely a way to introduce the ball to play. Serena’s serve was the biggest the women’s game had seen, but she was deft with it, and deceptively quick around the court, too. And underpinning it all was a competitive instinct so fierce you could hear it even off the screen. Five years since Serena’s last triumph, her quest to add one more to her tally of 23 took on the guise of a Greek legend. In truth, her pursuit of Court’s record wasn’t necessary. Her era and Court’s are apples and oranges, neither bearing nor needing comparison. It’s just that it is innate in sport to have a reckoning and it is innate in Serena to have to win. Now as she contemplates retirement ~ or has already decided ~ the tennis world around her is swarming with usurpers. These pretenders are young, extremely fit, quick and smooth ball-strikers, but none have her aura. None will for a considerable while.