From Simon Briggs
Margaret Court – who leads the all-time standings with 24 major singles titles – used to be known as “The Arm” because of her unusual physical dimensions: her racket arm was said to be three inches longer than that of a normal woman of her height.
What, then, should we call Serena Williams, who will match Court’s record if she beats Angelique Kerber in today’s Wimbledon final?
There are so many options. The Mind, because of Williams’s matchless ability to focus under pressure. The Heart, because of her extraordinary desire to keep testing herself against the best, even as a 36-year-old with a 10-month daughter at home.
Perhaps the best option is simply The Greatest. Win or lose on Saturday, Williams has no serious competition on the all-time list. Court’s tally is heavily reliant on her 11 Australian Open titles, yet this event was little more than a national championships in the early 1960s, with one or two regular visitors like Brazil’s Maria Bueno and Britain’s Christine Truman.
While on the subject of titles, what about the nominative determinism at work here? How perfect for a tennis champion to be called Court, even if she started out as plain old Margaret Smith before her marriage in 1967. Williams, too, has taken a while to grow into her name. But Serena has never seemed serener than over the last few weeks.
This, remember, is a woman who used to erupt in unedifying ways. “If I could, I would take this ball and shove it down your throat and kill you,” she said to the linewoman who called her for a foot-fault at the 2009 US Open. “You’re very unattractive inside,” she told the chair umpire who docked her a point on the same court three years later.
And Williams’s moody moments were not restricted to mid-match flashpoints. Her press conferences were notoriously unpredictable: sparky and entertaining one day, monosyllabic the next. At times, she transmitted an impression of entitlement.
In a recent interview with the Scoop B Podcast, boxer Claressa Shields complained that Williams was too high and mighty to speak to other members of the American Olympic team in Rio, adding “Who the hell does she think she is?”
Over the last couple of months, though, we have seen a new Williams: Serena without the side. She arrived in the interview room in Paris wearing a wide-eyed look, as if she had never gone through this question-and-answer ritual before, and the whole experience was genuinely exciting for her.
She has played nine matches since then, winning every one (the only thing that stopped her in Paris was an injury to her right pectoral muscle), yet this sense of engagement has not faded one iota.
Williams has always been ready to speak out for her principles. She boycotted Indian Wells – one of the most lucrative tournaments outside the four majors – for 14 years after she was booed there by a uniformly white and conservative crowd in 2001. She and her sister Venus have also been at the forefront of the push for equal prize-money.
But Williams’s latest cause is to stand up for mothers, and it is bringing out a softer aspect of her character. “It’s been a crazy 10 months,” she said on Thursday night. “I was still pregnant at this time last year. That’s something I have to keep reminding myself. Also, you know, going out there, being a mom, is super cool. Knowing that no matter what happens, I have amazing support and unconditional love. It’s such a great feeling. I really can’t describe it, to be honest.”
Should Williams beat Kerber today, she will become the first mother to win Wimbledon since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1980. (The other names in this kids’ club are Blanche Hillyard, Charlotte Sterry and Dorothea Lambert Chambers, who all lifted their titles more than a century ago.)
In an interview published on the Wimbledon website before the tournament, Goolagong Cawley predicted – on the basis of her own experience – that Williams would have a successful fortnight.
“I think she’s capable, and I’m sure she’ll be ready, because she’s a strong woman and a great player, and she has a desire to come back and play,’’ said Goolagong Cawley, whose own daughter Kelly was three years old at the time of her second Wimbledon title. “Maybe she’ll now play for pure joy herself, like I did.
“I think it’s more fun, because you’d go back, and instead of just going out to dinner or something you’d see Kelly and play with her – it just made me more relaxed, and much happier within myself. I felt pure joy after having Kelly and that came out on the court.
“If she feels anything like I felt after having Kelly, she has definitely got a very good chance of hanging onto that trophy again.”